In the wake of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s, there was a mass influx of Afghan refugees to Pakistan. This included a considerable number of musicians who eventually settled down in Peshawar and Quetta and could be seen — at least until the theocratic government of Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal’s ban on music and theatre — at Peshawar’s Dabgari bazaar, the 200-year-old street known for musicians.
The new melody with its peculiar Afghan flavour was a welcome addition to traditional Pashto music. Shah Wali Ustad, Qamar Gula, Lal Jan Ustad, Munawar, Said Alam, Haikal Ustad, Saida Gul Maina, Nawabai Ustad, Ismail Feroz and a host of others made Peshawar their second home and relaunched their music careers with new vigour.
It wasn’t long before they became popular among the local Pakhtun audience. State-run TV and radio stations opened their doors to Afghan musicians. The then deputy commissioner of Peshawar allotted a well-furnished residence to famous female Afghan singer, Qamar Gula, as a goodwill gesture, while other Afghan artists were also encouraged to live and perform without fear.
Fleeing for their lives was not easy for most Afghans, recalls Izat Gul, a 32-year-old Afghan singer. “I was just a kid then, my family arrived in Pakistan after a week’s journey, first on foot in the mountains, and then by car, finally landing in Peshawar. “For several months, we could not find an opportunity to perform as locals didn’t know us.”
“It took some years to settle here,” he adds. “Like a million other Afghan refugees, the musicians were penniless and life was hard in the beginning but slowly and gradually, things improved for the Afghan performers who once again began to sing.”
The Afghan melody with its peculiar flavour was a welcome addition to traditional Pashto music. The then deputy commissioner of Peshawar allotted a well-furnished residence to famous female Afghan singer, Qamar Gula, as a goodwill gesture, while other Afghan artists were also encouraged to live and perform without fear.
Gul’s woeful tale is similar to that of hundreds of other Afghan musicians who enriched Pashto music by introducing a number of instruments and tunes to the genre. Following Pakistani authorities’ tactics, however, to force all Afghan refugees currently settled in the country to leave, the musicians face a difficult situation. A hard deadline of November 15 has been given.
There are 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan and experts speculate that a further 700,000 undocumented Afghans reside in the country. However, Pakistan is obligated under international law to let all registered refugees stay.
According to Gul, around 450 Afghan artists have already left for Afghanistan fearing possible crackdown and harassment. They have left their rented offices in Dabgari Bazaar, Kabari Bazaar, Saddar, Nauthia, Board and Tehkal areas. He says that Afghan musicians see a bleak future in their war-ravaged country of origin — they will be returning at a time when cities, including Kabul, are still under the threat of militancy.
Given the security situation in Afghanistan, musical concerts are limited only to wedding halls in Jalalabad and Kabul, maintains Gul. “Jaada Maiwand, the old music street in the heart of Kabul is overcrowded with recently returned performers from KP. The Afghan government has announced no package for artists, there are no opportunities, and no incentives for the community,” laments Gul.
Most Afghan music bands consist of performers in the 15-25 age group. “Born here, I have learnt music intricacies from my Ustads in Peshawar and made close friends here. This is where I launched my career. How can I leave my birthplace? Our families are passing through mental agony,” says 25-year-old Rahim Jan Maftoon.
Shakir Arman, a tabla player, who has recently returned to Afghanistan, spoke about how Afghan musicians enjoyed respect and security in Pakistan and were earning a handsome livelihood. On average, says Arman, every music band would earn 300,000 rupees to 500,000 rupees per month.
“The performers who have returned to Afghanistan are literally starving as they cannot perform in small cities and villages beyond Kabul. They fear militant attacks as there is an undeclared ban on music in remote districts and villages,” says the tabla player.
A young Afghan singer, Bariyalai Samadi, says that many families face deep poverty and have had to withdraw their children from schools because they can’t afford the tuition fees. “Most musicians who return don’t have their own houses in Afghanistan,” he says.
“The prospects for musicians are very poor [in Kabul]. About 80 per cent of the Afghan musicians who are returning were born and raised in Pakistan, and we should value them as an asset.”
The singer says that apart from the MMA-led ban which occurred when the party was in power from 2002-2007, Afghan musicians had flourished artistically and financially in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, however, the performers live in constant fear.
“Our community is under militant threat while travelling out of the main cities,” Samadi elaborates. “Another problem is that the music bands took many years to form [and establish themselves] but have now been dismantled. It will take years to market themselves.”
Senior Afghan artist Saida Gul Maina also paints a bleak picture. “The Afghan government doesn’t seem interested in taking concrete steps to resettle our community. It’s a cultural loss for Pakhtuns,” he argues.
As he talks, he pulls up the strings of his rabab and begins singing a popular Pashto folk number: Morey Da Janaan Kadey Baregee/ Za Warsara Zamaa /Kala Me Mein Zargai Sabregee (Look Mum, my beloved is ready, packing up her household/ My going with her is inevitable now because I may not live without her). As he sings, tears roll down his cheeks.
Karan Khan, a popular Pashto singer from Swat, points out that Afghan artists face a miserable future in their country of origin. He recently returned from Kabul after participating in a musical concert. “The prospects for musicians are very poor,” he says. “About 80 per cent of the Afghan musicians who are returning were born and raised in Pakistan, and we should value them as an asset.”
The singer adds: “Literati and artists are cultural ambassadors, and can play a vital role in bringing people of neighbouring countries across the border closer to each other.”
Khan suggests that the Pakistan and Afghan governments should form a joint cultural body to facilitate artists and writers on both sides. “Art and culture,” he advises, “should be kept away from politics.”
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 13th, 2016