Manizha Talash, after fleeing Afghanistan, will breakdance at Paris Olympics – The Washington Post

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When Manizha Talash finds the beat, something grabs hold of her. Her arms sway, and her legs start to bounce. The ensuing flurry of footwork and acrobatic whirling, driven by the music, transports Talash somewhere distant.

“In that moment, I am in another world,” said Talash, a 21-year-old breakdancer.

At such times, she doesn’t think about what’s going on back home in Kabul. She doesn’t think about the winding road — the death threats, the fear, the uncertainty — that led her to this point, on the cusp of appearing in the Paris Olympics. When she’s competing, when she’s training and when she’s dancing, it’s just Talash and the thumping music.

“I do it for me, my life. I do it to express myself and to forget about everything else going on if I need to,” Talash said in an interview conducted in Spanish.

Talash stands to be one of the most compelling — and unlikely — athletes at the Paris Olympics. She was the first known female breakdancer in Afghanistan but fled the country after the Taliban returned to power in 2021. With breakdancing — or breaking, as it’s commonly called — making its Olympic debut in Paris, Talash will be stepping onto the world stage.

End of carousel

Many conservative Afghans frown upon dancing, and the idea of women participating is particularly verboten. Under Taliban rule, Afghan women effectively have been barred from many sporting activities. Since the group returned to power three years ago, the government has closed girls’ schools, suppressed cultural and artistic expression, imposed travel restrictions on women and limited their access to parks and gyms. A United Nations human rights report this year said the Taliban’s “disrespect for the fundamental rights of women and girls is unparalleled in the world.”

From the day she started dancing four years ago, Talash faced criticism and threats from community members, neighbors and some extended family members. She said she knew if she wanted to continue dancing, she had no choice: “I needed to leave and not come back.”

Born on the streets of New York in the 1970s, breaking features a complex combination of athleticism, acrobatics, strength and strategy. Its inclusion in the Summer Games represents an attempt by Olympic officials to attract a younger, more urban audience.

One of 16 B-girls vying for a medal in Paris, Talash will not be representing Afghanistan or competing under its flag. Instead, she will be breaking as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team, composed of displaced athletes who can longer live and train in their home country. The team, which made its debut at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, this year will feature 36 athletes from 11 different countries, five of whom were originally from Afghanistan. They will compete under a special flag that features an emblem with a heart surrounded by arrows, intended to signify “the shared experience of their journeys.”

For Talash, who immigrated to Spain, these Olympics represent a chance to dance freely, to serve as a symbol of hope to girls and women back in Afghanistan and to send a broader message to the rest of the world.

“If you ask foreigners about Afghanistan, the only thing that they imagine is like war, guns, old buildings. But, no, Afghanistan is not that,” said Jawad Sezdah, Talash’s close friend and a leader of Kabul’s tightknit hip-hop community. “Afghanistan is Manizha doing breaking. Afghanistan is me doing rapping. … Afghanistan’s not only war.”

Her passion made her a target

When Talash was 17, she stumbled upon a Facebook video and was hypnotized by the young man spinning on his head. She had never seen anything like it. “At first, I thought it was illegal to do that kind of stuff,” she said. Talash started watching more videos and was struck by the lack of female dancers.

“Right there I said, ‘I am going to do it,’” she explained. “‘I will learn.’”

She reached out to the boy in the video — Sezdah — who encouraged her to visit the local club where he trained. He had been trying to grow the hip-hop community in Kabul and had taken to social media to invite all ages and genders to dance and rap with his “Superiors Crew.” There were 55 boys training there. Talash was the first girl.

“If a boy dances, it’s a bad thing in Afghanistan and Kabul,” said Sezdah, 25. “When a girl dances, it’s worse, you know? It’s very dangerous. A girl dancing is not acceptable in this society. There is no possibility. We were trying to make it normal, but it’s very difficult. We cannot do it on the street. We cannot do it, you know, in a public place.”

At one of the crew’s first group events — a “cipher” at the small club — a car bomb exploded nearby. There were casualties on the street, but the dancers inside were unharmed. As word spread that Talash was dancing, she began to receive death threats. The club was supposed to be a safe space, but one day a man entered purporting to be a prospective dancer. He seemed suspicious to the breaking crew and, according to Talash and Sezdah, law enforcement soon swarmed the club and apprehended the man, who was carrying a bomb.

“[They] said that he’s a member of ISIS,” Sezdah said. “He just wanted to explode himself.”

They closed the club and struggled to grow their community while also remaining discreet.

“We were doing activities but, you know, we are also taking care of each other,” he said. “We were being very careful. We just wanted what we wanted: to achieve the dream, to rap, to have concerts, to do breaking, to present Afghanistan hip-hop to the world. … We kept going even though there was lots of problems and a lot of lives were in danger.”

