The everlasting dominance of Ahmad Zahir on Afghanistan’s music

Forty-five years ago, on June 14th, 1979, in the narrow canyon-like Chapraq village near Salang Pass, a fiery red luxury car collided with a rock, etching its mark in the annals of Afghanistan’s history. This tragic event transcended a mere car crash; it heralded the darkest chapter in the vibrant tapestry of Afghanistan’s music. As the villagers arrived at the scene, their eyes beheld the lifeless body of the iconic Ahmad Zahir, on his 33rd birthday. Amidst the wreckage, three other passengers onboard emerged miraculously unscathed, a tale shrouded in mystery.

In one of his songs, it is as if he had foretold his death.

My death will one day arrive,
In the bright spring from waves of light.
The soil calls me every moment to itself,
They are coming from the path to lay me in the grave.
Alas, perhaps my lovers at midnight,
Will lay flowers on my sorrowful grave.

For years, Ahmad Zahir, the “Elvis of Afghanistan” stood unrivaled as Afghanistan’s music mega star. His smooth yet thundering voice, his style and his look made him known far beyond the country’s borders.

Ahmad Zahir’s voice resonated through the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, leaving an enduring mark. His profound influence on the country’s music scene paralleled the seismic impact of Elvis Presley on American music. Zahir’s hauntingly beautiful melodies seamlessly wove together the diverse cultural mosaic of Afghanistan, resonating deeply within the hearts and minds of those who heard him.

Everyone could find themselves in Ahmad Zahir’s songs. Whether you were coming of age or growing old, falling in love or heartbroken, his music resonated with all.

Born in Kabul on June 14, 1946, Ahmad Toryalai Zahir was the third child of Quraisha Rassa and Dr Abdul Zahir. His father, Dr Abdul Zahir, held the esteemed position of a physician in the Royal Court and served as Afghanistan’s prime minister from 1971 to 1972. Driven by a vision of modernization, he played a pivotal role in crafting the country’s constitution in 1964. This progressive and open-minded upbringing laid the foundation for Ahmad Zahir’s destiny.

From a young age, Zahir harbored a deep passion for music and poetry. Nurtured by his privileged upbringing, which allowed him to mingle with influential artists and musicians, his affinity for the arts flourished. His educational journey led him to the prestigious Habibia High School, where his evocative baritone voice earned him the endearing nickname of the “Bulbul-e-Habibia,” or the Nightingale of Habibia.

Although he initially encouraged his son’s passion for singing and music, Dr. Abdul Zahir disapproved of his son’s desire to pursue a career in music due to the societal and religious stigma surrounding the profession. The situation obliged Zahir Howaida, another prominent singer and intimate friend of Ahmad Zahir, to step in and play a vital role in alleviating the concerns of Dr. Zahir. Howaida wrote a letter emphasizing Zahir’s remarkable musical abilities and potential. The letter successfully influenced Dr. Zahir’s perspective, restoring his son’s musical future.

After completing high school, Zahir pursued further education by enrolling in Kabul Teacher Training College. He then traveled to Mumbai, the vibrant center of India’s entertainment industry, to receive training as an English teacher. His years in India influenced his music style, and he found himself drawn even more deeply into the world of melodies and rhythms. He returned to Afghanistan in the late 1960s and worked as a reporter for the Kabul Times though his mind still wandered towards his dreams in music.

During this time, travelers from other countries came to Afghanistan; with these visitors came fresh ideas that slowly changed Afghan society. Women began fighting for equal rights. Zahir quickly grasped these new ideas, but unlike the hippies who favored smoking Afghan Hash, he developed a liking for alcohol, which had become available in Afghanistan during a trial period in the 1960s and ’70s. This new habit added an unpredictable edge to his already impressive musical skills.

Zahir decided to channel his inner Elvis Presley and rocked some bold sideburns while dressing in eye-catching, vibrant suits. He moved his performances from the radio to busy restaurants, using his good looks and charm to win over the crowd. Like the stars of Indian movies, he gained a large following of fans who admired him. Soon, he could no longer limit his passion and music to private shows for friends and family or official state events. He started to arrange his shows at places like the Hotel Continental and even Kabul’s big sports stadiums, something no one had done before in Afghanistan music.

Zahir’s music was constantly heard on Afghan radio, and he collaborated with respected composers and songwriters in Kabul, like Nai Nawaz and Shah Wali Taranasaz, to produce well-received albums. Afghanistan National Radio and Television released Zahir’s first official album in late March 1967. The album was a dramatic public success and set him apart as a unique, ingenious, creative singer. He was known for incorporating poems by famous Persian poets like Rumi, Sadi, and Hafiza into his music, which made him a trailblazer in Afghanistan’s music scene. His concerts in Kabul and Herat helped him to build a large fan base across the region. Zahir became one of the first Afghan musicians to tour extensively in neighboring countries like Tajikistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Iran.

In the year 1972, another momentous event occurred in the life of Ahmad Zahir that elevated his standing in the public eye. The people gave him the prestigious accolade of the Singer of the Year. This honor was a fleeting recognition of his talent and a testament to his enduring impact on the music scene. From that moment onwards, Zahir was not just another singer – he was a national icon. Until the end of his days, Ahmad Zahir remained the cherished Singer of the Year, a title as timeless as his music.

