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No Barriers Podcast Episode 144: Cross Cultural Music with AJ Subat



We’re traveling today…. From Los Angeles to Afghanistan and back again. Not literally, but in a groovy kind of way with the help of Ajmal “AJ” Subat. He’s is a first generation Afghan American who grew up in Southern California. He’s an accomplished musician and navigating his cross-cultural identity has proudly influenced his music. But that creative outlet was put on hold the day Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in the Summer of 2021. Knowing the coming oppression, especially against women, his focus shifted to evacuating as many of them as possible. What did that look like? And what about the people left behind? How does he create this cross-cultural music and how that process process evolved since then?

EPISODE NOTES

Ajmal Subat is an artist, activist, and creative consultant who helped coordinate the evacuation of some of Afghanistan’s most visible female leaders. He is trained in classic Indian and Afghan music and toured Afghanistan with one of the nation’s leading musicians. Ajmal coaches Afghan artists pro bono, composes music for television and film, and is currently producing his second album.

Connect with AJ. Subat

https://restorehervoice.org/

https://www.instagram.com/restorehervoice/

https://www.instagram.com/subatmusic/

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Episode Transcript

Ajmal Subat:

My goal in this life, in the spirit of fostering compassion and showing how we're all connected, I can only do that by sharing my story and sharing Afghan stories. Because if you know the game Family Feud, when they ask you a question and they say Afghanistan, and you hit that buzzer, if you're trying to win a million bucks what are you going to say? Even if I was on there I would say Taliban, terrorism, war oppression. I would say those things. It's my lifelong pursuit to try to put art up there and to try to put hospitality up there and to try to put smiles up there to show how we're all connected, and music is a way we do that and stories are a way we do that.

Erik Weihenmayer:

It's easy to talk about the successes but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barrier's life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain, between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call No Barriers.

Diedrich Jonk:

We're traveling today from Los Angeles to Afghanistan and back again, not literally, but in a groovy kind of way, with the help of Ajmal Subat. You'll see what I mean in a minute.

Diedrich Jonk:

Subat also goes by AJ. He's a first generation Afghan-American who grew up in Southern California. He's an accomplished musician, and navigating his cross-cultural identity has profoundly influenced his music. But that creative outlet was put on hold the day Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in the summer of 2021. Knowing the coming oppression, especially against women, his focus shifted to evacuating as many of them as possible. What did that look like and what about the people left behind? How does he create this cross-cultural music and how has that process evolved since then? Join host Erik Weihenmayer, with special guest host, Antoinette Lee Toscano and guest AJ Subat. I hope you enjoy it. I'm producer Diedrich Jonk, and this is the No Barriers Podcast.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Hey, everyone. Welcome to our No Barriers podcast. My co-host Antoinette, thanks for joining us. Antoinette joined us last time and man, this is so fantastic to have you as a new co-host Antoinette. You're an amazing athlete and veteran and board members of No Barriers, so sweet to have you board.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Hello, hello. Good to be here today.

Erik Weihenmayer:

So we have AJ aboard. This is so fantastic. We've been grooving out to your music all morning, and I sound like a total nerd saying grooving out. I don't think anyone even says that anymore but I mean it as a compliment.

Ajmal Subat:

I take it as a compliment. It's such an honor to be here. Pleasure to meet you Antoinette and good to see you again, Erik.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. Well, I'll just repeat what I mentioned a little bit earlier, which is sometimes at No Barriers we hyper focus on physical challenge and physical disability, but really the full spectrum of No Barriers is all about challenges that people face, whether it be socioeconomic challenges or challenges as you integrate into society as a first generation American, emotional challenges, challenges with family coming from Afghanistan to America. So there's bigger challenges than just physical. So I think it's really cool to have you aboard because you express a pioneer who's really broken through so many barriers and your art, your music is just absolutely stunning. Antoinette and I have been listening all morning. So again, thanks for being here.

Ajmal Subat:

It's really great to be here, Erik. I saw you speak at an event last week and was so moved by your experience, and to be asked to be on here I was like thinking all week, "Which barriers did I have?" And just being on this podcast made me go through a week of just reflection, and I was like, "I have my barriers coming from my experience as a first generation Afghan-American," but I don't know, it just made me reflect. I'm kind of long-winded right now but I look forward to this conversation.

Erik Weihenmayer:

So let's just roll right in though because you are first generation Afghan-American, and how did you get into music? How did you get into Afghanistan music in particular? Because you grew up here in America. I mean, I imagine Farsi maybe is your second language even, you probably heard it through your community and your parents, but maybe it was your primary language at home, so how did you connect with Afghan culture being here as an American?

Ajmal Subat:

So my parents left Afghanistan in the late '70s during the Russian coup, and my parents met here in the states. During that exodus, there were so many Afghans that moved to Southern California, that moved to Virginia, that moved to Northern California, across the country, and this is the adult version of me looking back into my experience.

Ajmal Subat:

My parents and their friends and family members did whatever they could to preserve their culture, and Afghan culture is really centered around three things, community, like congregation, getting together, food and music. So every weekend growing up was an Afghan music night. We call it a, which means everyone is just sitting on the floor and they're watching an artist perform, and those are some of my first memories.

