top of page


A virtuosic musician silenced through torture by the taliban

Life as a professional musician in the UK isn't often easy. Negotiating fees, trying to sell music in the age of streaming, figuring out funding application forms and finding rehearsal space are just some of our woes. Nothing comes close to being threatened and tortured just for playing your instrument. Forced to be silent and living a life in fear for his family, he had little option than to flee from Afghanistan. Ismail is currently in the Calais jungle with his wife and three young children

"The Taliban heard me playing one day in my house. They put my right arm into boiling water saying it is because that is the arm that I make music with. They also shot me in my side and in the foot. One of the bullets hit my baby daughter in the leg. It was always my hope to sing and play, but there it is impossible"

Ismail, a musician from Afghanistan in his late twenties inhabits a caravan in the Calais 'jungle' along with his wife and three children. Always eager to receive guests, as guests mean an audience, we are treated to live music from exotic (to a Westen audience) looking instruments whilst his wife prepares us tea. A sweet, milky version of tea, that I've only ever had in the 'jungle'. 

As a few of us sit huddled together on the seating which must also somehow serve as the bed for the whole family, Ismail takes out an instrument that I haven't seen him play before. It's a bowed stringed instrument with two strings and made from scrap materials he has gathered together from the 'jungle'. Instrument maker can be added to his long list of talents. I believe it's a rebab. It looks like a mini cello - my instrument, and certainly was around many centuries before those famous Italians got started on making the western string instruments that my colleagues and I play in my string quartet. He uses a violin bow, one in desperate need of rehairing with only a few strands of hair left on it. In the absence of any rosin (a solid piece of resin usually from conifers) that when rubbed on the bow hair (horse hair) keeps traction on the strings when playing - he uses a sugar cube. Ingenious! Something to remember for my future forgetfulness. I guess, for Ismail, it wasn't the first thing you'd think to pack when fleeing persecution. 

Music for Ismail is food, is life, he just has to play.

It's hard not to think about the scars that he once showed me, as a result of torture at the hands of the taliban - just for doing what I am so fortunate to be able to call my job. That will never escape me and nor should it.   


"There is nothing to do here. If I'm not happy then it is hard to play from the heart"

Ismail. Singer, composer, dambora, rebab and darbuka player, instrument maker and family man.

Photo: Sarah Hickson

Report by Vanessa Lucas-Smith. One of the founders of The Calais Sessions and cellist in The Allegri Quartet - Britain's longest running string quartet. 

bottom of page