Elham Fanous, a gifted young Afghan pianist, will graduate soon with a bachelor of music degree from the City University of New York’s Hunter College. And he wants all American service members, especially those who served in Afghanistan, to know this: You made it possible.
The 22-year-old Kabul native, who hopes to continue his studies in the fall at the Manhattan School of Music, said he had often thought about how thankful he is for the U.S. intervention in his country, which ended the Taliban’s rule.
But then a Tennessee veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who had learned about the young Afghan pianist through a mutual friend, contacted him via email. They chatted about Fanous’s musical career, the war in his home country, what the veteran did in Afghanistan and what he is doing now.
“He was very interested and said he comes to New York City sometimes and asked if we could meet and chat,” Fanous said.
“He told me a lot about veterans and all that they have been going through since they went to Afghanistan,” he said, noting the suffering that continues for many in the form of post-traumatic stress, physical ailments and even high rates of suicide.
It was at that point that Fanous made a commitment to himself. He needed to reach out to the men and women who stabilized his country and restored a measure of safety and civility and thank them for their sacrifice and courage.
And so, he wrote a letter of thanks. While he understands that the situation in his country remains volatile and the future is uncertain, he believes U.S. service members should know that for a whole generation of young Afghanistan men and women, U.S. service members changed their lives for the better.
Afghanistan, at the crossroads of East and West, has a rich musical heritage, but Fanous was born at a time when music was forbidden by the Taliban. Instruments and recordings were burned. Violators were punished.
It was a difficult time for his musical, accomplished family. While his mother, Laila, is a university educated math teacher, his father, Ahmad, is a professional Indian classical singer.
Under Taliban rule, his family would close the windows, draw the shades, and play music very softly during those dark times.
It was a very dangerous time, but especially dangerous for musicians, Fanous said.
But that all changed with the arrival of U.S. troops, said Fanous, who was 5 years old at the time.
He, too, began playing music, beginning with the tabla, a small percussion instrument consisting of a pair of drums.
But his father later urged him to take up piano, which he did at around the age of 12.
That’s late for someone with aspirations for a career in classical music performance, he said, laughing. But he studied famous pianists on You Tube and fell in love with the instrument.
Then, in 2010, a visionary, Afghan-Australian ethnomusicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, started a school in Kabul, the Afghanistan Institute of Music. Open to all students regardless of gender, ethnicity, religious sect or socio-economic circumstances, the school offered both academic subjects and musical training.
Fanous became a student there and practiced every chance he got.
Fanous and his fellow students began performing at embassies, U.S. State Department events and other cultural venues in Afghanistan. All of those performances were enabled by the presence of U.S. and coalition troops, who provided a secure environment in which such events could be held.
In early 2013, Fanous and his fellow students came to the U.S. on a tour, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, in which they performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Carnegie Hall in New York and the New England Conservatory in Boston. Fanous performed as a soloist on those exalted stages.
It was on that trip that he met Lesley Rosenthal, the chief operating officer at the Julliard School in New York and her family.
“One feature of the trip was to pair up the Afghan orchestra with public high school orchestras to perform together in each location,” she said. “We were most fortunate that Scarsdale High School, where our sons, Aron and David Szanto, attended and played cello in the orchestra, was chosen as the New York-area school for the pairing.
“We volunteered to host about 12 of them come to our home for an evening of socializing, music and pizza. We truly enjoyed all of the kids, but Elham, who was then 15, was a real standout. He burst through our front door, first of the delegation, and into our hearts. Since my husband, Ted Rosenthal, is a professional pianist, we have a large Steinway piano in our living room; Elham leapt to play it, kicking off an impromptu evening of musical exchange and improvisation.
Fanous graduated from the institute the following year. In December 2014, as he was en route to a concert there, a suicide bomber in the audience blew himself up, killing a German in attendance and critically injuring Sarmast, who was medevaced to Australia with nine pieces of shrapnel in his head. In a terrible twist, Sarmast suffered some hearing loss, but after the school was repaired and the site hardened, the school reopened.
“He’s not scared at all,” Fanous said.
It was at about that time that Fanous decided he wanted to come to the United States where he could study piano with some of the most gifted teachers in the world – in peace.
Rosenthal and her family helped him prepare for college life, tutoring him long-distance in English and math, and helping in hundreds of other ways. He entered Hunter College in 2015 on a full scholarship.
“He has thrived at Hunter, mastering the most challenging piano repertoire, winning the school’s concerto competition, performing community service and earning high grades and a place on the Dean’s List every year,” Rosenthal said.
Fanous’ abilities have caught the attention of Professor Phillip Kawin, head of piano and president of the College Faculty Council at the Manhattan School of Music, who is also a renowned performer.
His future is very bright.
"Through my music, I would like to inspire people to pursue their dreams, especially people who have come from similar circumstances as I do,” Fanous said.
“And, of course, I want to show a better face of my country.”