Ajmal Subat:

I remember trying to avoid bedtime as much as possible and I would tell my parents that I'm just really into the music, even though I wasn't early on, and then I just slowly gravitated towards the music. I think in an effort to preserve Afghan culture circuit 1979, my parents exposed me to so much culture at such a young age. And Farsi was my primary language until I went to school, I can speak it-

Erik Weihenmayer:

And you sing it.

Ajmal Subat:

Yeah, I can sing it, and the singing for me is an homage to our history and our culture. I understand the Farsi lyrics are kind of Shakespearean so I don't really understand while I'm singing but I have a few uncles and aunts who help translate per line so at least I can try to sing with emotion.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. So I have a boy, our June, he's 19 now, and we adopted him from Nepal, and when he came over to America at five years old, which is way different from you of course, but he just wanted to be a chameleon. He just wanted to be an American. He wanted to forget Nepal. How was it for you? Were you just like, "Look, I'm an American." Did you respect Afghani music and culture from the beginning? I imagine your parents maybe really wanted to preserve that identity within you or did they want you just to become full fledged Wonderbread American?

Ajmal Subat:

I think they wanted the best of both worlds, and I'm not in the majority. I'm definitely an outlier because most of my cousins were not into the Afghan culture. I gravitated towards it in my early years and it really started with the music. The music is devotional. So when you have a generation that has endured trauma of having to leave their homeland and now they're seated in a living room in Southern California listening to spiritual music and crying, that's just such an intense experience that I gravitated towards that. So I'm an outlier for sure.

Ajmal Subat:

But I would say up until 9/11 I was all about the Afghan culture. And then after 9/11, I was in ninth grade, I was the only Afghan kid or brown kid in my high school and I tried to be as much of a chameleon as possible. I was the prankster, the jokester, tried to take any attention away for the news of the bombers are from Saudi Arabia but they trained in Afghanistan. Before that no one knew where Afghanistan was. We always had the luxury and opportunity to paint that first picture for someone when they're introduced to our culture. But after 9/11, you're just trying to undo how the majority of people perceive Afghanistan and Afghans, and I think it was after 9/11 that I just really got into my chameleon phase.

Erik Weihenmayer:

So after 9/11 were there struggles being Afghan American? Did you get bullied? I mean, I don't know if that's just the way I would envision it. There was a lot of anger and rhetoric, you know what I mean, and so was that a little bit scary being Afghan-American at that point? How did that work?

Ajmal Subat:

Yeah, it was the first time I experienced racism in my face. It wasn't physical bullying. They would be like, "Oh, what did your uncle do this time?" And you're just navigating those waters.

Ajmal Subat:

I remember one time I was driving to work and I had stopped at a red light and there's this lady in a minivan holding the horn and she wanted me to go because it was a green light but there was traffic in front of me and I couldn't block the intersection. So I just stood there and put my hand out, waved at her and said, "There's nothing I can do." She pulled over next to me and my windows were down, and she said the most vile, hurtful, racist things I've ever experienced. It was a complete shocker for me. I don't want to go into the details but you can imagine just the worst things you can say to a human about their race. And in her car, the minivan, there were like six kids, and I just remember looking at... When you're a kid, your parent is your God in a way, and you've just opened the door to hatred for those kids.

Ajmal Subat:

So it was really shocking and I did whatever I could to deflect. I would turn those moments where I would get bullied into a joke. My parents experienced it, we had to move out of our home in Villa Park, California because we experienced blatant racism, neighbors coming over to our house asking if they can search the house, asking if we have a bomb in the house. Very disturbing-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Did you internalize that? Did you internalize that? Because Afghanistan went from this beautiful place with culture and music and community to a thing, a war, you know what I mean? Taliban. People didn't think of it as a country anymore. They thought of it as a conflict. So just wondering if you took that inside and went, "Oh gosh, how am I supposed to feel right now?"

Ajmal Subat:

I don't remember at the time if I internalized it, but after I went to Afghanistan in 2003 I was hit with a culture shock because I didn't recognize the culture in Afghanistan either because that country has been in war for the last 20, 30 years. The culture that my parents raised me in was Afghanistan circuit 1979, and all those people left the country, and so you're seeing the remnants of war and of civil war, and that really confused me, going there and not identifying with most of the culture. Having beautiful memories, and it was a life changing experience, but I think it wasn't until that trip that I just... The whole thing was really confusing to me.

Ajmal Subat:

I think now in my adult life I'm able to intellectualize and deconstruct those experiences but at the time I only knew one thing, which was make people like you. And how you do that is you make jokes, you make people laugh and you're of service. I would get fake IDs in high school and give them out, I would give away free weed, whatever I could to provide value to people and then to create a lighthearted mood and vibe, and oftentimes that's just being the joker. And I suffered in school because of it. I had bad grades because I was more focused on making sure... I was a people pleaser in a way.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Of course.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Yeah. That's sort of the way that formally marginalized people like us, I'm black, for the people who don't my face, have to develop these coping skills and sort of survival-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Antoinette, I could make a joke right now of being blind, I'd be like, "What? Wait, you're black? Wait, what?"

