Skip to Content
Categories Chat

Excerpt from Playing for Freedom by Zarifa Adiba

Excerpt from Playing for Freedom by Zarifa Adiba

This post contains links to products that I may receive compensation from at no additional cost to you. View my Affiliate Disclosure page here.

Playing for Freedom: The Journey of a Young Afghan Girl by Zarifa Adiba, with co-author Anne Chaon, is an engaging memoir about a passionate musician growing up in the war-torn streets of Kabul who takes her forbidden talents abroad.

In the memoir, Zarifa Adiba shares her harrowing upbringing in the war-torn streets of Kabul, finding salvation through music, and ultimately taking her forbidden talents abroad. It sounds fascinating! And I’m so excited to share with you all an excerpt from the novel.

At sixteen she gains admission to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, and at eighteen she becomes the lead violist, co-conductor, and spokesperson for Zohra, the first all-female orchestra in the Muslim world.

Despite Zarifa’s accomplishments—which include a stunning performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—her future in music demands a reckoning with her life back home.

Here you can read part of Chapter 5:

Chapter 5 – BAD GIRL

Deep down, I was uneasy. The video of my interview with USA Today had been circulating on the internet for the past couple of weeks, and had generated a lot of comments, both positive and negative. The kindest comments really did me good: 

“That’s what feminism looks like!” wrote one girl. 

“Strong and well-educated girls/women are the future!” gushed another. One said, “I’ve always loved ‘bad girls!” 

On the other hand, the worst comments were caustic, disapproving, and sanctimonious. 

“No good Muslim would talk like that,” insisted one anonymous viewer who said they were “proud to be a good Muslim,” and who was, as often happens, confusing religious practices with Afghan traditions. 

Even more disappointingly, another wrote: “My father lets me go to school and do whatever I want and that doesn’t make me a ‘bad girl.’” Basically, she was undermining everything I had said, without considering that she obviously came from an extremely privileged background that represented only a tiny portion of the population, even in Kabul. 

Some critics suspected I wanted pity or attention. Others accused me of “spreading Western propaganda” by criticizing our society and way of life or seemed to think I was bitter in some way, as in the case of comments like: “Looks like someone’s visa was rejected . . . nice try, idiot!” 

Openly declaring—to a foreign reporter, no less—that I was a “bad girl” because I wanted to study, travel, and do what I loved, had been a real provocation. I knew that, and I knew, too, that this could cause trouble. I was conscious of the risks this situation posed and was being even more careful. When I walked around the city by myself now, I often wore a mask that covered the bottom half of my face, so I wouldn’t be recognized. 

But I wasn’t the only one who was afraid. There had been numerous acid attacks targeting girls in Kabul, and all of us in the Zohra Orchestra knew we could be the next victims. How to protect ourselves from these attacks, the fear of being burnt, disfigured . . . it’s all we talked about. We were scared of retaliation after our European tour. And, evidently, we fed off each other in our fear. 

Several weeks after Davos, my friend Marjan and I were walking not far from the ANIM. It’s located in a student district with various schools and institutes, and the neighborhood is a safe one—safer than mine—so I felt secure there normally. Before we reached the school, four boys approached us, elbowing each other and staring. 

“Hey, look! It’s the girls from the orchestra!” 

They must have been around twenty-two or twenty-three years old. I wasn’t wearing my mask, and it was extremely unpleasant to be recognized on the street. Petrified, we continued to walk, holding each other a bit more tightly. Without looking at me, Marjan whispered: “If they attack us, turn your head away as fast as possible. That way, the acid will hit your shoulder and not your face. Protecting your face is the most important thing.” 

Suddenly, two of them separated from the group, heightening our panic. We immediately thought: This is it. They’ve gone to get the acid. We threw ourselves into a taxi that was passing by at just the right moment! The poor boys were probably harmless. In truth, I was constantly terrified of attacks back then. 

I was harassed on the street more and more often. Men didn’t necessarily recognize me as “Zarifa, the orchestra conductor,” but my appearance and clothes bothered them: my dresses, my leggings, my tennis shoes, my headscarf sitting loosely on my hair. Even though we were in Kabul, the war and the influx of people from the provinces, who had been displaced by the violence, were causing old-fashioned attitudes and mentalities to be increasingly reinforced. When I look at photographs from Kabul taken thirty or forty years ago, I see girls’ bare heads and skirts that ended at the knees. That would be unthinkable these days. It feels like our society is narrowing, like hearts and minds are locking down rather than opening up. The worse the situation in the country gets, the more the mindset of the population stiffens, tenses, becomes inflexible. War truly destroys everything. I learned this while growing up in Kabul: the unfair war had taken so much away from us. 

