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Kabul: City Number One - Part 6

Adam Curtis

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In November 1975 the first rock festival was held in Afghanistan. It was in the gymnasium of Kabul University. Everyone was very excited, especially as the headliners were one of Afghanistan's two prog-rock bands - The Stars.

And the Stars were excited because they had been approached by Afghanistan's most famous pop star and top heart throb, Ahmad Zahir. He had asked them to help him record his next album.

But things didn't get off to a very good start. Here is some audio of the beginning of the festival. The whole thing was recorded by the American anthropologist Louis Dupree. The festival is introduced by Helmut Gaisberger who was the food and beverages manager of the Intercontinental hotel. Louis Dupree's voice begins it.

At the very same time, in New York, a group of renegade Democrat supporters were meeting. They wanted to find a way of alerting a sleep-walking America to the immediate threat from the Soviet Union. Many of them saw themselves as a new movement and a cynical journalist had given them a new name - Neoconservatives. But they had decided they rather liked it.

They agreed to set up a pressure group called The Committee on the Present Danger. None of them could have imagined that within five years they, and their ideas, would become one of the main influences that led America into its first military intervention in Afghanistan, supporting the Mujaheddin.

One of the leaders of the group was a neoconservative called Norman Podhoretz. The thing he hated most was rock music.

To understand why you have to go back to 1958 when Podhoretz wrote a furious outburst against Jack Kerouac and his "beat bohemianism". Most historians of the neoconservatives see it as the moment when the movement first burst onto the scene.

Podhoretz's article was called "Know-Nothing Bohemians". All the Beats cared about, he said, was their own sensations. That led them to seek out the mad, the bad and the dangerous in their desperation for ever more intense experience - through drugs and even crime.

In the process they were corroding the moral bonds that held society together. The racy publicity they were being given through films made it worse. Here is a poster for the film The Beat Generation. The movement, Podhoretz said, was "hostile to civlization".

And here is Podhoretz being interviewed by the BBC about Kerouac's On The Road and the terrible nihilism it was unleashing in America.

In 1960 there was no pop music in Afghanistan. There was a loose group of westerners who played what was called "cocktail lounge music". They were led by Manfried Wertz who was the son of a world-famous German geologist, and Jan Vanderpant who was described as "a swinging British Dentist."

But then the first rock band was created. Chris and Ursula Hilario had come from the Philippines to Kabul. Ursula ran the USAID staff house and Chris organised the Afghan Boy Scout movement.

Ursula really loved to dance at parties but found the cocktail lounge music not to her taste. So she arranged for a professional musician called Rooney Poliquit to fly from Manila to Kabul.

In 3 weeks he had taught 3 of Ursula's sons and one of her daughters to play (she had 7 sons and 3 daughters in all). Then they formed a band and put on a dance at the USAID Staff House. They called themselves The Blue Sharks and they were an immediate sensation in Kabul.

Here are some photos of the Blue Sharks - and a photo of Mr and Mrs Hilario.

Sadly there seem to be no recordings left of the Blue Sharks. Danny Hilario (bass) says that his younger brother Chris Jr (drums) accidentally taped over the only cassette he had of one of their performances.

But it is not an exaggeration to say that The Blue Sharks brought western pop music to Afghanistan. Their music fascinated many of the children of the new Afghan middle-class elite that was growing up around the King. One of them was the young Ahmad Zahir. He had gone to Habibia High School in Kabul and had started to perform with the school band.

Here is a photo of him with the band - Habibia Amateurs.

Plus a recording of The Amateurs with Ahmad Zahir singing and playing the accordion. The music is an extraordinary collage. It includes Indian classical and Persian, plus the beginnings of a pop beat sensibility, all mixed with a marching drum sound which musicologists say comes from the Afghans hearing the British military bands in the 19th century.

In 1963 Norman Podhoretz's hatred of the liberal counterculture in America was about to get much much worse.

