Afghan Elvis’s legacy endures, decades after death

Agence France-Presse . Kabul | Published: 00:00, Oct 11,2019


In this photo taken on June 25, 2019, poet Safiullah Sobat looks on as he hangs a picture of Ahmad Zahir, known as Afghanistan’s Elvis Presley, at the Ahmad Zahir Cultural Centre in Kabul. — AFP photo

Sporting a black quiff and sideburns, Ahmad Zahir sang of love and heartbreak in liberal 1970s Kabul -- a city now plagued by war and suffering, but where the popularity of Afghanistan’s ‘Elvis’ remains undimmed 40 years after his death.

Zahir -- the son of a former prime minister with a penchant for brandy and his red Mercedes -- rose to fame in an era when the capital hummed with Western tourists and women strolled through the streets in high heels.

‘Everybody loved him,’ 73-year-old Safiullah Sobat, a long-time friend of Zahir, told AFP.

‘At nighttime girls would come outside his house and honk the horn of their cars.’

But on the day of his 33rd birthday in 1979, Zahir was found dead in his car in mysterious circumstances. His death -- much like his life -- has become part of folklore.

In Afghanistan today, where space for music and dance has shrunk under the shadow of war, music channels still play his songs daily and fans -- even those born decades after his death -- continue to snap up his albums and join Facebook groups created in his honour.

‘His songs will touch your heart no matter what mood you are in, happy or sad,’ says Hashmat, who goes by one name and is the manager of ‘Ahmad Zahir’s Cottage’, a colourful restaurant in downtown Kabul.

The 26-year-old welcomes his customers -- mostly young couples -- with tea, a hookah pipe and most importantly, their hero’s songs.

Zahir -- an ethnic Pashtun -- played concerts in various locations across the country and had fans among all ethnic groups in Afghanistan, which is far more polarised now than at the height of his fame.

‘Today we see ethnic rivalries have sadly increased but Ahmad Zahir’s music is still connecting people,’ explains Basir Burhan, a 30-year-old amateur musician.

Wherever you go in Afghanistan, he said, ‘if there is music, there’ll definitely be one Ahmad Zahir song playing’.

Former DJ Zubair Rezaee, 27, described Zahir as ‘evergreen’.

He endures because when ‘you listen to his songs ... you think they are for you, at any time, at any place.

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