KABUL: A mural of Ahmad Zahir on display at Ahmad Zahir’s Cottage, a restaurant.—AFP
KABUL: A mural of Ahmad Zahir on display at Ahmad Zahir’s Cottage, a restaurant.—AFP

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 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,” said 73-year-old Safiullah Sobat, a long-time friend of Zahir. “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. “His songs will touch your heart no matter what mood you are in, happy or sad,” says Hashmat who is the manager of “Ahmad Zahir’s Cottage”, a colourful restaurant in downtown Kabul. 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. Zahir’s best-known works were inspired by Persian poets like Rumi and Hafiz, and he sang mostly in Dari. But did not shy away from covering Western greats such as France’s Enrico Macias and, of course, Elvis Presley. “At a time when singers shaking their bodies or dancing on stage was seen as awkward, he appeared on stage and screen doing exactly that,” said Zahir’s friend Sobat, who also runs “Ahmad Zahir’s Art and Culture Centre” in Kabul.

Years of war have followed and under the Taliban, who banned music, his grave in Kabul was desecrated. But it has been rebuilt and since then, every June 14, his birthday, pilgrims have flocked to Shohada-e-Salehin Cemetery in Kabul to lay flowers on his grave and play one of his last memorable songs. “My death shall arrive one day/ In a spring bright with waves of light/ Oh, perhaps my lovers at midnight /lay wreaths on my sorrow(ful) grave,” the lyrics read.

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2019