In 2010, singer-songwriter Elaha Soroor was in trouble. As a female Hazara singer performing on national TV, on Afghan Star, an Afghanistan equivalent to American Idol, she was basically embroiled in controversy from the start. Soroor’s appearance on the show had defied the conservative society; here was a female singer, often portrayed as amoral, who was also Hazara—an oppressed ethnicity long discriminated against—from a working-class family. Some celebrated this historic first, others scorned it, and still others wanted her dead. After releasing “Sangsar,” a song which openly criticized the stoning law (a brutal practice still common in many areas of Afghanistan) the death threats became real, escalating to public physical attacks by strangers. Fearing for herself and her family, Soroor fled home and, soon joined by her sister, went into hiding.
“No one would rent a room or flat to a single young woman, and if they did recognize [me], they would ask me to leave immediately,” explains Soroor. “Eventually, I had to shave my head, wear baggy masculine clothes, and pretend to be a boy. The trick worked and for some time I lived as a boy and I could walk freely in the streets. I really enjoyed that freedom.” But it was an unsustainable freedom: “I was living in constant fear that I’d be killed. I decided to leave first to save my life, secondly to find and explore the music of the world.”
Soroor’s love of music had always existed on a taut balance between personal freedom and societal restraints. As a child she spent part of her childhood in Iran. Her father bought cassettes in the Afghan market and her brother sometimes snuck in black-market CDs by Bollywood and Western pop artists. Then there were weddings, where love and “forbidden” music found a happy meeting. “If we were lucky and invited to a wedding party, we would hear the latest Persian pop dance tunes—illegally—or women playing Daf, and singing folk songs,” she says. The religious songs cleared for syndication on Iranian TV provided her with a steady source of music, supplemented by a stint in a Tajvid choir group, where she perfected her singing technique. But the most emotionally profound musical experience from childhood revolved around family. Part of Soroor’s family remained in Afghanistan, and sporadic letters and recordings between relatives kept their connection alive.
“The cassettes were recordings of my uncles or aunties and their children playing in the background, talking to us, telling [us] that they were well and hoping for the war to finish so we could reunite again. My mother would cry for the joy of hearing the good news and the sorrow of this separation.” The family recordings ignited her burgeoning creativity, she says. “My parents used to make me read poems from my schoolbook. I would try to perform in the most melodic way, almost like singing. I grew an interest in the human voice and its ability to carry emotions. In a sense that was the moment I realized I wanted to sing.”