Podhoretz wasn't a simple conservative reactionary. He came from the left and some of his criticism's were very sharp. He spotted the Achilles heel of the hipster movement in the way that it fetishised the "instinctiveness" of black culture, especially the music.

"Their love for negroes is tied up with this worship of of primitivism, not with any radical social attitudes. Ironically enough, in fact, to see the Negro as more elemental that the white man, as Ned Polsky has acutely remarked, is an inverted form of keeping the nigger in his place".

Podhoretz had become the editor of a highbrow magazine called Commentary, and these arguments drew him close to the black radical James Baldwin. Here is part of a film made by Baldwin for Panorama about the black experience in the northern cities.

In an interview in the film Baldwin argues that the white liberals were only pretending to be "the negro's friend". In reality they were ruthlessly using black culture as a weapon in their quest for power. He was agreeing with Podhoretz.

But then Baldwin betrayed Podhoretz.

Podhoretz had commissioned Baldwin to write an article about the Black Muslim movement and Malcolm X because of its anti-white separatist strategy. Baldwin agreed and set to work. But then he went suspiciously silent, and after a few weeks Podhoretz discovered that Baldwin had taken it to The New Yorker, who paid him a lot more. It was then published as The Fire Next Time - which became one of the bibles of the sixties counterculture.

Podhoretz was furious. But no-one he told seemed to sympathise with him. They all took Baldwin's side.Then the realisation dawned on him. They were doing this only because Baldwin was black. To Podhoretz it was a new way of being patronising and racist to black people.

Podhoretz then stormed round to Baldwin's apartment and ranted at him for hours. After a while - probably to get rid of him - Baldwin told him to go and write his anger down. Podhoretz did just that - and published it as an article called "My Negro Problem - and Ours".

The article said that all white liberals secretly had a twisted hatred and envy of blacks, and that integration would never work. You can read it here. It caused a sensation and Podhoretz became a celebrity. But only because everyone despised him.

But Podhoretz decided this just proved he was telling the truth. All the liberals in America were a corrupt elite just like the elites who ran the Soviet Union, while people like him who dared to tell the truth were "oppressed" just like the dissidents in Russia. He was the Solzhenitsyn of America.

It was the beginning of the the neoconservative conviction that, unlike the liberals in America, they could see the truth about how power really worked in the world.

In Kabul pop culture was taking off, and the rising star was Ahmad Zahir. He had done something unique with his music. He had taken high classical traditions from both Indian music and Persian poetry and fused them not just with a pop sound - but with the ability to make Afghans feel he was communicating his own personal experience through the music. Something no-one had done before and Afghans adored him for it.

Here are lots of photos of him - all from the fantastic

And here is a song he did with Zhela called Gufte Ke Mebosam Tura which I think conveys that feeling.

Ahmad Zahir was part of a phenomenon that was happening across the Muslim world. A wave of modernity had led to the rise of new powerful elites, and it was the children of those elites who were creating a new fusion of western pop with music and poetry from inside their own countries.

Next door in Pakistan a film actor and singer called Waheed Murad almost singlehandedly created Pakistani pop when he produced and starred in a film called Armaan in 1966. Because of the war with India the previous year all Indian films were banned - and Armaan, directed by Pervez Malik, smashed all records. It had lots of songs written by Sohail Rana who was the son of a famous Urdu poet.

Together these rich kids created what became called "filmi pop" - and the film Armaan is the vehicle through which they did this. The most famous example in the film is "Ko Ko Koreena" which I think is just wonderful.

Armaan, Film Arts, 1966

And on the other side of Afghanistan in Iran the same young elite was emerging. Here is a report from Panorama in 1961 about life in modern Tehran. The reporter sees it all through the prism of the cold war, while the young people interviewed want to talk about the new openness. What neither of them are aware of is the extraordinary time-bomb that was building up around Tehran. Just as in Kabul and Karachi the modernisation had led to millions of peasants flooding into the cities. But they - and their children - were completely excluded from the good life of the elites.

