The ‘Afghan Elvis’: the extraordinary life of Ahmad Zahir

BBC World Service presenter Monica Whitlock introduces Afghanistan’s 
first (and biggest) pop superstar, Ahmad Zahir (1946–79), who died in a car crash in the mountains north of Kabul on his 33rd birthday at the height of his stratospheric fame

Star of the east
Ahmad Zahir was born into a high-ranking family in Afghanistan, 
and used his charisma and musical talent to carve a hugely successful 
but tragically short career as the country’s foremost singing star. 
He played a huge range of innovative music, and many of his 
songs touched on political and social themes.

Meena couldn’t believe her luck when, as a teenager, she got hold of a ticket to an Ahmad Zahir concert. She dressed in her best orange bell-bottom flares and a red flowery blouse, and squeezed into a minibus with 20 or so sisters and cousins. “We were clapping and dancing,” she recalled. “It was just amazing.” Girls threw handkerchiefs on stage, hoping he’d sign them, and drank from a glass he’d put down.

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The concert was in Kabul, around 1976. At that time, many singing stars were performing in Afghanistan, but only one who moved with the music 
on stage and got the room screaming – who mixed Afghan instruments such as rubab and harmonium with saxophone and electronic keyboards, trumpet 
with bongo drums.

Afghanistan’s first and biggest pop superstar died in a car crash in the mountains north of Kabul on 14 June 1979 – his 33rd birthday – at the height of his stratospheric fame. In a brief but brilliant public life of only about a decade he’d released more than 20 albums. Some were recorded by Radio Afghanistan, the national broadcaster that reached almost every corner of the country. Others were made by private studios and released on cassette, trucked out to the provinces and passed from house to house. There were also scores of homemade tapes of tours, parties and jamming sessions – hundreds of tracks in all. Ahmad Zahir was everywhere. Publicity photos show him in his stylish red car, or looking soulful in casual fashion, every inch the modern man.

Ahmad Zahir was born in Laghman, east of Kabul, in 1946, when Afghanistan was an absolute monarchy experimenting with new and progressive ideas. His father, Abdul Zahir, was court doctor, and later prime minister between 1971 and 1972; he had been one of many intellectuals involved in creating the Afghan Constitution of 1964 that enshrined a limited parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage and a bill of rights for all. These were changing times – uncertain but thrilling – and you can hear it all in Ahmad Zahir’s songs.

He formed his first band while still at school. He played first for family and friends before he emerged as a public performer – something unheard of for someone of his social standing.

The nickname ‘Afghan Elvis’ began to stick after he covered ‘It’s Now or 
Never’ with his own snare drum and trumpet opening. But he was an 
absorber, not an imitator, and he had ears everywhere. His assimilating of styles, languages and traditions propelled his musical odyssey through pop and jazz to Persian poetry and classical Afghan ghazal. He sang mostly in the languages of Afghanistan – Dari and Pashtu – but also in Hindi and English.

Anecdotes abound of Ahmad Zahir’s sympathy for those less fortunate. He gave cash to the hungry, and supported inclusive social causes such as helping the impoverished Sikh community. Some of his songs reflect his social concerns, obliquely addressing the mercurial politics of his time, particularly following the 1973 coup that overthrew the monarchy.

In April 1978, the good times came shuddering to a bloody halt when the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power. A little over a year later, Ahmad Zahir was dead.

When the news of that fatal car crash reached Kabul, it seemed impossible that Ahmad Zahir, so full of life, was gone. Rumours that he had been assassinated began to circulate at once, and continue to this day: the case was never investigated, and it remains one of thousands of mysterious deaths and disappearances during this period. Tens of thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral, processing through the streets of the capital, crying and carrying flowers.

Six months after his death, the Soviet Union invaded, purportedly aiming to bring stability. Instead, the invasion ushered in 40 years of bloodshed that Afghans still live with today.

What might have happened had Ahmad Zahir lived? He might have hung on in Kabul through the communist years, making the compromises many musicians did. He surely could not have survived the music-hating Taliban: one of that regime’s first acts on taking Kabul in 1996 was to blow up his grave. It seems likely that he would have left for a place of greater safety, perhaps playing in Los Angeles along with other Afghan musicians in exile. And who knows? He might have been among the brave souls who returned to help rebuild their country in the 21st century.

Monica Whitlock is a writer and broadcaster.

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This article was first published in the August/September issue of BBC World Histories magazine