Afghan Survives Taliban to Become Musical Prodigy in America

What happens to a musical prodigy who is never allowed to play music? Or even listen to music? That could well have been the fate of Elham Fanous, who was born in an Afghanistan that was still under Taliban rule. The Taliban controlled every aspect of life, going as far as to completely forbid the playing of, or listening to, any form of music. But as a child, Elham’s father – an Indian classical singer – would sing to him (literally) behind closed doors. As Elham explained to the New York Post, “We had to close the door, curtains down, so no one would hear the sound of music, which was banned. We would be killed.”

In 2001, following the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and began dismantling the Taliban government. Free from Taliban rule, Elham’s father urged him to choose an instrument to learn how to play. After seeing a video of celebrated pianist Vladimir Horowitz on YouTube, Elham decided that he wanted to play the piano. But there was one major problem. The Taliban had managed to destroy nearly every piano in the country. By 2001, there were approximately only 25 pianos left in all of Afghanistan.

But Elham was determined. Every day, we would wait for hours in order to get his turn at a piano. He eventually went on to join the Afghan National Institute of Music, and in 2013, Elham was able to briefly tour the U.S. with the Afghan National Youth Orchestra, and was even given a solo to perform at Carnegie Hall. It was during this American tour that Elham had the good fortune of befriending the Rosenthal family.

The following year, back in Afghanistan, Elham was heading to a concert at the Afghan National Institute of Music, when a suicide bomber attacked the school. One member of the audience was killed, the founder was gravely wounded, and the school had to be temporarily closed. Fortunately, the founder recovered and he eventually went on to reopen the school, but this event inspired Elham to reached out to the Rosenthals. He wanted to come study piano in the U.S., under the tutelage of some of the best pianists in the world, and without the constant worry of violence for merely wanting to bring music to the world.

The Rosenthal family helped Elham with his studies, preparing him for the college entrance exam, and, in short, making Elham part of their family. He was soon accepted as a student at Hunter College in New York, where he excelled. He graduated in May 2019, and has since been awarded a full scholarship to attend a master’s program at the Manhattan School of Music.

Looking back at how he got to where he is today, Elham credits the U.S. military for freeing him and his people from life under the Taliban. In an open letter he wrote to the troops that brought freedom to his homeland, he thanked the men and women for their service. “I would ask you not to despair that your sacrifice was wasted. I will prove it was not; I’ll always say thank you through my lifetime of music.”

Elham is now making his mark in the music world and he is living his American dream. Rather than languishing in obscurity, he has been able to move to the United States, where he can perhaps inspire, if not become, the next Vladimir Horowitz.

[See Afghan Musical Prodigy Sang in Secret — and Now He’s a Hunter College Grad, by Susan Edelman, New York Post, 08.Jun.2019, Rising Young Afghan Pianist Wants World to See a Different Side of his Country, by Kent Miller, Air Force Times, 25.May.2019, and How U.S. Troops Helped this Young Afghani Pianist Pursue his Dreams, NBC Nightly News, 31.Jul.2019.]


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