And if progress was just a memory now, I wondered, what was going to happen to my little sister, Najla, who aspired to be a track star? Was it possible that things could get even worse? 

Lively and mischievous, with curly brown hair, Najla is, at the time I write this, a clever twelve-year-old who enjoys her food. She dreams of competing in a stadium, running until she is out of breath, free, without worrying about what anyone will say. She loves school and gets good grades, but her ambitions lie elsewhere. In her dreams she is on the podium, having won the hundred-meter sprint, standing with a gold medal around her neck—an Olympic champion!—as the Afghan national anthem plays in the background through the speakers. 

I wanted to do everything in my power to protect her and support her in her ambitions. I knew she got tired, sometimes, of the tensions and drama I caused in the family. I knew she got frustrated when our mother would take Ali, our oldest brother, to eat kebabs in a restaurant and leave us girls at home to take care of the younger ones. In Kabul, when there wasn’t enough money to buy meat for everyone, it was reserved for the boys, who needed to grow up big and strong. My mother was perfectly aware of this way of thinking and accepted it. But Najla, determined to escape this fate assigned to her by the chance of gender, always took it hard. 

One day Najla and I were in our neighborhood, walking home together, and a man who was around thirty years old charged at me, yelling that he could see my hair—I was wearing my headscarf, but I had purposefully let it slip back. He also scolded me for the knee-length dress I was wearing over my leggings. He used a vulgar, sexually charged word and accused me of being indecent. Najla was shocked. I tried to calm her down. 

“Don’t worry. That guy is crazy. Don’t look at him.” 

“But what does he want? Why is he insulting you? He doesn’t look crazy . . .” 

Najla is rational. She likes things to mean something, to make sense. But how could I explain to her that this guy had screamed obscenities at me just because of the way I wore my headscarf? Men seem to feel like they can do anything they want in this society. They believe they have the right to judge women, criticize us, and even insult us. All we can do is keep our mouths shut and walk away. What other choice do we have? I grabbed my sister’s hand and ran. 

It was around this time that the “bad girl” video, having made the rounds on the internet, reached our household. My dear cousins, who’d heard about it from their friends, ratted me out and showed it to every- one in the family. Thankfully, I had kept my headscarf on during all of my interviews and throughout the whole tour—thank you, Mom! You could only see my bangs, combed to one side. I had taken great pains not to provoke anyone with my appearance, not wanting to provide my critics with further ammunition. But this interview revealed the truth to my family. I hadn’t, in fact, gone to Davos as Zohra’s translator or as only a spokeswoman. I had gone as a musician, as a conductor. 

The Uncles and their wives, and Haider’s wife, in particular, immediately kicked up a fuss. It was the perfect opportunity to criticize me. All the women of the family—aunts, cousins, wives, nieces—got together to watch the video and give a running commentary. 

That night, when I arrived home, they were all sitting together on toshaks spread around the living room that was on the floor below ours. Mom silently signaled for me to go up to our floor without being seen. But Uncle Haider called me down, and I had to obey him. I felt like I was appearing before a tribunal; I was the defendant, and I didn’t have a lawyer. 

“So, you’re all over social media now?! Everyone has seen you and knows you are a musician. You’ve brought shame upon this family.” 

“Don’t worry, Uncle. I will finish this school year, and then I will go abroad. I want to study law at an American university. You’ll see, you’ll be proud of me.” 

I tried to remain poised, respectful, calm, and, above all, to act naturally—even if, in his eyes, there was nothing natural about a girl who played the viola, traveled abroad alone, wanted to study in another country, and was also part of his family. I tried to think of what I could say in my defense. It was only then that I understood that he wasn’t only concerned about my face being on the internet. He hadn’t known that I was a musician, much less a conductor, at all.

This interview clip had come as a revelation for him, a total and utter shock. The family had thought that all I’d been doing was going to school, period. There had never been any talk of me attending music school, even after I went to Davos. 

Up until that point, I’d been unaware that Mom had lied to cover for me when I left, saying I was only traveling as an interpreter. When she had passed on my family’s congratulations to me during the tour, my uncle hadn’t seen our concerts; he’d seen only the pictures of me at Zohra’s press conference in Davos. Since he didn’t speak English, he hadn’t understood what I was saying. But he had seen me on stage— wearing my headscarf—talking to an attentive international audience, and this had been a source of pride for him. 

After my return, I had deliberately spoken vaguely when asked about the orchestra’s adventures and performances. I avoided the family as much as I could. I knew, or rather I suspected, that when they got together, they insulted me in front of my mother. They even made disparaging remarks about me to our neighbors and relatives, saying, “She went abroad alone. She spends time with men,” and now they would add: “On top of everything, she plays music.” 

