Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Avid fans keep memory of the `Afghan Elvis' alive

THE GUARDIAN , KABUL

They come in small groups, old men and young couples, streaming into the cemetery, 5km outside Kabul. The pilgrims hush and head for a concrete mausoleum among the cluttered graves. Its design is unremarkable: six concrete arches reaching up to a 4m marble-tiled dome. Yet, to Afghan music lovers, this is Memphis.

Five months ago a group of fans rebuilt the tomb of Ahmed Zahir -- a pop sensation of the 1960s and 1970s -- which had been obliterated by the music-hating Taliban. Zahir's devotees now flock in their thousands to pay tribute to Afghanistan's only modern celebrity, a man popularly called the "Afghan Elvis."

"He was a beautiful singer and a beautiful man," said Sharifa, 52. "He had a generous heart and his hair -- it was like a bird's feathers," she said, running her fingers over her own bright-hennaed bun.

Though divided by ethnic rivalries and 23 years of war, Afghans agree on their love for Zahir. As a Pashtun who sang mainly in Afghanistan's other main language, Persian, and the son of a prime minister who championed the poor, he symbolizes for many the golden age of the 1970s, when Afghanistan was at its most prosperous and united.

"Zahir was our greatest singer and people will always love him," said Said Makh-doom Raheen, Afghanistan's minister of culture.

"Truly, he was the Elvis Presley of Afghanistan."

"The Taliban tried to stop us coming, but our love of Ahmed Zahir was too strong," said Saraijahan, a pilgrim from Parwan province in the north.

"Zahir was our brightest star, we will never know another like him," said Oman, a teacher making his weekly pilgrimage to the tomb.

Zahir emerged as a musical prodigy at Kabul's Habibir high school, hence another moniker, the Nightingale of Habibir.

His father, the former prime minister Mohamed Zahir, disapproved of his son's choice of career but was placated after a walk with the boy through Kabul's main bazaar: more people recognized the 15-year- old singer than the 50-year-old prime minister.

Singing classical Persian poetry and his own love songs, Zahir performed across Afghanistan as well as in Iran, Pakistan, India and Tajikistan. His music fused eastern and western styles, mixing traditional percussion with saxophones and electric guitars.

But in September 1978, 15 months before the Soviet Union tanks rolled into Afghanistan, the dream died. Zahir, 33, was killed in a car crash outside Kabul.

It was rumored that Hafizullah Amin, a powerful figure in Afghanistan's ruling communist party, had arranged the accident to end his daughter's flirtation with the singer.

A million people attended the funeral.

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