Burning love: Afghan Elvis's legacy endures, decades after death - GulfToday

Burning love: Afghan Elvis's legacy endures, decades after death

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Safiullah Sobat looks on as he hangs a picture of Ahmad Zahir, known as Afghanistan's Elvis Presley.

Sporting a black quiff and sideburns, Ahmad Zahir sang of love and heartbreak in 1970s Kabul, a city where the popularity of Afghanistan's "Elvis" remains undimmed 40 years after his death.

Zahir the son of a former prime minister, rose to fame in an era when the capital hummed with Western tourists and women strolled through the streets in high heels.

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"Everybody loved him," 73-year-old Safiullah Sobat, a long-time friend of Zahir, told AFP.

"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 goes by one name and is the manager of "Ahmad Zahir's Cottage", a colourful restaurant in downtown Kabul.

The 26-year-old welcomes his customers mostly young couples with tea, a hookah pipe and most importantly, their hero's songs.

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.

"Today we see ethnic rivalries have sadly increased but Ahmad Zahir's music is still connecting people," explains Basir Burhan, a 30-year-old amateur musician.

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A visitor takes a selfie at the tomb of Ahmad Zahir at the Shuhada cemetery in Kabul. 

Rumours and secrets

The 1960s and 70s are remembered as a golden age of music for Afghanistan, when young musicians were mostly influenced by Indian classics and would flock to "Radio Kabul" the only radio broadcaster at the time to record hits at their studio. 

Zahir's best-known works were inspired by Persian poets like Rumi and Hafiz, and he sang mostly in Dari or Afghan Persian.

"He was talking about Elvis a lot and when you look at his hairstyle, his clothes, the way he moved his body in concerts, you realise he was inspired by Elvis.

But he 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.

"He was talking about Elvis a lot and when you look at his hairstyle, his clothes, the way he moved his body in concerts, you realise he was inspired by Elvis."

Every June 14, his birthday, pilgrims have flocked to Shohada-E-Salehin Cemetery on the southern edge of 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.

Agence France-Presse

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