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

I love that you can joke with me about ethnicity because that's how we get past this uncomfortable discussion about what it means to be from a certain ethnic group. So yeah, I love the jokes. I think it's fine and you're always very much sensitive to not a hurtful joke at my expense, but I love that about our conversations.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

So AJ, you talk about your Afghan and American identities and you, like many adult cross-cultural kids, ACCKs, like myself also, where we live in between our passport culture and our appearance cultures, how has your in-between identity influenced your music?

Ajmal Subat:

Definitely. That's a great question. So I've always played music since I was a kid, I've always listened to Afghan music specifically, and I would hide out in my garage with the harmonium instrument that my aunt gave me and I would learn how to play these old Afghan classical songs. That's kind of how I started.

Ajmal Subat:

After 9/11, I think once I get into college, I decided to... Well, there's a few things that happened. One, the lyrics that I was singing were these old lyrics, Shakespearean Farsi lyrics that I couldn't run that through the emotional filter within. There was this dissonance, there was this distance between me and what I was doing. It was more like this is an homage to the past, but what am I? And when I reached that junction, I decided to write and produce my own stuff, and when I did that I started to learn how to produce. And then I was listening to Radiohead and Coldplay, U2 at the time and a bunch of different bands and I closed the door on the Afghan side because I thought at that point in my life that those things are two separate worlds that there's no harmony, pun intended, there's no harmony between the two, there's no relationship between the two. "In fact, all I've seen from the Afghan stuff is pain, and I have a fresh start. I have a fresh new start doing stuff in English and creating the sound." So I would then try to write a song that Coldplay would write or try to write a song that Radiohead or Tom York would write and I started doing that.

Ajmal Subat:

Honestly, I've been making my own music since 2008 or 2009 and up until recently, it's a relatively recent revelation for me that both these worlds, not only can they communicate to one another but they can actually create something new. I don't have to be Afghan. And it was difficult for me to grasp that because Afghan music is rooted in this thousand-year-old tradition and it's rooted in humility and you cannot change the form. And if you do, then you get shunned and there's all this stuff that comes with that old world. And then with the new world, I really wasn't identifying with the mentality of artists in America because I was so used to this old world where there's so much humility that it's self destructive, where you have to be like, "No, I'm just a grain of sand and music is an ocean and I'm nothing." You can't build a career with that. And then I see kids here, I went to UCLA, I see musicians and producers at UCLA and they're like, "Yeah, I made this beat. I made it in a day and it's the best beat." And I'm like, "How does this guy have this much confidence?"

Ajmal Subat:

So those two worlds are really separate and far apart until recently and I made it a goal for myself to just sit in my studio with my keyboards and my Afghan instruments without the goal of creating something but just create a playground where I'm just playing. And in that space where there's no pressure to turn these things into a product, to productize this stuff, I was able to spend a year just exploring. And in that year, I was triggered emotionally from trauma in my childhood and just made so many different revelations. So maybe a couple years ago I was able to see that both of these worlds are a highway that can be merged into one road and the output is something new. It's actually not the Afghan thing and it's not the American thing, it's something new. And to embrace that was its own struggle but I feel like I'm there.

Ajmal Subat:

And this whole Afghanistan thing in August when the Taliban took over, I mean I've already embraced it but that thing propelled me. That was like a... What is it when you go light speed? What is it called when you go into that-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Warp speed?

Ajmal Subat:

Yeah, warp speed. Like in a wormhole. That's just threw me... Not a wormhole, but yeah, warp speed.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. Yeah, like Star Trek.

Ajmal Subat:

Yeah, exactly. I don't know even know if I answered your question.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Just to interrupt, I've been listening to your music and some of it's Radiohead-ish or maybe even you have this cool voice like a Bruce Springsteen, and then others it's you're rocking out in Farsi, so it's really cool to see the different sides of you. I mean, for me, the best music or the best food, it's all fusion. It's all mixed together. So that's what you're saying, the one highway, it doesn't really matter, it's just all your influences are part of the product.

Ajmal Subat:

Totally, and it took me so long to get there. Sometimes I'm like, "Man, it took me like eight years to figure that out. What happened?" But that's my own healing journey because there are parts of my Afghan stuff where I needed to heal, I didn't feel like were worthy enough or whatnot. And to go back and to do "healing work" in terms of self-worth I was able to then see the beauty in that stuff and not just see it as a box in the closet that I didn't want to take out.

Erik Weihenmayer:

That's really cool because it almost sounds, well not almost, it sounds like music was a therapy for you, I don't know, to become the person that you are right now.

Ajmal Subat:

100%. When I first started playing music, it was like quick sand where I would sing about heartbreak but I couldn't get out of it. The more I did it, the deeper I went and I couldn't turn music into a healing thing, and that really was the goal of music for me. I took a three-year break and lived in New York for a couple years and didn't touch music and in that time, I feel like I did some of the "work" to be able to come back to music as therapy. And honestly right now, for a song to make it on this project, it has to obviously sound cool, it's got to be authentic and all this stuff, but one of the criteria is it has to have been therapy for me or it has to have been healing for me.

