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Music & Popular Culture in Afghanistan, 1960-­‐79

Mejgan Massoumi
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History
Washington DC and Los Angeles
Grant Year: 
Mejgan Massoumi

With the generous support of the Abbasi Program, I traveled to Washington, DC and Los Angeles, CA to conduct archival research and oral history interviews related to a project that examines music, the development of the radio and popular culture in Afghanistan during the latter half of the twentieth century. These trips are part of my dissertation project that explores the history of radio in Afghanistan as an important window on to the social, cultural, political and economic processes that took place in Kabul during the decades of the 1960s and 70s. It also examines the linkages between popular culture and Islam and the ways in which they have become mutually constitutive as sites for defining Muslim lives in the Afghan context. Through the celebrity of Ahmad Zahir, the most iconic figure to-date in Afghan musical life, my work analyzes society’s changing attitudes towards topics ranging from sex and gender relations to politics and from fashion and beauty to identity and religion. As a provocative image of musical defiance, Zahir became the epitome of a whole generation that was experiencing a revolution in thought and self-expression, singing songs that varied in themes including love, politics and religion. While mass mediated and commercialized ideas, sounds, images and meanings about Islam have long pervaded popular cultural forms in Afghanistan, my interest is in how these practices were central to the religious identity and meaning of Islam for the Afghans. Zahir’s influence not only on music but various other aspects of cultural life provides a lens from which to explore how Muslims in Afghanistan made sense of their lives within an increasingly pervasive culture of Islamic images, texts, songs and narratives.

My archival research at the Library of Congress resulted in the discovery of several Persian and Pashto language pop-culture magazines, journals and articles published during the 1960s and 70s. The reference librarian of the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room, Hirad Dinavari, was particularly resourceful in helping me locate these sources. Amongst these archival finds included digitized copies of Zhwandun, one of the most popular magazines published in Afghanistan in the second half of the 20th century. It presents articles on Afghan and global history, poetry and language, arts and culture, philosophy and religion, music and dance, and other topics related to culture and everyday life. Of special interest to me were editions that featured exclusive interviews with Ahmad Zahir and other contemporary artists of the time that discuss the scope of their music within Afghan society. Another interesting observation of this magazine is that while it presented articles on literary, historical, educational and entertainment topics throughout the time it was published, the changing social and political dynamics of Afghanistan influenced its content.

Other print media I came across and proved useful were the journals Honar and Farhang Mardom. While Honar provided history and information about various forms of art including performing and visual arts as well as crafts and architecture, Farhang Mardom focused on the history of folklore and folktales in Afghanistan, many of which have been adopted into music and performance. These kinds of sources provide information into the broad range of cultural practices, beliefs and traditions that have influenced the Afghans over time.

Support from the Abbasi Program also allowed me to engage in the collection of a number of oral history interviews with individuals who were involved with the popular culture music scene of the time. One of my interviews was with Khalil Ragheb, a drum player and trained musician who was a part of Ahmad Zahir’s band. He described to me how he met Ahmad Zahir while working at Radio Afghanistan and about his experience touring with him throughout Central Asia. His first-hand knowledge of how Afghans responded to the sound that Ahmad Zahir introduced at the time was both interesting and illuminating for my research. Another interesting interview was with the former Editor of the Kabul Times, the first English-language newspaper that started in the early 1960s in Afghanistan, Mr. Shafie Rahel. Mr. Rahel also served as the Minister of Information and Culture in the early 1970s where amongst his many responsibilities, he served as the head of Radio Afghanistan. His insights about the nature of radio programming during this time period and his career as someone who worked towards illuminating Afghan culture and society to a wider public, proved to be indispensible to my work and research.

The Abbasi grant allowed me to access archival materials and to gain interpersonal skills necessary to conduct oral histories. This funding has allowed me to not only have conversation with these people, but to record their lives and experiences as history. I have also had the opportunity to build working relationships with them. In this sense, funding from the Abbasi Program has contributed to my professional development.

Moreover, we live in a time where there is a great urgency to understand peoples and cultures from diverse parts of the world, particularly as refugee populations continue to grow and heated debates about immigration, racism and Islamophobia continue. I am very grateful that funding from the Abbasi Program has allowed me to develop a dissertation project that explores Afghanistan’s history with a view from its vibrant popular culture, arts and music which gives us context, nuance and understanding of the Afghans and their lived experiences.