Review: Playing for Freedom by Zarifa Adiba

by Cathy


Passionate musician Zarifa Adiba grew up on the worn-torn streets of Kabul, Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban’s influence was still very present in society. Zarifa has big dreams; she wants to play music and get an education. Playing for Freedom takes readers on Zarifa’s journey, through the trials and tribulations that come with being deemed a “bad girl” in a country and culture marred by conflict and dictatorship. It’s a story of how Zarifa persevered and dealt with the difficulties life threw at her for daring to dream.

My Review

Playing for Freedom is a brave and inspiring book. Zarifa Adiba has recounted her life so far to give us a glimpse into a life, country and culture that has not been easy to live in – especially if you’ve been deemed the “bad girl”.

The book is split into longer but managable chapters, each focusing on a specific event or theme that took place in Zarifa’s life. We start with her trip to Davos in Switzerland to conduct Afghanistan’s first (and only) female orchestra. Then we continue moving forward with her arrival back home in Kabul and the subsequent things that happened to Zarifa in her life.

The “present day” recounts are broken up by smaller sections with information about Zarifa’s family’s past or details about what life is like in Afghanistan – both now and in the past. There’s a helpful amount of information about Afghan culture and history to help you place Zarifa’s story into context and fully appreciate what she has had to face in her life so far.

My favourite thing about Playing for Freedom is the writing. It’s exciting, it’s engaging, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s hopeful. Zarifa’s feelings pour off the page straight into your heart. I had both tears of hapiness and tears of sadeness in my eyes while reading her story. Her excitement and passion for music and conducting the orchestra in Davos was infectious – I felt like I was there experiencing it with her.

Zarifa then writes in a more factual and distanced way – especially when talking about things that upset her. The move to a calmer, less evocative writing style for these parts of the book was a good choice as it makes the passages about what life is like for girls and women in Afghanistan really stand out. You know that this part is important, so you pay attention.

I enjoyed this distinction in the writing styles, they merged well together to create a story that engages you and makes you aware of what’s happening in a country that’s physically and culturally far from the global West.

An important theme in Playing for Freedom is Afghanistan, Afghan culture, and Zarifa’s desire to show the world the good things about her country and her culture. Her relationship with Afghanistan is particularly interesting, and seems to get more complicated as she grows up. Zarifa is seen as rebellious and wanting to go against the rules imposed by the society she lives in and some may read this as her not liking the country and the culture. But she talks about the country’s virtues in a passionate and positive way.

She’s very open about the fact that her goal is to make people see Afghanistan in a better light. And the way she goes about it is admirable; she doesn’t ignore or negate the bad aspects of her country and its culture or religion, instead she acknowledges it and explains what she thinks needs to change. I liked that she didn’t shy away from dealing with some of the more difficult or uneasy topics that came up in her story.

Throughout the story, the one thing that really stands out is Zarifa’s resiliance. She has the courage and strength to get up every day and live the life she wants to live within the restraints that are imposed on her by the city and culture that she lives in. I was extremely impressed that she continued to fight for what she believes in even when she was met with resistance and struggle at every turn.

Reading Playing for Freedom was difficult at times but also inspiring. I support Zarifa 100% and believe she’ll go on to achieve great things. I also share her hope that one day things will be different for girls and women in Afghanistan. This short yet impactful memoir is an interesting and engaging read and one I’d highly recommend if you’d like to broaden your reading horizons this summer.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Zarifa Adiba, Anne Chaon, Susanna Lea Associates and Jennifer Richards at Over the River Public Relations for providing me with a copy of Playing for Freedom. | Amazon | Goodreads

About the author

Zarifa Adiba is the lead violist and co-conductor of Zohra, Afghanistan’s first (and only) all-female orchestra. She studied at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, the only music education entity in Afghanistan in 2017. In She is currently studying International Politics at both Bard College and American University of Central Asia. She is an activist for girls and education and has been featured in USA Today; a TEDtalk, “Spreading My Wings Through Music”; FRANCE 24’s English-speaking channel, and Forbes’ “30 under 30 in Asia” in 2022. She has also been a speaker at the Tory Burch Summit, the Experience Afghanistan Summit, the Afghan-American Conference at George Washington University, and the International Guild Summit. PLAYING FOR FREEDOM is her first book. Since 2023, Zarifa Adiba has been living in New York where she works at a theatrical management company, and she plans to graduate from college this spring.

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