Ajmal Subat:

So oftentimes if I'm crying and writing something, I'm like, "Okay, cool. I don't know what I got through but I got through some shit, and that sounds really cool. I don't know what it's about but that was a healing experience." For me, this whole experience of finding a way for music to be therapy and healing for me has made me extra passionate in emotional intelligence, the ability to process emotions, the ability to be kind enough to yourself, to allow yourself to experience what you're experiencing, to reflect on what you're feeling from a non-judgmental perspective. Because we can always look at it and be like, "Come on, man, you're going to let this get to you?" And that just keeps you in that cycle. So to turn a feeling, as negative as it may be, into a positive output, and that output can be in art and it can be in whatever expression, but as long as it has a productive output and not a self-destructive or one that hurts other people.

Ajmal Subat:

So that's another thing I'm really, really passionate about, that music does that for me. I can have the worst day and feel so disconnected from God or whoever, or my partner or my family, and then sit here with myself for several hours and get something out. And even if it doesn't turn into a cool song, that whole process for me allows me to be compassionate to myself, to deconstruct what I'm experiencing and maybe turn it into some cool art. But there's no need for it to be art. That whole process is healing in of itself.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

It's great that you found a way to immerse both your Afghan and America cultures into your music because without that you would have to put one part of yourself to the side to focus on just one of those identities.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

So I'm a huge fan of Bhangra, the Northern Indian music, and it reminds me of central Asian music from Afghanistan. It might be because I can hear the tablas in some Afghan songs and they're also used in some Indian songs, if I have that understanding correctly. But a lot of British and Caribbean artists have created these mashup singles from Caribbean and British lyrics with a Punjabi hook and I was wondering if we might see some Afghan mashups with maybe some either Afghan hook or an American hook, but you've mashed up the two styles of music in your future. I think that'd be really interesting.

Ajmal Subat:

That's really cool that you said that. That's a great question. I've actually been going through these old songs from the '70s to try to find a way to make that work. It's been about a year, a year of some change, I've been listening to all this stuff to try to see if I can find that.

Ajmal Subat:

Also, I'm anti-doing anything that's forced. So I'm I'm listening and creating opportunities to do exactly what you're talking about but it hasn't hit yet. There are a few other Afghan producers who are doing mashups but not in the way that you're describing. There's an Afghan singer by the name of Ahmad Zahir. He's like the Elvis of Afghanistan. He played with a live band and in fact, my mother's uncle was a composer in Afghanistan and he composed most of Ahmad Zahir's songs. So I'm trying to sample some of his stuff because he would travel the world and come back with Italian songs or Spanish songs and then record those with Farsi lyrics, with a band, some really good stuff. Actually, if you're interested, Erik, I'll create a playlist for you guys of Afghan songs from the '70s and send it over to you.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Absolutely.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

I love it.

Erik Weihenmayer:

That is a great lead to-

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

I'm excited.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, that's so cool. That leads me to, for the novice, AJ, is there a way to describe the different rhythms and beats of Afghani traditional music with Western music? Is there a way to describe the difference?

Ajmal Subat:

Yes. So Afghan music, and I'm oversimplifying it, but Afghan music to me falls under two umbrellas, two categories, and the first is Afghan folk music. These are hundreds-of-years-old songs that are centered around interchange lyrics where there's a certain number of syllables. You can replace them with a book of lyrics with and they're just... The lyrics are, "It's cold outside. You should come inside and have some soup." It's simple stuff like that that are hundreds of years old and they're these beautiful Afghan melodies that don't really have structure. The only structure that exists are these interchangeable lyrics that are called, which means four songs, I think. So that's one part of it.

Ajmal Subat:

And these sounds are, depends on which part of the country you're at, the rhythm will reflect the tribe and the community. So Afghan music in the south will be sung in and Afghan folk music in the north, well, it depends on which province you're in but will have a different twist depending on which tribe is performing it. So that's Afghan folk music. There's no chords in Afghan music but there's a lot of... Here, let me see if I can. I have a harmonium here.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. This is great.

Ajmal Subat:

Maybe. Can you hear that?

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Wow.

Erik Weihenmayer:

What is a harmonium? Sorry, I'm-

Ajmal Subat:

Harmonium is this box here that it's originally a British instrument. So Afghan instruments were mostly string instruments until the harmonium came along. Originally, to India, the Indians truncated it into this box that you sit on the ground and you pump... So you pump the air through the harmonium and it has reeds, and you get this kind of accordion sound.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Cool.

Ajmal Subat:

The better harmoniums have a longer sustain and the cheaper ones don't, so this is a mediocre one if you can hear the sustain. But Afghan melodies, they're like... Let me see. (singing)

Ajmal Subat:

There's a lot of major, minor... And for example, I'm going to put one of my AirPods aside. So if you're in the south you're probably going to hear. You'll probably hear something like (singing).

Ajmal Subat:

And the beat on that is I think, it's six eight. It's like (singing).

