The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A famed Afghan violinist moved to L.A. with nothing. Then a man with a violin called.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban bans playing music and makes it a crime in some places to have an instrument. Ali Esmahilzada fled with almost no possessions.

Ali Esmahilzada, an Afghan violinist, fled Kabul in 2022 amid the Taliban takeover. He arrived in Los Angeles without a violin. Latif Nasser delivered one to him, marking the start of their friendship. (Latif Nasser)
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On a work trip in Upstate New York last May, Latif Nasser got an unexpected request from a colleague: “Can you hand-deliver an antique violin across the country?”

It was an odd favor, but then Nasser — a science journalist — learned a bit of the backstory. The violin was going to an Afghan violinist who fled Kabul amid the Taliban takeover, and settled in Los Angeles with almost nothing but the clothes on his back. He left his violin behind.

Nasser, who lives in Los Angeles, agreed to help. The request came from Jeremy Bloom, a sound designer based in Brooklyn, who had heard about the struggling musician from a friend.

Bloom happened to have a 110-year-old German-made violin collecting dust in his closet. He decided to offer it to the Afghan musician, who he knew would put it to good use.

“I was very lucky to be able to play that violin for a while, but I also felt guilty that it was sitting in a closet,” said Bloom, adding that older violins are sometimes seen as more desirable than newer instruments. “I was happy to give it to him.”

The problem was, Bloom had no way of getting the violin to Los Angeles.

“You do not want to ship an antique violin in the mail,” he said, because he feared it would get damaged.

He struggled to find somebody who could bring it to California, until he asked Nasser.

Nasser took the instrument onto his flight home from New York. Once he arrived, it took several weeks to get the instrument to the Afghan violinist, Ali Esmahilzada.

“It felt like it took forever for us to coordinate,” said Nasser, who — after several failed delivery attempts — became irritated when Esmahilzada asked if he could bring it to a mall. The musician didn’t seem eager to get the instrument, and Nasser began to wonder whether he even really wanted it.

“In a way, I was being protective of my friend Jeremy,” said Nasser, the co-host of Radiolab and the host of the Netflix show, Connected. “This is the most beautiful gesture, giving someone this priceless violin for free.”

After the mall plan didn’t work out, Nasser and Esmahilzada finally found a time to meet, and Nasser realized he was “totally wrong” about him. As Nasser pulled up to Esmahilzada’s driveway to deliver the violin, the musician was excitedly waiting for him with a “huge smile.”

It was immediately clear that “he wanted this violin so bad,” Nasser said.

Then Nasser learned more about Esmahilzada, who arrived in the United States last March, and he was soon at a loss for words.

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Esmahilzada said he did not take his treasured violin with him when he left Afghanistan because he feared if the Taliban found his instrument at armed checkpoints throughout the city, they would “hurt me or something else,” Esmahilzada, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.

The Taliban has prohibited playing music in Afghanistan, and possessing an instrument is considered a crime. Esmahilzada, who has been playing the violin since he was 13, felt he had no choice but to flee his home country — and leave his family behind.

“I was so scared,” said Esmahilzada, 27, who burned his sheet music when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 2021. He nearly scorched his violin, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to destroy it. He hid the instrument instead. “They search all the houses in the city, everywhere.”

He came to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa with only a few belongings.

“I was really sad about it, because I had no bank account, no money, no clothes,” Esmahilzada said. “I had no family. I just was by myself.”

He was living in a small house with four Spanish-speaking roommates who he had trouble communicating with. He worked in the stockroom of a clothing store — which is why he asked Nasser to meet him at the mall. He ate eggs for every meal because it was the only thing he knew how to cook.

“I was in a bad situation,” Esmahilzada said.

Nasser — whose parents immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s from Tanzania — empathized with Esmahilzada.

“It was so hard for my parents,” said Nasser, explaining that kind strangers helped them get settled, and likewise, they went on to assist other immigrants.

“The more I heard his story and how deeply alone he was, I decided I could be that person for him,” Nasser continued. “I could cosmically repay the people who did that for my parents, by doing it for him.”

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He invited Esmahilzada over to have dinner with his wife and two small children — which soon became a weekly invitation.

“It clearly meant a lot to him. He both needed it and was grateful for it,” Nasser said. “It seemed like it was a gulp of water to a thirsty guy.”

Nasser’s family started to feel like his own.

“He just listened to my story,” Esmahilzada said. “He is my brother.”

The familial bond was mutual.

“He’s become part of the family in a really sweet way,” Nasser said.

Nasser learned more about Esmahilzada, including that he became a well-known musician in Afghanistan by being a violinist on several TV shows, including the “Afghan Star.

“People knew me because I was on the screen and in music shows,” said Esmahilzada, who toured the United States in 2013 with a youth orchestra, performing at the John F. Kennedy Center in D.C. and Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.

For the most part, he said, “in Afghanistan, I had a good life.”

That changed when the Taliban took power. Fortunately for Esmahilzada, he had applied for a visa in 2016. At the time, he worked for a technology company, which made him eligible to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa. He was hoping to eventually move to the United States to pursue a music career.

“It took six years to process,” he said, explaining that he fled the country as soon as he could in 2022, stopping first in Doha, Qatar, for several months, where he stayed at two separate camps, before finally landing in Los Angeles.

Life in America was difficult. He worked tirelessly to make a meager living, most of which he sent back to his family in Kabul. Making music wasn’t on his radar, mainly because he didn’t have an instrument.

“I didn’t practice my violin for a long time,” he said.

When Nasser brought him Bloom’s antique instrument, he was elated.

“I love my violin,” Esmahilzada said.

In addition to hosting Esmahilzada for frequent meals (and introducing him to delicacies such as s’mores), Nasser and his wife helped him find an immigration lawyer, a laptop, some clothing and groceries. They also supported him as he sought a more stable job, and got himself a car.

Now that he’s somewhat settled, a year after he first arrived, Nasser is hoping to help Esmahilzada “rekindle that musician in him,” he said.

He decided to share the story of their friendship in a Twitter thread, which got nearly 20 million views. Nasser began raising funds for violin lessons for his friend, as well as music school tuition. More than $120,000 poured in, along with thousands of comments with messages of encouragement and advice.

Nasser believes the story resonated with people because it reinforces “how universal music is, and how deep it lodges into our hearts,” he said.

He collected money through a nonprofit group called Teach to Learn, which supports musicians around the world. Derek Beckvold, co-founder of the organization, first met Esmahilzada a decade ago when he taught at the Afghan National Institute of Music. He has kept in touch with Esmahilzada over the years, and was the person who connected him with Bloom.

“It was really profound to see it take off like that,” Beckvold said of the fundraiser.

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Bloom was also blown away by the response.

“I’m really inspired that it has touched so many people,” he said.

For the first time in a long while, Esmahilzada said, he is hopeful about the future.

“I started from zero when I came to the United States,” he said. “Now I’m happy. I have support from people who care about me. We have really kind people in the world.”

And it all started through music.

“I can practice my violin in peace, and I am safe,” Esmahilzada said. “I’m really proud of that.”