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The dear departed king of Afghan pop

In the 70s, with his psychedelic folk-pop, Ahmad Zahir inspired the younger generations in a country on the brink of explosion
Toni L. Querol
On the rare occasions when he is mentioned, the Western press invariably calls Ahmad Zahir “the Afghan Elvis”. It’s a catchy nickname, and it no doubt captures his status as a national icon, but we were wary of giving this piece a similar title. In addition to how tiring and facile those homologies can be, we can all agree that they nearly always reek of ethnocentricity. “The Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara” (and there is more than one, to boot), “The Madonna of Russia”, “Africa’s own Bob Dylan” etc., all of that. The fact is, from the beginning of his career in the mid-60s – first with the Amateur Band of Habibia School, and then on his own – Ahmad Zahir drove the kids of Kabul crazy with his booming voice, his sideburns, his shock of black hair (which even ended up becoming the name of a dress fabric) and his wide-collared shirts. Throughout the 70s, he emerged as the embodiment of the idea of modernity and freedom for a large portion of Afghan youth, transcending ethnic and language barriers (though he was Pashtun, he sang mainly in the country’s other official language: Dari or Afghan Persian). Yet his life, its political importance and the bizarre circumstances of his death are not at all similar to those of Elvis Presley. To begin with, Graceland was never run over by a tank.
The cemetery of Shohada-e-Salehin sits about 5 km outside Kabul. Still today – 37 years after his death, and with the city buried in administrative and economic chaos, under the fear of Taliban advances and the emergence of ISIS – Ahmad Zahir’s mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for his legion of fans: men and women, old and young. The mausoleum was destroyed by the Taliban shortly after they entered the city in 1996 and it was rebuilt by a group of fans in 2003, two years after the fall of the Taliban regime. “To many Afghans, Ahmad Zahir was more than just a musician,” writes Weiss Hamid, a second generation Afghan American, in his article The King Hasn’t Left the Building – He was a cultural phenomenon during his lifetime and his influence continues to be transmitted to younger generations of Afghans my age. His death was very much linked to Afghan political history, and the collective memory experienced by the first wave of Afghan diaspora who fled the country during the 1979-1986 Soviet invasion.”
Images from Ahmad Zahir’s massively attended funeral, which brought the city of Kabul to a standstill in June of 1979.
The record label Guerssen – which, together with its subsidiary label Pharaway Sounds, compiled some of the best songs from the 19 albums Zahir published during his lifetime – describes his music as “a unique, distinct psychedelic sound. All moving around his deep voice, and with the use of electric guitar (including some wah-wah), stunning reverbed drums, some sitar and tabla, organ, flutes and bass, he made it to record some incredible folk-pop tunes.”
After studying in India a couple of years, and working as an English teacher and a journalist for the Kabul Times, in the mid-1960s Zahir decided to devote himself entirely to music. Under the influence of what he had heard on the radio – Brit pop, the Beatles, The Shadows, American surf rock – he was the first to blend Pashtun, Persian and even Hindi folk music with melodies and arrangements from Anglo-Saxon pop-rock. He transformed the poems of heartbreak written by ancient Persian poets like Rumi, Hafiz or Maulana Jami into hypnotic ballads. He liked to drink, his lyrics were hedonistic, he sang about freedom and equality while giving off an image that was halfway between Western pop glamour and a sense of Sufi chivalry. He was a true popular hero. His father, Dr. Abdul Zahir, who served as prime minister between 1971 and 1972 during the reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah, had to accept that he would always be better known as “Ahmad’s father”.
His power to draw audiences – proven by huge concerts, mainly in Kabul but also in other regions like Kandahar – kept growing during the decade of the 70s, during the Republic established by general Daud Khan after his cousin, King Zahir Shah, was overthrown in 1973. Daud Khan went up against the Islamists and the communists alike, even though the latter had initially been his allies. The unstable and prickly political situation ultimately led to the Saur Revolution, the proclamation of a Socialist State in 1978, and a long and highly complex civil war during which the United States provided money and weapons to the rebel mujahideen, and the USSR eventually invaded. Yet during all the popular uprisings, and as the Cold War emerged with all its horror in Afghanistan, Ahmad Zahir stayed in Kabul. He kept trying to go it alone, defending his own voice and his political independence, as is reflected in the lyrics of songs such as Zindage Akher Sar Ayad. It made him an uncomfortable figure for all sides, earned him important enemies in the communist government and, in all probability, ultimately cost him his life.
On June 14, 1979, the day he turned 33 years old and the day his second daughter was born, Ahmad Zahir was found dead in his car on the Salang Pass, north of Kabul. There are any number of theories about the incident. The official one: a simple traffic accident. The version given by witnesses who saw Zahir’s body: he had been shot in the face. A minority theory: he was murdered by an assassin hired by the family of his first wife, in whose death he was implicated and for which he spent a short time in prison. The more widespread belief: the communist general Daud Taroon ordered his execution with the complicity of some of Zahir’s best friends. Why? His dissatisfaction with the regime, his refusal to sing at the prime minister’s daughter’s wedding or to maintain a relationship with the general’s daughter. For all of those reasons together... No one knows for sure. Afghan television is still mulling it over. Ahmad Zahir’s sister, Zahira Zahir – who emigrated to the United States in 1975, set up a beauty salon in the famous Watergate hotel and became the personal hairdresser to both presidents George Bush, father and son – simply asserts that Ahmad was a public figure who became a nuisance to the government at the time and that’s why they killed him, with a bullet to the head. What we do know for sure is that only a short six months after his death, the Soviet troops entered Afghan territory.
His ballads are still played nearly everywhere in Afghanistan,”  wrote the journalist Mònica Bernabé in June of 2014, coinciding with the 35th anniversary of Ahmad Zahir’s death. “ You can hear them in taxis, in stores, on the radio... His albums are still best-sellers, there is a cultural association in Kabul dedicated to him, a music school that teaches his songs, and a Facebook page with more than 233,000 followers [Editor’s note: now more than 450,000]”.
After speaking with my father,” says Weiss Hamid, “I realized that Ahmad Zahir was central in the diasporic imagination. Zahir was not just the zeitgeist of pop culture; he became a symbol of stability and peace. He represented potential and ‘progress’. As my father describes, ‘Zahir’s music reminds me of that type of Afghanistan that we lived at that time. If I listen to one Ahmad Zahir song, it takes me three days to get over my homesickness.’ Over the years of revolution, invasion, war, and forced migration, the Afghan diaspora transformed Zahir the pop singer into a personification of longing.