Mom was becoming more and more anxious and depressed. Everyone now knew her daughter was a musician and performed in an orchestra. “Who will marry you now? Nobody will want anything to do with you!” 

I was sullied. Untouchable. In Afghanistan, when a man wants to get married, the reputation of his future wife is scrutinized, her morals and past investigated in full. Her life must be a clean slate. The perfect girl has no relationships with boys, has no pictures or videos posted on Facebook, wears a headscarf that is always tightly wrapped, and is in good health. Her family, too, must be irreproachable. Everything is double-checked, analyzed, and judged by the suitor’s relatives. The girl needs to be inoffensive and pure. She must have the right profile, make no mistakes, be faultless. 

One day, as I was sitting in the back of a minibus in Kabul with other girls, I heard a young man in the front explain to his friend on the phone why he had decided to call off his engagement. 

“It’s not going to be possible,” he argued. “I saw a picture of her smoking. I can’t marry a girl who’s been seen smoking!” 

He wouldn’t calm down. Yet, he admitted the girl suited him otherwise. The person on the other end of the line seemed to agree with his conclusion. Although none of this stopped him from lighting a cigarette of his own as soon as he got off the bus. Because boys can do whatever they like. They can date girls, drink, smoke, travel, and nobody will ever think to check their background or ask them to disclose if they have indulged in any of these shenanigans, or really hold it against them if they have. 

In that context, where, to put it simply, a girl is always in the wrong and the men are always right, my dreams and my ambitions indeed made me a “bad girl.” I studied. I was a musician. I had traveled with- out a chaperone to the United States, Turkey, and Europe. I worked with boys. All of which is to say, I didn’t exactly tick the right boxes. Of course, certain girls, like my friend Negin, are supported by their parents or sometimes by an elder brother, and so have the opportunity to study and work even after they get married. 

I knew a cheerful, straightforward man from my neighborhood who made kites. With the help of his children, he skillfully cut up pieces of colorful tissue paper and, by the dim light of a hurricane lamp, stuck them onto a frame of thin curved sticks. He sold the results for a couple of pennies apiece up on Wazir Akhbar Khan hill, where children went in the winter, especially on Fridays, to fly kites. He very nearly earned a living from this—although to do so he still needed to sell an awful lot of kites. But he was determined to see his eldest daughter and, later, her younger sisters, go to university. He held tightly on to this dream with great humility. Similarly, Negin’s father would always come to watch his daughter perform with Zohra in Kabul. But such behavior remains rare. The thinking goes: What good does it do to educate girls if they are just going to stay at home anyway? 

In my family, all the wives, aunts, cousins, and even their female neighbors were incredibly proud when their daughters stayed at home full-time to await a husband, and so they were horrified by my behavior. They would tell my mother over and over again that nobody would want to marry a girl like me. A girl like me . . . 

Their primary concern, their main preoccupation, was marrying off their daughters. An unmarried girl presents a risk for the family, the risk of dishonor. She mustn’t fall in love with the wrong boy, or even think about running away with him, much less fall pregnant. One of 

my aunts from the Uncles’ side of the family, the most toxic couple in the house, was gratified by her own self-imposed alienation from the world. She was thrilled about it even: “I never leave the house without my husband. I won’t go anywhere without him.” 

It was exasperating. Her husband kept her on a tight leash, and she was proud of it! 

Conversely, my emancipation was shameful to them. The fact that I lived as I did, with relative freedom, meant I was “unsellable” on the marriage market. My mother was finding the situation more and more difficult to handle. She didn’t know how to stand up for herself, having been relegated to the role of victim ever since the end of her childhood. One day she cracked under the pressure of their constant criticism and forbade me from going to the ANIM anymore. 

Depriving me of the ANIM meant depriving me of music, but also of an education. I was almost nineteen years old and was completing my last year of high school. Our successive house moves and the to and fro between Afghanistan and Pakistan had meant I had some catching up to do. I knew that I would have graduated a long time ago if I had been living abroad. I was already falling behind. So, this news devastated me. I pleaded, cried, begged, and argued: “Not now! Not when I’m so close to the end! How would I get to university if I hadn’t finished high school?” 

“Mom, I beg you. Ignore the gossip. Don’t worry. You’ll see. One day I’ll meet someone worthy. A good husband for me and a good son- in-law for you.” 

But there was nothing I could do about it. In her eyes, we were fighting a losing battle.

Click here to order Playing for Freedom on Amazon.