For many Afghans, Ahmad Zahir symbolizes living on his term and choices. In Afghanistan’s traditional and intensely religious society, living according to one’s own will has always come at a high cost. Suppression is an inseparable part of life in Afghanistan’s tribal and ultra-conservative society. Various layers of suppression, such as religious and tribal customs, societal honor and prestige, and government surveillance, cast a heavy shadow over life and individual freedoms. Therefore, life in Afghanistan has always had two sides, overt and covert. However, Ahmad Zahir overcame obstacles and lived on his term. Perhaps this was one of the many reasons that years after his death, he was bestowed with the title “Afghan Elvis” or “Elvis of Afghanistan.”

To further understand Ahmad Zahir’s comparison of “King of Rock and Roll,” it’s necessary to explore it further. Elvis Presley transformed the landscape of American music by combining blues, gospel, and country genres. Similarly, Ahmad Zahir revolutionized Afghan music by blending Western elements with traditional Afghan melodies. This innovative approach showcased his creativity and reflected the ongoing cultural fusion in Afghanistan.

But for Ahmad Zahir, fame and popularity often brought their share of troubles. The then-ruling regimes forced him into serving as a low-ranking civil servant at the Afghanistan Ministry of Information and Culture. Following the Saur Revolution in 1978, Ahmad Zahir’s refusal to publicly support the new Soviet-backed regime led to his music being blocklisted from Afghanistan National Television and Radio.
It is said that he sang a song that did not go well with the newly established communist regime:

Life comes to an end eventually; servitude is not the objective,
If servitude is a condition, then life is not the objective.

If the pressure of enemies melts you down, don't become pitiful,
Be a man, oh weary heart; shame is not the objective.

If the rain of contempt pours pearls upon your head,
Tell the sky to leave, being rained upon is not the objective.

Life is the freedom of man and his independence,
For freedom, be courageous; servitude is not the objective.

However, verifying whether the specific song caused his music to be banned by the government is difficult.

Fame also stirred up domestic disputes. After three years of marriage, Zahir and his first wife, Najiya, separated. Those close to him maintain that he was pressured into an arranged marriage with his second wife, Khalida, in 1974. Khalida was mysteriously killed in a twisting turn of events the following spring in Paghman, Kabul. The finger of suspicion pointed towards Ahmad Zahir, and he was arrested on unproven charges of her murder. After eight grueling months of confinement, he was finally released, the accusations against him still unproven. He later married his third wife, Fakhria Zahir, with whom he had a daughter, Shabnam Zahir, born after his untimely demise.

Zahir Howaida offered a glimpse into Ahamd Zahir latter’s life in a television interview broadcast on the thirtieth anniversary of his ultimate demise. Howaida revealed that Ahmad Zahir’s last years were fraught with trials and great pain. The government of the time and influential figures tormented and harassed him in every way possible.

As per Howaida’s account, there were plans to visually record an album comprising fourteen songs by Ahmad Zahir on Afghanistan’s Radio and Television. However, this project faced obstruction from the Radio and Television service chief, who demanded that an equal number of music videos be recorded with a Pashto singer alongside Zahir’s Persian songs. This stipulation led to Ahmad Zahir’s withdrawal from the project, leaving behind just two music videos of his work.

Sadly, as a bright flame extinguished too soon, Ahmad Zahir’s life ended abruptly. He died in a car accident on his 33rd birthday, June 14, 1979, under circumstances that remain clouded in mystery and speculations. His abrupt departure from this world casts sorrow over the entire nation. His body was buried in the Shuhadā-ye Şālihīn cemetery in Kabul outskirts. However, when the Taliban first seized control of Kabul in the late 90s, they razed the monument constructed over his grave.

Four decades after Zahir’s death, the Taliban rule returned to Afghanistan. They banned music and incarcerated artists and musicians. Taliban takeover led to the mass exodus of young and educated generations of Afghanistan scattered around the world. Amidst the shattered families and individuals covertly enduring the Taliban’s brutality and despotic rule, Ahmad Zahir’s songs continue to bind the Afghan diaspora to their roots and homeland. His music integrates many social themes, including heartbreak, separation, despair, exile, and the fear of sudden death. Considering the current situation in Afghanistan, nothing binds the Afghan diaspora to its past and homeland quite like Ahmad Zahir’s music:

May God is your companion, the Quran, your protector,
May Sakhi* is your helper may Sakhi is your helper.
Oh, dear love, separation is dangerous,
A fruitless sapling that bears separation.

Come, let's sit alone, you and I,
For death unannounced brings separation.
My heart is chilled from all these sorrows,
The pain of your love has taken my strength.

Oh, my playful and lovely friend,
Why do you choose to distance yourself from me?
If you come to see me, I fear that on that day,
You will see nothing but the green grass over my grave.

Ahmad Zahir will be remembered as a musician and a cultural emblem who touched the essence of a nation through his music. The ‘Elvis of Afghanistan’ endures, his voice resounding, his legacy unmarred, and his songs forever intertwined with the mosaic of Afghanistan’s cultural identity.

A man does not die with death; death seeks his name,
When the name becomes eternal, how is death easy?”

*In Afghanistan, Sakhi is a common nickname of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (600 – 661 CE), the last Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate and the Son in Law of the prophet Muhammad.

  1. Great overview. However, the circumstantial evidence suggesting he was murdered far outweighs the probability that the car crash was an accident.

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