A new documentary celebrates Ahmad Zahir, the ‘60s and ‘70s icon who mysteriously died in 1979. Arwa Haider talks to the people making the film, including Zahir’s daughter, about how the singer combined popularity with protest.

There is some dream-like footage online of a 1970s gig at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, showing an energetic figure leading a multi-instrumental band. The performer’s hip looks (dark quiff and sideburns; loosened tie) and rollicking, psych-roots grooves reflect the ‘Afghan Elvis’ nickname he earned.

This was Ahmad Zahir, pop culture sensation and the son of Afghanistan’s former prime minister: during a booming ‘golden age’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was a prolific recording artist and a music idol for the masses. Zahir’s music drew from Persian poetry as well as Indian classical styles, and it increasingly revealed a political edge, criticizing the Soviet-backed Marxist regime who had seized power in Afghanistan following a 1978 military coup.

On 14 June, 1979, his 33rd birthday, Zahir died in mysterious circumstances (officially a car crash, but some have questioned that). On hearing the news, his pregnant wife Fahira went into premature labour, giving birth to a baby girl, Shabnam. Nearly 40 years later, Shabnam and US film director Sam French are collaborating on a Kickstarter-funded documentary about her father’s life.

“If there’s a common thread that brings Afghans together, it’s my father’s music,” Shabnam Zahir tells me, from her home in the US. “There are so many ethnic groups in Afghanistan; he tuned into that, and would do concerts in all these different locations. He’d change people’s views of one another.”

Women would dance the shimmy and the twist at my father’s concerts, and they’d have no reservations about it – Shabnam Zahir

Despite never having the chance to know her father personally, Shabnam Zahir has grown up with a sense of his legacy. Her half-brother Rishad (from Zahir’s first marriage) has also pursued music and Dari literature. Shabnam is conscious that for all the Western prime-time political coverage about Afghanistan, the country’s musical and cultural heritage is largely overlooked.

“The media exposure that is so clouded with negativity and despair… it’s heart-breaking,” she says. “As young Afghans who grew up in Europe and the States, that’s not what we were told. Women would dance the shimmy and the twist at my father’s concerts, and they’d have no reservations about it! Now, his music takes listeners back to a country that was progressive and hopeful.”

She has her personal favourite tracks from her father’s catalogue; she picks out the swirling, spiritual melody of Ay Qawme Be Haj Rafta (based on Rumi’s poem, O You Who Have Gone On Pilgrimage), and by contrast, the polemical Zindagi Akhir Sarayat, which the government banned from radio airplay. She explains: “Translated to English, the song’s refrain is: ‘Freedom and liberty mean life to mankind. There’s no need for submission, fight for your freedom.’”

The story of this remarkable man presents the perfect opportunity to explore a country that most people in the West have never seen – Sam French

Film director French first encountered Ahmad Zahir’s music when he visited Afghanistan in 2008; French’s intended brief trip actually became a stay of several years, as he was inspired to create films including the Oscar-nominated short Buzkashi Boys (2012).

“He [Ahmad Zahir] provided a window into the complex cultural landscape of an often misunderstood country, a place with a rich tradition of music and art,” enthuses French. “I became passionate about making films that showed another side of Afghanistan than the one we see on the news, and the story of this remarkable man presents the perfect opportunity to explore a country that most people in the West have never seen.

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