By S. Ghilzai
December 26, 2018
Ahmad Toryalai Zahir (احمد توريالی ظاهر) was an Afghan singer, songwriter, composer, and musician.
Born on June 14th 1946, Ahmad Zahir is probably the most famous celebrity of Afghanistan- often referred to as “the Elvis Presley of Afghanistan” not just because of his sideburns, good looks and charisma, both on and off-stage, but also because, like Elvis, he came into a music industry, and left it completely changed forever.
Though his career was short, his discography and influence over Afghan music and the hearts of Afghans the world over has been timeless.
Born to Quraisha Rassa and Dr. Abdul Zahir in Kabul, on the 24th of Jauza 1325, according to the Jalali calendar, his family was ethnically Pashtun, from the Laghman province east of Kabul. He was one of four siblings, with two sisters, Zahira and Belquis, and one brother, Asif. His mother, was a homemaker, while Zahir’s father held numerous jobs within the government; including the royal court’s official doctor, Ambassador, Minister of Health, a speaker of Parliament, Prime Minister from 1971-1972, and even helped write the 1964 revised constitution of Afghanistan.
Coming from such a well to do Pashtun family, connected to King Zahir Shah, music would not be the first career choice for Ahmad Zahir, due to the slightly peculiar position musicians held in Afghan culture- a country that regards music very dearly, yet regards the profession of making music as “low class”.
However, Zahir knew form an early age that music was something he wanted to pursue, teaching himself the guitar (both electric and acoustic), harmonium, and his favorite, the accordion, by the age of 16. He formed a band with his schoolmates from Habibia High School, in the Karte-Se disctrict of Kabul. Omar Sultan on the guitar, Farid Zaland on the congas, Akbar Nayab on the piano and Ahmad Zahir-front-man, singing and playing the accordion.
With his highly emotive, baritone voice, Zahir earned the nickname “Bulbul-e-Habibia” or the Nightingale of Habibia High School and the band gained popularity around the school, and around Kabul.
Once Zahir had graduated from high school, he enrolled at the Teacher’s College of Kabul, also known as Daru-l’ Malimeen. Upon graduation, he continued his education and pursued a degree to become an English teacher, studying in India. After completing his degree in India and returning to Kabul, instead of embarking on a career in teaching, Zahir started working as a journalist for the state-run English language print newspaper- that is still in circulation today- The Kabul Times. At The Kabul Times, Zahir met and befriended many of his colleagues who encouraged him to continue pursuing his dreams as a musician.
To complete his first album, Zahir worked with other Afghan composers, some becoming life-long mentors, friends, and even co-collaborators, including Nainawaz, Taranasaz, Nashenaz, Mashour Jamal, Salim Sarmast (who were rooted mostly in traditional Afghan music, and used traditional Afghan instruments), as well as Abdullah Etemadi, Nangalai, and Ismail Azami (who used mostly Western instruments, the drums, trumpet, and saxophone, respectively).
Through sheer God-given talent, hard work, and eventually quitting his job at The Kabul Times, Zahir finally deep-dived into a career as a musician, and Afghanistan’s most famous and beloved musician was born.
Always eager to learn more, develop and grow as a musician, the love, passion and thirst he had for music were the building blocks for forming Ahmad Zahir’s distinct and instantly recognizable style. Incorporating different instruments from around the world, Persian poetry like that of Afghan poet, Rumi, his own political views, beautiful lyricism and musical composition, and an eccentric music taste ranging from British pop to French belle chansons, to classical Indian music, only advanced and inspired Zahir to record over thirty albums (unfortunately, some albums and recordings have been completely lost, leaving only 21 albums definitively in his oeuvre). He recorded over thirty albums in the mere 10 years he was active on the Afghan music scene. His style was so distinct it was like nothing before seen in Afghanistan-no other musician had, or has, created beautiful ballads in Dari (Afghan Persian), drawing influence from ghazal style Afghan folk music, intertwined with rock-n-roll based melodies, and merged Eastern and Western music effortlessly and harmoniously.
So quickly did Afghanistan’s first true rock star’s popularity rise- Zahir became a household name, touring the country, playing concerts, while continuing to write and record new music. At the height of his fame, though his father, was well known in his own right, would be met with being recognized as Ahmad Zahir’s father, as opposed to the typical and respectful Afghan standard, wherein Ahmad Zahir would be referred to as the son of Dr. Zahir. As Zahira Zahir recalled in a New York Time’s article, Dr. Zahir once said about this specific subject matter: “I’ve been working for this country my whole life and now I’m known as Ahmad Zahir’s father.” Eventually Dr. Zahir would merely laugh it off, finally recognizing, appreciating and accepting his son’s immense talent and destiny in the music industry of Afghanistan.