And Western rock stars came to Afghanistan. In the early seventies James Taylor came and did some impromptu performances in Kabul. Louis Dupree said this had a big influence on aspiring Afghan musicians in Kabul. James Taylor, like Ahmad Zahir, was also the child of a ruling elite. His family was directly descended from America's Founding Fathers. And he too wrote about personal experience. But in his case it was about drugs and death. Here he is performing Fire and Rain - it's about the suicide of a friend and his own addiction to heroin.

James Taylor went back to America and he became the first rock star to do a benefit performance for a politician. It was for George McGovern who was the Democratic presidential candidate.

The Neoconservatives hated George McGovern, not only because he wanted to give up in Vietnam but also because he supported lesbians, gays and all kinds of radical causes. And what was worse George McGovern had insulted Norman Podhoretz's wife.

The two men had arranged to have dinner. Podhoretz arrived late and McGovern complained that while waiting he had had to sit looking at two ugly women. Podhoretz turned round and looked at the women."One of them is my wife" he said. Podhoretz later denied that the incident ever happened.

Here is a news report from the Democratic Party convention in Miami in 1972. It is about the "Non-delegates" - the forces of the counterculture who had descended on Miami and were demanding to participate. This was Norman Podhoretz's party and he was despairing of it.

But the Neoconservatives were by now a powerful dissident movement within the Democratic party. One of them was a young strategist called Ben Wattenberg.

In 1970 Wattenberg published an analysis of American voting patterns called The Real Majority. It argued that the country was now divided between a liberal elite preoccupied with cultural issues like race, sexual politics and abortion, and a vast forgotten hinterland who were "unyoung, unpoor and unblack". Wattenberg's heroine was the 47 year-old housewife from Dayton who feared and despised the liberal elite. Harness that power, he said, and you can change the world.

But then the Neoconservatives got screwed yet again. Richard Nixon, the Republican President, read Wattenberg's analysis and stole all his ideas. In the 1972 campaign Nixon deliberately set out to win over the disaffected Democrat voters that Wattenberg had identified. Again and again in speeches he contrasted them and their traditional values with the liberal counterculture and its corrupt hypocrisies.

Here is Nixon campaigning in 1972 along with a typical speech. Plus a wonderful bit where Nixon is booed in a vast stadium by some radicals. If you look at his face you can see the scorn he feels - and the sheer pleasure as he realises how much work the protestors are doing for him.

And it worked. Nixon won re-election with one of the biggest majorities ever in American history.

At the same time a new conservative force was being unleashed across the Islamic world. And, like in America, it was the mass of the new urban lower middle classes who despised the liberal elites.

One of the events that started this was the death of President Nasser in Egypt in 1970. Nasser had been the great symbol of a new, modern Arab world, and when he died the frustrations felt by the millions of new city-dwellers began to emerge. Like in America these new urbanites were fundamentally conservative - and if someone could harness their power they too could change the world.

Here is a BBC reporter in 1970 in Cairo trying to do a piece-to-camera announcing Nasser's death. What then happens illustrates in an odd but vivid way the new, unruly forces that had emerged in the cities.

By the mid 70s rock music in Kabul had moved on from singer-songwriters to prog-rock and disco. At the end of 1975 the first rock festival was held in Kabul. After its shaky start things got going at about 4pm in the afternoon. It was headlined by the only two rock bands in Afghanistan. The Stars and The Four Brothers.

The Stars looked down on the The Four Brothers as being a little too experimental. And the two groups disagreed on the western bands they liked - except they both thought Emerson Lake and Palmer were really good.

Here are the Stars doing their version of "Rock the Boat" by the Hughes Corporation.

Followed by the Four Brothers doing an "experimental" version of "Black Magic Woman"

Ahmad Zahir had also moved more towards rock. Here is a photo of him with The Stars. It was taken during the album they recorded together in Kabul.

