Afghan Pianist Credits U.S. Military for Success

Elizabeth Dale

Born in Afghanistan, Elham Fanous spent the first four years of his life living in a country that had outlawed music. Under the rule of the Taliban, Afghanistan was a musical desert – with the complete outlaw of playing or listening to any form of music.

Despite the risks of being caught, Fanous father, an Indian classical singer, would risk everything to expose his son to music, singing to him in secret, as Fanous described 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.”

However, in 2001, everything changed, not only for Fanous and his father, but for the entire nation of Afghanistan when U.S. forces disbanded the Taliban government. With many newfound freedoms, Fanous’ father quickly encouraged him to learn an instrument. He settled on learning piano, but once again faced another unthinkable barrier – how to gain access to a piano. Despite music being legal once again, according to Fanous there were only some 25 pianos left in all of Afghanistan. Fanous would often have to wait hours for time to practice his new craft on the coveted instrument and at only 12 years old, he began attending the Afghan National Institute of Music.

In 2014, the institute was attacked by a suicide bomber which resulted in its temporarily closure. As a result, Fanous reached out to the Rosenthal family who he had met during a U.S. tour with the Afghan National Youth Orchestra. The Rosenthal’s helped prepare Fanous to take his college entrance exams and eventually gain admission to Hunter College in New York.

Fanous directly credits the actions of the U.S. military for giving him the opportunity to pursue his dreams in music and allowing him to have the freedom to practice his art. In an open letter Fanous writes:

“U.S. Founding Father John Adams once wrote, “’I must study politics and war that our sons may have liberty to study     
     mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.’” We are those children. You have studied war so that I and my schoolmates could study music. No matter what happens after the drawdown, they can’t take that away from us – nor from you.”

How U.S. Troops Helped This young Afghani Pianist Pursue His Dreams | NBC Nightly News

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Since his graduation in 2019, Fanous is planning to earn his graduate degree from the Manhattan School of Music where he has been awarded a full scholarship. To read his open letter in its entirety, please visit