As written by Amy Waldman, with the help of interviews with Afghans living in Afghanistan today, Ahmad Zahir was ahead of his time: “Before anyone else and, [as] Afghans say, better than anyone since, he married Western music with Afghan melodies and poems. He gave packed concerts. He liked to drink. He drove women wild.” It was a pre-war Afghanistan, when girls in miniskirts would “rush the stage to grab [Zahir’s] half-drunk drink. ”It was a pre-war Afghanistan where everyone was first and foremost Afghan, not so immensely divided by ethnic groups- and here was an ethnically Pashtun man- the most famous man in Afghanistan- singing“ mostly in Dari [winning] fans in all ethnic groups.
However, tragedy struck-on his 33rd birthday, Zahir was dead and much like the words of Don Mclean’s hit single “American Pie”, a tribute to the death of acclaimed American musician Buddy Holly: it was “the day the music died.” Ahmad Zahir’s death, or murder, is controversial, plagued with dozens of rumors and is still a mystery. It was reported as a fatal car crash near the Salang Tunnel in Northern Afghanistan, but many refute this official report, with stories of jealous, scorned lovers and their families seeking revenge, to the Communist Party, fearing his influence too great, and political stances too revolutionary, killed him by order of Hafizullah Amin, a Khalqi party communist who would, a few months after Zahir’s death, become Chairman of the new Communist regime ruling Afghanistan. Though we may never know how exactly Ahmad Zahir died, we do know he left behind two children, one son, Rishad Zahir, from his first wife, Najia, and a daughter, Shabnam Zahir, from his second wife, and widow, Fakhria, who upon hearing the news of his death, went into premature labor, thus leaving Shabnam with the same birthday as her father.
People of all ages followed his coffin through the streets of Kabul. Schools were shut down for mourning for pupils. Streets were congested because of his funeral procession. Daily activity was halted, both in Kabul and around Afghanistan – that is how profoundly loved Ahmad Zahir was by his people.
The impression Ahmad Zahir left on the Afghan music industry is startling for someone whose life, career, and artistic genius was cut so short- just as it was blossoming. Zahir is recognized around the world-not just by Afghan diaspora, but by other cultures and its peoples as well. The imprint he left was so immense it is impossible to find a rival or equal to Ahmad Zahir in Afghanistan’s music history. Not only did Zahir break constricting boundaries on how one can make traditional Afghan music he paved the way for the shift in perspective of Afghans in regards to a career as a musician- it became more respected. Even the Prime Minister’s son could be a musician! His bold and powerful lyrics showed that through song not only could one tell tales, sing poetry, and honor Afghanistan’s traditional folk music, but also speak out about politics, religion, and even sex (Zahir’s single “Zindagi Akher Sarayet” was banned from the radio due to it’s overt political messages). His charismatic stage persona, which was nearly identical to his personality, as recalled by close loved ones, pushed boundaries on the conservative views of how a musician could be- Zahir was not just a wedding singer- which is usually a huge facet of an Afghan musician’s career, stifling their creativity- but they could also be rock stars – selling out tickets to concerts at the famous Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Kabul. Dancing on stage, just as likely to be wearing a leather jacket or traditional Afghan clothes – Ahmad Zahir pushed the envelope of Afghan music in a way that influenced and continues to influence generations of musicians – Afghan or not. One could compose new lyrics, entirely one’s own, while still being respectful of one’s culture, and its century’s old traditions. Even taking earnings from playing a concert to the bank, getting smaller bills, filling bags with those smaller notes, and walking around Mazar-i-Sharif, handing out fistfuls of money to the poor, Ahmad Zahir was giving, whilst also revolutionary, unapologetic, whilst still respectful, modern whilst still classical.
Versatile, passionate, kind-hearted, creative, determined, charismatic, with a lust for life, Ahmad Zahir’s music was not just what catapulted him to fame – but also, he himself- his personality, humbleness and love for his fans. Decades later, he is still known, if not more well-known; an 18-year-old Afghan girl, born and raised in Southern California is just as likely to know as many of Zahir’s songs as a 70-year-old Afghan immigrant living on the outskirts of Hamburg, or as a middle aged, illiterate father of eight, living in Ghazni. Ahmad Zahir is considered a national hero in Afghanistan but he is more than that, he and his music are Afghanistan’s treasures- reflecting a by-gone time in Afghanistan, the Golden Era, and a common bond that unites all Afghans, regardless of location, ethnicity, religion or age – he very well could be the only bond that unites us all, after nearly 50 years of war, through a medium already so loved by Afghans: music. NPR (National Public Radio) named Zahir one of the 50 golden voices in history, who have made their mark in the field of music internationally.
He is buried in Kabul, surrounded by a mausoleum, built and maintained by fans. His music, and he, himself, live in our hearts forever.
He is survived by his widow, two children, and three grandchildren.
Videos on Ahmad Zahir