And he had also embraced the new phenomenon of the pop video or "promo". Below is a link to one of the two he made - with the requisite late-psychedelic video overlays. Its a song called Khuda Bowad Yaarit.
And Ahmad Zahir had also done what good rock stars were supposed to do. He had become political. In the mid-70s both Islamist radicals and leftists began to challenge the regime of President Daoud - and Ahmad Zahir reflected the new, darker mood in the lyrics of his songs.

Then, in 1978, the Marxists seized power in a coup. It quickly descended into bloody horror, and Zahir became an open critic of the regime. His songs were banned from Radio Afghanistan. In one of them he played with words. He repeatedly used the Persian word "tariki" which means "darkness'. It was an explicit reference to President Taraki who headed the regime.

Then Taraki was killed by his deputy, Hafizullah Amin, and things got very bad for Ahmad Zahir. There are all sorts of stories about Zahir during 1979. One was that he and Hafizullah Amin's daughter fell in love. He also continued to criticise the regime, modelling himself on one of his heroes, John Lennon. He saw himself playing the same role as Lennon did in the west - telling the truth through rock music.

Then one afternoon in June 1979 he and his best friend went on a drive with two others out of Kabul. They went north and in the evening they arrived at the road just outside the Salang Tunnel. Noone knows what then really happened. The police say there was a traffic accident and Ahmad Zahir was killed. But everyone who saw the body says that the back half of Zahir's head had been blown off by a bullet.

His best friend and the two others have sworn a vow of silence as to what happened.

Zahir's death stunned Afghanistan. It was seen as symbolising the end of an incredible period of openness and freedom, as the regime continued to kill and torture thousands of others. Here is a picture of his grave and a picture of what the Taliban did to it when they arrived in Kabul 17 years later.

Meanwhile the Neoconservatives brooded. It was obvious to them now that they were going to have to take the final step and ally with the Republicans. Norman Podhoretz became one of the leading members of the Committee on the Present Danger. Here is a bit from one of the films made by the Committee - trying to convince America that the Soviets were preparing to take over the world. Most of the film is incredibly boring but at the end they include a speech given in America by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the voice-over translation gets more and more hysterical.

Then in December 1979 just what the Neoconservatives had been predicting seemed to come true. The Soviet army came through the Salang Tunnel and occupied Afghanistan. The next year Reagan swept to power and 50 members of the Committee on the Present Danger were appointed to the Reagan administration.

And at the same time John Lennon was assassinated in New York. To the Neoconservatives it symbolised the end of a terrible corrupt era in America. It was the death of the hated counterculture.

Norman Podhoretz's daughter had married another Neoconservative called Elliot Abrams. After Lennon's death Abrams gave his opinion - using words that could have been lifted from his father-in-law's rant about liberal hypocrisy and blacks 15 years before:

"I'm sorry. Why is John Lennon's death getting more attention than Elvis Presley's? Because Lennon is perceived as a left-wing figure politically, anti-establishment, a man of social conscience with concern for the poor. And therefore, he's being made into a great figure. Too much has been made of his life. It does not deserve a full day's television and radio coverage. I'm sick of it."

Elliot Abrams went off to help support the Contras in Nicaragua for President Reagan, while many of the other Neoconservatives set out to persuade the president to send sophisticated weapons to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan

Then they found the most surprising ally.

Ahmad Zahir's sister Zahira had fled to the US. She set up a hair salon in Washington DC. It was in the Watergate building. This led her to get lots of high-profile clients, and then one day in the early 80s President Reagan asked her to cut his hair.

Her business took off - and in the years to come she would cut Mrs Thatcher's hair when she visited Washington, then George Bush Snr's hair. And finally George Bush Jnr.

When she was cutting President Reagan's hair they talked about what was happening in Afghanistan and the terrible effect the Soviet invasion was having. Zahira urged the president to send the mujahideen Stinger missiles that could shoot down the Russian helicopters. The president said he would go away and think about it.

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