The musician arrived in the United States in March 2022. He had to leave his violin back home due to the fear that it would be caught at armed checkpoints.
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, music came under threat in the nation as the group's strict interpretation of Islamic law tightened control over all artistic expression. Amid the takeover, an Afghan violinist named Ali Esmahilzada fled Kabul and arrived in Los Angeles in March 2022 with nothing more than just a few clothes. According to The Washington Post, he had to leave his violin in his homeland out of fear of being caught with it at armed checkpoints.
A couple of months later, Latif Nasser—the co-host of Radiolab and the host of the Netflix show, "Connected"—got a request from his colleague, Jeremy Bloom, to hand-deliver an antique violin across the country. This was an unusual request, but he soon found out its significance. The violin had to be delivered to Esmahilzada.
Last year, a coworker randomly asked me to hand-deliver an antique violin across the country. I said yes, because why not. I had no idea what I was getting into, and now I need your help. A 🧵— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 15, 2023
Bloom, a sound designer from Brooklyn, found out about the violinist from a close friend. He had a 110-year-old violin in his closet and he decided to offer it to him as it was simply gathering dust in his house. He told the outlet, "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. I was happy to give it to him." Although Nasser, who lived in Los Angeles, was happy to help, there was a problem.
They faced difficulties transporting the violin all the way across the country to Los Angeles. "You do not want to ship an antique violin in the mail," Bloom said, explaining that it would damage the violin. He struggled to find somebody who could transport it to California and Nasser offered to take it with him on the flight. Still, it took a few weeks to get the instrument to Esmahilzada. "It felt like it took forever for us to coordinate," said Nasser.
He had heard through a friend (@DerekBeckvold) about an Afghan violinist who had just escaped from Kabul and settled in LA (where I live). Problem was the guy had to leave his violin behind.— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 15, 2023
Jeremy had a beautiful 110-year-old violin in his closet he used to play. pic.twitter.com/k1lAdDuZaD
He began to wonder if it was really worth it after all those failed attempts. "In a way, I was being protective of my friend Jeremy," said Nasser, a science journalist. "This is the most beautiful gesture, giving someone this priceless violin for free."
Nasser and Esmahilzada finally found a time and place to meet. As Nasser reached Esmahilzada’s place to deliver the violin, the musician was eagerly waiting for him with a "huge smile." After they met, Nasser got to know the story of the violinist and was at a loss for words as Esmahilzada revealed that he did not take his violin as he left his country, as he feared the Taliban would "hurt me or something else" if they found it at armed checkpoints throughout the city.
Sweetheart that he is, Jeremy wanted to gift it to this stranger, but wouldn’t dare to just put it in the mail. Would I take it through security and as carry-on on my flight home to LA? I said sure. I took the violin. pic.twitter.com/kmWITZA6yE— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 15, 2023
The group has prohibited playing music and even possessing an instrument in Afghanistan. Esmahilzada has been playing the violin since he was 13 years old and after the Taliban takeover, he decided he had no other option except to leave his home country. "I was so scared," said Esmahilzada. "I was really sad about it because I had no bank account, no money and no clothes. I had no family. I was just by myself."
When I got home, I tried to coordinate delivery with the guy via WhatsApp. Took weeks.— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 15, 2023
At one point he wrote ‘I’m at the Galleria Mall, bring it here now?’
I got irritated, thinking ‘I lugged this priceless gift here for you but to you it’s a random thing you pick up at a mall?’ pic.twitter.com/vP2eTKVYbG
"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." After inviting Esmahilzada to have dinner with his wife and two young kids once, it soon turned into a regular weekly gathering. As time went on, Nasser's family began to feel like Esmahilzada's own.
We eventually found a time for the drop off. I pulled up to the house and he was waiting outside. Way younger than I expected. Mid 20s. Shy but clearly immensely grateful. Huge smile. As I talked to him I realized I TOTALLY misread him. pic.twitter.com/F7EYKf8Ll5— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 16, 2023
Nasser and his wife assisted Esmahilzada in finding an immigration lawyer, a laptop, clothing and food, in addition to hosting him for frequent dinners. They also helped him get more steady employment and purchase a car. Now that he's established here, a year after arriving, Nasser said that he hopes to assist Esmahilzada to "rekindle that musician in him." He chose to tell their friendship story in a Twitter thread that received almost 20 million views. Nasser began fundraising for his friend's violin lessons and music school fees. He has been able to raise $120,000 until now.
He was actually a celebrity in Afghanistan, the violinist for the on-screen backup band for their version of American Idol, Afghan Star. It was the number one show in the country. He did it for 5 seasons.— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 16, 2023
“Most people in Afghanistan know my face.”https://t.co/f2epGubPZn pic.twitter.com/i21qzYB165
Esmahilzada feels hopeful about his future because of the kindness of strangers. He said, "I started from zero when I came to the United States. Now I’m happy. I have support from people who care about me. We have really kind people in the world. I can practice my violin in peace, and I am safe. I’m really proud of that."