Erik Weihenmayer:

I mean, I'm being goofy but I'm getting goosebumps. That's be beautiful.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

AJ, I literally got goosebumps too in the car. As you were playing, I heard this sick sort of reggaeton beat in the background with some nice little lyrics in both Spanish and English, and I was like, "Whoa."

Erik Weihenmayer:

Nice.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Yeah.

Ajmal Subat:

It has that reggaeton beat for sure. So that's Afghan folk music. And again, what I just played represents one small community. But if you go 40 miles west, you're going to get a whole nother thing. There's so many different tribes in Afghanistan. And I've had the privilege of seeing singers from, and they have an accent where I don't even know what they're saying and the style is completely different. And the further you go near Iran then you get that Iranian throaty singing. So that's Afghan folk music, it's a world of its own but doesn't really have much structure. It's just stories and songs that have been handed down through generation.

Ajmal Subat:

Now, the other category is the classical stuff. The classical stuff comes from the Northern Indian classical music theory or system, and that is. Raga is basically an ascending and descending scale. There are 10 families of ragas but there are thousands of ragas that fall into each family. I'll play one here, it's called.

Ajmal Subat:

(Singing).

Ajmal Subat:

That lets you know what raga you're playing. And then in this raga, there are several light classical songs or there are hardcore... I mean, hardcore as in the beats and the rhythm and the vocal style are so complex that it would take 10, 15, 20 years of training to be able to even perform those. But how Afghan classical music is different from Indian classical music is we use Afghan poetry. So Rumi and Hafiz and all these incredible poets, we turn their poems into song that fall within the raga scale. And then sometimes both worlds merge and you don't know what's folk and what's classic, and then there's obviously pop music but that came way later.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Did you have a mentor teaching you all this? I mean, like you said, it could take you 20 years to you must have had a great teacher.

Ajmal Subat:

I was super lucky, one, to have been exposed to incredible artists who left Afghanistan in the late '70s because of the Russians and so I had the privilege of seeing them twice a week or just watching them perform. I had a bunch of cassettes that I would listen to in the garage with this harmonium and I would just try to mimic one of those artists.

Ajmal Subat:

One of those artists, his name is Ahmad Wali, and he is a Ghazal singer, and Ghazal means light classical. So it's rooted in the classical stuff but it's songs with Hafiz and Rumi poetry. I learned from his cassette tapes first and then he came over to my aunt's house for dinner and I pulled out my harmonium and I started singing and I was like, "Look, I'm your student." And he was like, "No, I don't have students because I'm not a master yet." That's the thing with the classical stuff, is humility is so important. And I was like, "No, but you are to me. Can you please teach me?" His response would be like, "No, I'm nowhere near being a master so I can't have a student." So I just bugged him.

Ajmal Subat:

I would go to every single one of his concerts and I would show up at 2:00 PM when he would get there to set up... And Afghan music nights go on to like four or five in the morning, it's crazy. It's nuts. They start at eight and the performer plays for two, three hours, takes a break, plays again for two hours, takes a break, and they'll just ride out the vibe. And if the vibe is there, they'll play until seven, eight in the morning. It's crazy.

Erik Weihenmayer:

That's amazing.

Ajmal Subat:

It's crazy. It's not sustainable. But at a certain point he realized that I was really into this stuff and he offered to help me with vocal training. I actually even went over to his house and stayed there for a couple days and worked with him, which was really, really awesome. So that's Ahmad Wali.

Ajmal Subat:

And then also there's a classical singer, his name is Ustad Naim Nazary, and he happened to be really close family friends on my mom's family side. He would spend a couple months with us when he was touring in Southern California, so I learned from him as well. I never had formal training but I always had enough that would keep me going for the next three, four months. I would just record our conversations and then I would write notes and then that would keep me going for the next several months until they came back.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Yeah. So AJ, you've worked with an active duty military officer to evacuate a few hundred women from Afghanistan initially and then other people were contacting you trying to get help, and they were trying to justify their lives and their connection to the U.S. and why they could or should be helped. I was wondering if you've had time to stop and process the trauma of not being able to help as many people as needed help and how's that journey been for you?

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, because you left music, AJ, to help with the refugees that were leaving Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. It was horrific watching what happened and so you stepped into action to see if you could help and bring women to America, correct?

Ajmal Subat:

Yeah. Antoinette, you talked about the trauma, now I'm on the tail end of realizing I can't help certain people and also finalizing the resettlement piece to people that we were able to help. That adrenaline rush is no longer there and time is now slowing and down and I'm able to realize how crazy this entire experience was. It's something I'm still working through. It has unveiled some deep anger that I didn't know I had. Maybe it's because of this experience or maybe there's some unresolved anger stuff from my past, but I'm still navigating through it, and the music for me is super healing. So I'm working through that.

Ajmal Subat:

But rewind things to August a few days before the Taliban took over Kabul, my fiance and I got engaged. We had our engagement party and a couple days later the Taliban took over the surrounding villages or provinces and then finally on the 15th, I believe it is, we woke up to news that they had reached Kabul. It was an extremely emotional day for myself, my family. At that time I had never felt that type of that type of heartbreak. I didn't know I had that kind of love. I've always been anti-nationalist or tribal in any way because I've just seen the problems but I just couldn't help but feel this growing hole in my heart that I didn't know I had this love for my people.

Ajmal Subat:

The first people that I thought of were the Afghan women. My fiance and I, we were messaging all of these different nonprofits, like No One Left Behind and Evacuate Our Allies, trying to get people out. And by that time, I had followed several journalists and activists on Twitter and Instagram and so I initially reached out to a few people on Instagram and Twitter. And when I found out that someone I know was able to get one person out of the country, I had reached out to them and said, "Look, I have a list of people and I can turn my music studio into..." I didn't say that, but that's what ended up happening. I turned by music studio into an ops office. And this person is pretty high up in the military, and we partnered with several other people to create lists of Afghan women because knew that the women who were artists there, they're criminals in the eyes of the Taliban punishable by death, we knew that journalists were either going to lose their jobs or their lives potentially. We knew that women couldn't go to school.

Ajmal Subat:

I mean time was moving so fast and I remember just the first three weeks I was working 20, 21-hour days because we were waiting for the active military who were at the base in Kabul to let us know when they can open the gate and so we just had to be on call. And while we were on call, we were helping coordinate safe houses there and reaching out to different women. It's crazy because they believed a guy that they've never met from America, who's telling them to just pack a backpack and go to this house and you'll be greeted by this man and follow this man and he'll take you to the airport. It's-

Erik Weihenmayer:

A lot of trust.

Ajmal Subat:

That's how desperate they were. A lot of trust. I have this timeline that I've put together right in front of me, I'm like looking at it, at that time we formalized our nonprofit called Restore Her Voice with our co-founders, Ayesha Sherzai and Dean Sherzai. They're a couple. They're both neurologists. Dean used to be the Deputy Minister of Health in Afghanistan. He created the healthcare system there. So we're partnered with people who have a deep love for our country but are progressive. So when we formalized this nonprofit, we were also raising money to make sure that if we get people here, what's the next step for them-

Erik Weihenmayer:

You raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, just for the record.

Ajmal Subat:

We raised over 300. So we raised money on GoFundMe and then we also raised about 150 or 60,000 outside of GoFundMe, and that was within the first two weeks of the first group of women arriving in DC.

Ajmal Subat:

When I spoke of the heartbreak, the other side of that coin is all of these amazing, incredible people that just popped up in this madness. Someone read an article, this woman by the name of Linda Wolf, she's up in Washington. She had read an article, then reached out to one of the women that we helped because that woman was popular for her artistry, and then she put me and Linda Wolf in contact, and then Linda introduced me to her donors. Next thing I know I'm in DC with the first group of women that are here in an Airbnb and I'm on Zoom meetings raising money with random people. And all these amazing, incredible people just popped up, raising their hands like, "Hey, I'm here to help. I've got money. I've got a house. I can house three people." And I have a whole community of women that can house up to 13 people here in Tacoma park, Maryland.

Ajmal Subat:

The evacuation of Afghanistan, in my opinion, was one of the ugliest sides of our country. But the other side of that was how all these private citizens and active duty military and veterans who all worked together in these different digital Dunkirks and got people out of the country and then helped them resettle here at a time where resettlement agencies have no budget and have no assistance, that are completely overwhelmed, they weren't ready to take in 90,000 refugees. So next thing you know, me, my fiance and co-founders were Googling what's the first thing you do when you get into a new country. We reached out to Akin Gump, which is a really reputable immigration law firm. They committed to offering 25 associates to do the paperwork for asylum applications. We reached out to Airbnb and connected with their Head of Global Policy and then the next day the CEO of Airbnb said, "We're going to house 20,000 Afghan refugees." So then they housed these women for two months at a house in Alexandria, Virginia. And then I reached out to Patagonia because I'm like, "Winter's coming," and then the Patagonia store sent over boxes of brand new winter jackets and undergarments. We reached out to Zappos, sent a bunch of credit cards, so these women had a $300 credit card each time.

Ajmal Subat:

Everything was moving so fast and there was no way for me to even think about music, I put everything in storage, and I don't know what was driving me outside of there is this deep love for the people there, there's a clear need to help, and I just got in service mode. I can't describe it. By the time I tried to vocalize what I was feeling at the time and what was driving me, it sounds just like pride of country or it sounds something shallow, but what I was experiencing while in it I can't describe it. I didn't sleep for several months, and I'm not glorifying this. I'm not trying to make myself sound like Superman. I'm genuinely objectively looking back and saying like, "What the fuck happened?" Excuse my language. "What was I doing?" I didn't sleep for three months. I don't understand it.

Erik Weihenmayer:

You went into go mode.

Ajmal Subat:

I went into go mode completely. And then in that time, I'm getting all these messages from people who I can't help because with each passing day, Erik, each passing day, the door closes. The door is getting closer to closing because the U.S. is leaving at the end of August. So how could I go to sleep or go to the gym if I know that I've got four more days or five more days or whatever it was before the U.S. would leave and this is our chance? I think it was just trying to utilize that door and trying to get as many people out.

Erik Weihenmayer:

AJ, you went to Washington DC and you met some of the women as they came to the country, right? So what was that like, seeing their faces? What was their reaction? Were they crying? Were they joyful? Were they absolutely overwhelmed?

Ajmal Subat:

We helped people in batches of like 25, and the first group was able to make it out without having to go to a refugee camp. The other groups there was this buffer period because they had to go to a camp in Wisconsin or Texas. But this group, they were one of the earlier ones and they were given the option to just leave the airport. I remember it was like three in the morning for me, and I'm like, "Wait, what? You're at the airport." And we coordinated some rides with some Afghans who live in DC and then I got on a flight. And when I met them, we had gone through a week of trying to evacuate and so by this time I have a direct relationship with each person, they have doubted me and then I have tried to exercise vulnerability to a level where they're like, "Oh, he's a real person and he cares," and to try to show them my humanness. So in that effort, I love these people now and we're bonded through this thing.

Ajmal Subat:

We had a couple failed attempts but on the third attempt where they went through, I've never shouted and cried like that. I was jumping in my music studio. I was punching the couch and just cussing and shouting because I was like, "We got them in." So I think at this point we were so bonded, and when I saw them I gave all of them a hug and we all cried together.

Ajmal Subat:

The funny thing actually is I was the only one crying. They were like, "Hey man, stop crying. It's cool." They had left their families and they're sitting here still in the tornado. The dust hadn't settled at that point. They're still in this whirlwind of shock and not knowing who to trust and they're in a foreign house with 12 other women that they may have seen in cobble or may have known in passing or may have not known, and they're just here and they're just like, "Wait, I just left my parents and my seven siblings behind." I went in there trying to create a space and not create any additional work for them to try to explain themselves. I just wanted to hold space.

Ajmal Subat:

The first few nights we were able to get some really nice restaurants in the DC area to invite us over as guests. And I'm a salesperson too so I called each place and I'm like, "Look, I have these women who just got here. I have no money. We would love to come by to your restaurant to have dinner." I went there and every single restaurant was like, "Yo, yes," and I'll shout out one of them. There's a restaurant called Maydan in DC. The owner, her name is Rose Previte, she invited us, and you can't even get a reservation there because it's so cool and busy and popular and she gave us a whole table and was like, "Whatever you guys want."

Ajmal Subat:

It was in those moments when we were out having dinner that the phones would be put away so we didn't get bad news from Kabul, we drank beers. I was like, "Look, they have Coke. They have water. Do you guys drink?" And they were like, "Yeah, we'll all take beers." So for those two, three hours of dinner we were able to joke and be absurd and laugh and also cry, but to forget about the newsfeed that's just renewing every three seconds. There's like suicide attack, this happen, this happened, Taliban raided the house of the parents, this happened, just a wave of stuff. So I really feel for them for so many reasons and the obvious ones, but one that's not so obvious is that they're just experiencing the newsfeed coming in, where they're like, "This is what's happening to your country." So there's some guilt that may come from it that you can't really rest even if you're resettled. And even if your paperwork is being dealt by a law firm, even if you're well fed and there's money raised for your housing and you're safe, I knew that no matter what I did I couldn't fill that hole. I did whatever I could.

Ajmal Subat:

And part of me did, not too much, but I took away from my own cup also, and that's what I'm realizing at the tail end of this is I didn't give to myself for seven months, which was great because I was in service but the last few months I was on fumes and I realized that's not right either, I need to go take care of myself. I would put on 24 pounds or something like that, I hadn't gone to the gym, I hadn't done my meditation. I hadn't done anything for myself and I'm trying to be kind to myself about it, but I was doing whatever I could to fill that hole of they get a text from their little sister that says, "Why'd you leave me?" That's so much pain.

Ajmal Subat:

And that's them. That's not even the people I couldn't help. Every day for the last six, seven months, I'm getting messages. I mean, they're not coming in as much anymore, but the first few months, first four or five months actually, I'm getting pictures of people, and that is haunting. I'm not the victim here but I'm in a position where people think I can help but I can't really help anymore. I barely could help back then but now I can't help and I'm just seeing faces that are indelible in my heart. Just embedded in me are these faces. And I think taking that experience and looking at the flip side of that, of where is the strength in that, I mean that has solidified my purpose in this life.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Well, AJ, I mean a lot of the folks I've talked to who have experienced PTSD, it's not something that happened to them, it's the fact that they wanted to do more. They were put into an impossible situation and they did their best and then the PTSD comes when you regret like, "I could have done more. Could I have done more? Could I have done a better job?" That regret gets in there and messes with your brain. So I mean, you were part of the solution, and you know that logically, but it's your emotion that has that feeling that I could have done more.

Ajmal Subat:

Yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Well, AJ, I hope you continue to practice self-care because you can't support this community and your music and all of us fans out here if you're running on empty. And I'm just super excited about hearing about all of the grassroots efforts that came together to create this opportunity to get some people out and into the U.S. Thank you for that work.

Ajmal Subat:

Of course, of course.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Do you stay in touch with any of the women, AJ? How are they doing? Because Americans, well, we all as human I guess have short memories, so one, how are folks doing? Do you stay in touch? And two, are there still women and people escaping from Afghanistan? Are they still getting out or has it trickled down?