A few months later, NATO forces and the U.S. military left Afghanistan, and the Taliban returned to power. Sezdah said a landlord called him and warned him not to return, that people were searching for the Superiors Crew.

“There are lots of reasons” to leave, Sezdah said. “The first is to save your life.”

They figured if they wanted to keep dancing and rapping, they had no choice. Talash especially couldn’t bear the thought of living in Kabul without breaking and the hip-hop culture that had given her so much purpose.

The dozen members of the Superiors Crew scrambled together what they could and loaded into three cars, bound for Pakistan. Talash took her 12-year-old brother and said goodbye to her mother, a younger sister and another brother.

“I wasn’t scared,” Talash said, “but I came to the realization that I needed to leave and not come back. This was important to me. I never left because I was scared of the Taliban or because I couldn’t live in Afghanistan but rather to do something to show women that we can do it. It’s possible.”

An Olympic dream realized and a family reunited

For nearly a year, they lived illegally in Pakistan with no passports and dwindling hope. They didn’t feel safe in public, so 22 people spent most of the day crammed together in an apartment. There was no training or dancing. Talash received word that Taliban officials approached her mother back in Kabul, inquiring about the young girl’s whereabouts.

“Sometimes I wish I could forget all of it,” she said.

They reached out to embassies, advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations seeking aid. Finally, with the help of a Spanish refugee organization called People HELP, they were granted asylum in Spain. The crew splintered, and Talash and her brother were taken to Huesca, a small town in northeastern Spain. She had a job sweeping at a local salon, and although there was no studio or club dedicated to breaking, she found a gym that allowed her to dance after-hours.

She missed home, but Talash was safe and was dancing again. While her Olympic dream felt as though it was dimming, she couldn’t let it go.

In February, an American named Isabel Guarco stepped in to help. Guarco had befriended Talash, Sezdah and the crew, and she started doing some internet research. She found a PDF with dozens of Olympic email addresses on it and blasted out a note. The next day, she had received one response — from the manager of the Refugee Olympic Team, Gonzalo Barrio.

The refugee team for Paris was set, but Olympic officials were moved by Talash’s story and scrambled to align resources. The Spanish Olympic Committee agreed to oversee her training, and coaches in Madrid were eager to volunteer their time.

“I felt we had to do everything possible,” said David Vento, the technical director for Spain’s national team.

In March, Talash was offered scholarship money that allowed her to relocate to Madrid and focus on breaking. Just a few weeks later, Guarco was with her, filming for a documentary, when the news arrived that she would compete at the Olympics.

“She burst into tears and she was, like, smiling,” Guarco recalled. “She was like, ‘This is so surreal.’ And then about 10 minutes later, she starts crying again.”

“I was crying tears of joy — and fear,” Talash explained.

She was worried about her family back in Afghanistan. The news wouldn’t become public for another three weeks, so Talash and her support network began working the phones. They finally were able to arrange for her mother and two remaining siblings to join her in Madrid, where they now live at a hostel for refugees.

It is not lost on Talash that breaking and hip-hop, forbidden back home, had given purpose to her life and also had helped save her family.

“This is way bigger than any of my dreams I had before or even could think of,” she said.

At odds with the Olympic mission

Part of the Olympics’ stated mission is to “support the promotion of women in sport at all levels” and encourage “the principle of equality of men and women.” Because of that, the Olympic movement long has had a fraught relationship with Afghanistan. The International Olympic Committee suspended the country’s Olympic committee in 1999, and Afghanistan was barred from the 2000 Sydney Games. It wasn’t reinstated until after the Taliban fell in 2001.

This will be the first Summer Olympics since the Taliban seized power. Last month, the IOC announced six athletes — three men, three women — would compete under the Afghan flag. But no Taliban officials would be welcome in Paris, and the IOC is dealing only with Olympic officials who are operating outside of Afghanistan. Several of the Afghan athletes are believed to be training outside Afghanistan, as Talash is doing.

Talash is heartbroken for her home country and hopes she can be a symbol of hope this summer, even if most Afghans can follow her exploits only via social media. She remains hopeful that someday she can return to Kabul, dance freely and help chart a new course for young Afghan women.

“If the Taliban said they were leaving in the morning, I would be moving back home in the afternoon,” she said. “Without a doubt.”

In Madrid, she trains six days per week, working with Vento on her technical skills and also a strength and conditioning coach. She dances under the name B-girl Talash. Until recently, she had little formal training, learning from peers and YouTube videos. But the music moves her, and Vento can see her personality emerge when she’s about to throw down.

“Her attitude grows when she is in front of an audience or in a breaking battle,” he said. “I think the style that Manizha is developing is that of a true warrior.”

Gabriel Alvarez Jacobs contributed to this report.

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