Pakistan: Fear and persecution follows Afghan musicians

4 April 2007


Fear and persecution forced them to leave Afghanistan. Now it is haunting them in north-west Pakistan. Islamists’ continous attacks on music centres send fear across the region and make the Afghan singers living in Peshawar feel insecure. They experience lack of job opportunities, and are on the verge of starvation

By Marvaiz Khan, Freemuse’s correspondent in north-west Pakistan

In the town of Peshawar, close to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, more than 200 Afghan singers and their families are facing continued fear and financial pressure in the wake of increasing insecurity and militancy in the region.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Afghan singers and musicians fled their country and settled in bordering Pakistan and Iran while quite a few of them succeeded in getting asylum in Europe and America. The long standing instability in Afghanistan and increasing attacks against the music business in north-west Pakistan has now left hundreds of Afghan singers, musicians and their families with limited choices for their survival.

Young Afghans learning music

On the verge of starvation


Abdullah Sadiq, an eminent Afghan poet and researcher, told Freemuse that Afghan singers and musicians had been passing from turmoil to turmoil over the past 30 years.

“Some of these singers settled in the music street of Peshawar, at Dabgari, but after the establishment of the religious government in the province, their houses and offices were attacked by the workers of certain religious groups and they were forced to leave the place. This caused huge financial and emotional loss to the helpless Afghan artists”, he said.
The Afghan writer expressed grave concern over the raising militancy in the region and attacks on the music business and said that the fear and persecution which had forced Afghan singers to leave their country was now chasing them in Pakistan.

“Excluding very few singers who managed to settle somewhere in Europe and America, the majority of the Afghan singers have reached the verge of starvation. They find little opportunity to demonstrate their artistic skills and get payment for their work. They are living in small rented houses, and their children are growing without education and health facilities”, Sadiq maintained.


Shah Muhammad (left)   – Front of the building on Jamrud Road

Afghan music building in Peshawar

To enquire about the problems of the Afghan singers and musicians, Freemuse visited a shabby building on the main Jamrud Road in Peshawar where about 150 Afghan artists are living in twenty small rooms under very pathetic conditions.

Our guide, Shah Muhammad, an Afghan folk singer, took us to different rooms (which they call “offices”) of the building. Looking at one poorly maintained room, Shah Muhammad remarked:

“No one knows that a great Afghan rabab maestro, Lal Jan, lives a life of poverty and helplessness here. The 70-year-old master musician Lal Jan contributed a number of new compositions and tunes to the Pashto and Dari musical heritage. He is now living here on 100 Pakistani rupees per day.”


Entrance to Lal Jan’s room (left)   – Lal Jan and his brother Dilawar

Instruments burnt


I met Lal Jan and his brother Dilawar in their room. Both of them in their later years, they appeared to be completely disappointed and exhausted.

Lal Jan’s brother, Dilawar, told me that some time back when religious extremists attacked their office in Dabgari Bazar, they burnt their harmonium and other musical instruments.

“The musical instruments which they destroyed were our whole property in this world. This incident affected us very badly. I am sick and suffering from high blood pressure and kidney stones”, Dilawar said.

Narrating his story, Lal Jan said that for the last 50 years he had been affiliated with music.
“I have composed innumerable songs. I can sing both in Pashto and Dari languages, and I have full command of the rabab and the harmonium. My wife died 30 years ago, and I have no children. My brother who is also a master of tabla drums is my only friend in this world. We live here in this small room. Now we are old and find little opportunities to earn our bread”, he said while his emotionless eyes were staring straight at my face.

He complained that no one from the so-called cultural organisations or government cultural departments care about them.


Afghan musicians rehearsing in Peshawar

Life as refugees


After imposition of a ban on music in public places by the religious government of North Western Frontier Province and raising security concerns in the region, this building has become the main hub of Afghan singers and musicians. Every singer along with his orchestra composes and rehearses his songs here. The rooms also work as offices for their business where they meet people who are interested to invite them to perform at their marriage ceremonies.

“We get no chance on Pakistan Television and Radio because we are refugees. