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A Cult Following for the Elvis of Afghanistan

Times Staff Writer

It was the first day of class at the Ahmad Zahir Singing Course, and Samir Najibullah arrived looking like a young rock star. His wavy hair was slicked back, and he wore a body-hugging black T-shirt.

Najibullah, 22, announced that he wanted to be the next Ahmad Zahir, which is roughly akin to a young American male saying he wants to be the next Elvis Presley.

Zahir, Afghanistan’s most beloved pop singer, died in his prime after a meteoric career singing love songs studded with lyrics that condemned the corrupt Soviet-backed governments of the late 1970s.

A Zahir cult has emerged among Afghans who were not yet born when the singer died under mysterious circumstances 27 years ago. Zahir’s cassettes and CDs are still big sellers at Kabul street kiosks, and his songs are played in homes and clubs.

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This perhaps explains why 54 young men have signed up for lessons in imitating his eclectic singing style, which blended Afghan folk songs and poems with rock ‘n’ roll.

“People tell me I have the voice of Ahmad Zahir, and this course will tell me whether I can be another Ahmad Zahir,” Najibullah said. He opened the first class last month by belting out a rough but enthusiastic version of a Zahir song praising Afghan motherhood.

The singing school is the lifelong dream of Safiullah Subat, 60, who grew up with Zahir and says he wrote lyrics for several of his songs. An hour a day, three days a week, he offers Zahir singing lessons to the accompaniment of a harmonium player and a drummer who is the son of Zahir’s drummer.

Subat has built a shrine to the dead singer in a two-room office above a raucous bazaar in downtown Kabul, the capital. The walls are decorated with photos of the ever-young Zahir -- he died at 33 -- with his black Elvis-like pompadour and 1970s disco shirts.

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“Ahmad Zahir died at the peak of his talents and popularity, just like Elvis Presley,” Subat said as his students sat on floor cushions to await their lessons. “He was the Elvis of Afghanistan, and like Elvis, he was loved by millions of women.”

Subat believes government agents killed Zahir because of his love affair with the daughter of a top Afghan government official. The pop singer had already antagonized the ruling elite by performing anti-government songs that became anthems for the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance movement.

Zahir died June 13, 1979, on a roadway north of Kabul. The official cause of death was a traffic accident, but Subat and many other followers of the singer claim he was shot to death by government assassins.

Subat said he saw Zahir’s body a few hours after he died. There was a bullet wound above his left eyebrow, he said, and the back of his head had been blown away.

“It was no traffic accident,” Subat said. “Politics killed him.”

Subat said he and other Zahir fans had asked for an investigation but had been rebuffed over the years. He is filming a documentary on Zahir’s life and death, which he hopes will prompt authorities to investigate.

On the anniversary of Zahir’s death each June, fans throng his grave in Kabul to honor his memory. Every Friday, Afghans visit the grave to pray.

Subat, an elfin man with wavy silver hair and a neat goatee, said he decided to open the school because traditional Afghan strictures against singing and music have eased. More than four years after the fall of the Taliban regime, which banned music, singing is now tolerated -- at least by many young, urban Afghans.

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Subat’s school accepts only males 16 to 33 years old, from the age at which most boys’ voices mature to the age of Zahir’s death.

The fee was initially 7,000 afghanis, about $140, for two months’ instruction, or $840 for the yearlong course. But Subat reduced it to 3,000 afghanis for two months after students complained of the cost in a country where 70% of the population earns less than $2 a day.

Applicants must pass a “musical IQ” exam that consists mainly of questions about Zahir. Graduates earn a certificate stamped with a likeness of the singer.

Subat says he doesn’t expect to mold another Zahir, but he does hope to launch professional musical careers for young men eager to emulate Zahir’s music and swinging lifestyle. One young Afghan man he taught has a successful concert tour, singing Zahir songs to Afghan expatriates in the United States, Subat said.

The three students who showed up for the first day of class were raw but eager.

Hafizullah Zahir, 21, a law student who is not related to Ahmad Zahir, said he had no experience singing but wanted to learn more about the singer’s life and music. If it turned out he possessed musical talent, he said, he would much prefer to be a singer than a lawyer.

Wearing a Philadelphia 76ers basketball T-shirt and a 1970s-style blow-dry hairdo, Zahir closed his eyes and crooned a Zahir folk song. Subat, sitting on a pillow, nodded in encouragement.

Ahmed Zia, 20, said he had been listening to Zahir’s music since he was 8 and had always dreamed of becoming a professional singer. But he, too, had no musical experience.

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“I’m here to make Ahmad Zahir’s soul happier by learning his music,” Zia said, and then launched into a soft Zahir ballad, his wavy black hair falling over his forehead, a dead-on imitation of the singer’s hairstyle.

After all three students had sung, Subat offered suggestions to each one. He explained that there was much to learn and many hours of practice ahead.

More paying students were expected for the next class, though Subat says he didn’t open the school to make money. He is well-off, with a day job at the Education Ministry. He described his goals as spiritual, not mercenary.

“Mainly,” he said, “I want my best friend and Afghanistan’s best singer to live forever.”


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