Ajmal Subat:

It's definitely trickled down. It's really impossible to get people out of the country right now, unless you have a private plane and you can charter and you can pay people off. It takes crazy money. Right now the prices to get a visa are just so inflated it's wild. If you want to get into Pakistan through the black market route it's like 3,000 a person. It's just unreasonable. But if you want to get people out of the country, it's in the tens of millions of dollars.

Ajmal Subat:

We are definitely in touch with the women that are here. Sadly, not all of the people that we were able to get on a plane are in America yet. More than half of them are still in a holding facility in Abu Dhabi and are waiting and have been there since September, which is very sad because I'm not in touch with a lot of them because their cell phones don't work or they have whatever technical issues they have with wifi or whatever. But the ones that are in the states I am in contact with. Our organization is in contact with them. We are providing monthly stipends. We have raised enough money to house I believe 20 of them rent free for a year. One of the women just got into Columbia's School of Public Policy, the master's program. We helped with the application, we're providing school equipment, we've providing camera equipment and stuff like that for some of the journalists. So we're deeply involved, especially with this first group that made it here. They're like family to me now. It's like we're in this for life. I'm a brother and they're my sisters and I don't think I can undo that.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

That's beautiful.

Erik Weihenmayer:

AJ, if people want to get involved in Restore Her Voice, if they want to give, contribute, they want to get involved, if they want to hire you to come perform, how do people get in touch with you? What's the best way to reach out?

Ajmal Subat:

So you can find me on Instagram. My Instagram handle is subatmusic. That's S-U-B-A-T. That's my performing name. You can also follow Restore Her Voice. But if you want to shoot me an email, it's just the letters. aj@restorehervoice.org. For those in Southern California, I'll be performing at the Ford Theater in mid-July. I think we're still locking in the dates for another organization, Mary's List, but it's for the same cause. So I'm happy to perform there.

Ajmal Subat:

And I'm excited for this music project of mine because just full circle with the art... When I moved into this new music studio six months after the fall of Kabul, as soon as I set up my stuff, I just had a rush of emotions and songs and so I'm in the final phases of putting this project together and I'm excited to release this stuff. A lot of the songs are about the experience, whether it's about Afghan children or my own frustrations with having to raise money and productizing refugees, that's a whole nother issue that I've been grappling with, so a bunch of the songs reflect the last year for me.

Erik Weihenmayer:

People are going to be excited to hear that and moved by it as well.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I have to say, this has been one of our best podcasts. I mean, I'm so moved by your work. It's such a beautiful testament to what one human being along with your community can do for other people. As you said, you don't have to be a superhero, you just go into go mode and you make it happen, and look what you've done. And of course, that's just a drop in the bucket, there's so much more to be done, but you've done more than 99.9% of human beings. So I'm really proud of your work and proud to know you and beginning to know you today.

Ajmal Subat:

Erik, man, you're making me blush here. That means so much coming from you. I'm shaking my head here and I'm not a single person. I really represent a community of people who stepped up and did the work and I'm so proud of... The cool thing is when you go into go mode, all these other humans pop up, others who are also in go mode. You just meet these people that you would've never met in your life if you didn't go in go mode, all these other people across the country just pop up, and I've met amazing friends. I have friends now that'll be my lifelong friends because of this, across the country.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. It makes me so happy too, what you're talking about, how people stepped up, Patagonia and these restaurants. That is a beautiful thing. It sort of makes you feel good about humanity.

Ajmal Subat:

Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I know we're wrapping up, I just want to say one quick thing and I know I'm long winded, I'll keep this short, my goal in this life, if I had to specify to one sentence, in the spirit of fostering compassion and showing how we're all connected, I can only do that by sharing my story and sharing Afghan stories. Because if you know the game Family Feud, when they ask you a question and they say Afghanistan, and you hit that buzzer. If you're trying to win a million bucks, what are you going to say? Even if I was on there I would say Taliban, terrorism, war, oppression. I would say those things. It's my lifelong pursuit to try to put art up there and to try to put hospitality up there and to try to put smiles up there to show how we're all connected, and music is a way we do that and stories are a way we do that. So I'm here and I believe that the world needs to hear our stories. That's my mantra.

Erik Weihenmayer:

You're going to make me cry. That's beautiful. You're full on No Barriers and it's great to know you. Antoinette, any closing words?

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Keep changing that narrative, AJ. I love it.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. All right, thank you so much, AJ.

Ajmal Subat:

It's been such a pleasure.

Erik Weihenmayer:

All right, man. No Barriers to everyone. Thanks.

Diedrich Jonk:

The production team behind this podcast includes producer Diedrich Jonk, that's me, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman, marketing and graphic support work from Stone Ward, and web support by Jamlo. Special thanks to The Dan Ryan band for our intro song, Guidance.

Diedrich Jonk:

And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. That's nobarrierspodcast.com. There's also a link to shoot me an email with any suggestions for this show or any ideas you've got at all. Thanks so much and have a great day.

 



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