The late Afghan singer Ahmad Zahir once sang, “When a name becomes immortal, its death is never easy.”
His words proved prophetic. Nearly four decades after his suspicious death at age 33, Zahir remains popular among a new generation of Afghans both at home and abroad.
On the streets of Kabul, Zahir -- known as the Afghan Elvis -- still has thousands of diehard fans even among millennials.
Sabera Mohammadi, 26, describes Zahir as a unique singer who appeals to everyone regardless of ethnicity or language.
“Ahmad Zahir’s music is different. His songs and lyrics have significance,” she told RFERL’s Gandhara website. “These days, some of the songs [by new singers] are not listenable.”
Hussam is a 35-year-old Afghan from western Herat Province who spent several years in Iran as a refugee.
“Ahmad Zahir is the best singer from Afghanistan. We’re proud of him. His compositions and lyrics are great. Music today is mostly about business and to a lesser extent about quality, melody, and composition,” he said.
Born on June 14, 1945, Zahir rose to prominence in the 1960s and early ’70s and became a household name for millions.
For many, those were the golden days of Afghanistan. Women in major cities were allowed to wear Western clothes, tourists flocked to Kabul, and Afghanistan was part of the overland hippie trail. Signs of progress and change were on the horizon.
Zahir’s father, Abdul Zahir, was a prominent figure among the Afghan elite. A medical doctor by training, he served as prime minister from 1971 to 1972 during the Decade of Democracy in the reign of King Zahir Shah.
Abdul Zahir is said to have first opposed his son’s musical ambitions but changed his mind after a stroll in a Kabul bazaar when he saw how many people recognized Ahmad.
Zahir attended Habibia High School and graduated from the Teacher’s College in Kabul before continuing his studies in the field of education in India for several years. As a student, his interest in music earned him the nickname of the Nightingale of Habibia.
Zahir went on to produce more than 20 albums. He was an ethnic Pashtun, but most of his songs are in Dari or Persian. He sang poems by classic Persian poets such as Rumi and Hafiz.
His deep, melodious voice was well suited to his style, which fused traditional Afghan music with modern Western instruments such as the electric guitar and keyboard.
His daughter, Shabnam Zahir, is currently making an eponymous documentary about her father and his contributions to Afghan music.
Shabnam lives in the U.S. state of Virginia with her husband and three children. Speaking with Radio Free Afghanistan over the phone, she says her father died the same day she was born in Kabul.
“I never saw my father. Until I was 5, I thought that my father was alive. It was very difficult for my mother to tell me that my father was dead. I recall those days when my mother would tell me that he was in Afghanistan and that he would come to us one day. I remember that when I was looking at the moon, I thought that it was Afghanistan and my father was looking back at me from there,” Shabnam said.
She has tapped American filmmaker Sam French to direct the documentary. French’s 2012 film Buzkashi Boys was nominated for an Academy Award.
In a Skype interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, French said Zahir’s life and music and his hope for a bright future speaks to the world today.
“Ahmad Zahir came to fame in the ’60s and ’70s. It was a unique time in Afghanistan’s history. A progressive change was sweeping in the country; there was a great hope for the future,” he said.
French says that even today, Zahir’s music embodies the same hope for Afghanistan. “[People] see Afghanistan as a place of conflict where there are terrorists roaming around the countryside,” he said. “And that’s not a country I know. And that’s a country I want to change perceptions of.”
French says that in addition to other aspects of Zahir’s life, the documentary delves into the mystery surrounding his death. Conflicting accounts have circulated about whether he was killed or died in a car accident.
“Some people think that he was killed in the car crash in the Salang Pass. Others think that he was shot in the head by the Soviets because he was singing politically charged lyrics,” he said. “We will talk to as many people as we can to figure out exactly what happened.”
The news of his death broke in June 1979, a few months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The socialist regime headed by the Khalq faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan is now widely blamed for mass killings of real or perceived opponents at the time.
Thousands of people joined the funeral procession for an icon who had connected people across Afghanistan through his music.
The state-run media at the time said Zahir died in a car crash near Afghanistan’s northern Salang Pass.
However, others maintained he was killed by the communist government for his outspoken political views.
Zahir’s son, Ahmad Rishad, was quoted as saying that the story of the car crash was a coverup by the socialist regime. Several of Zahir’s songs are critical of the military coup that supporters labeled as a communist revolution.
“It was a way for the government to intimidate other people, so they would not stand up against the regime,” he added.
The Islamist extremists also found it hard to handle his unwavering popularity. In 1996, the Taliban destroyed Zahir’s grave at Kabul’s Shuhada-e Saliheen cemetery. The hard-line group believes all forms of music are in defiance of the teachings of Islam. But his fans remained loyal.
Shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime, a group of Zahir’s close friends and fans rebuilt his tomb. Fans still flock to the site to pray and pay tribute to the legendary singer.
Zahir’s popularity transcends the boundaries of Afghanistan. For instance, in neighboring Tajikistan, he has thousands of fans, and many singers still follow his unique musical style.
Sadriddin Najmiddin, a lead singer in Tajikistan, says Zahir’s name is as well-known as Coca-Cola and he possesses star power akin to that of Michael Jackson.
“Like Elvis Presley, he's unforgettable for me. In my view, Ahmad Zahir is the leader of Eastern music. I keep learning from his style of music, which is like an ocean,” he said.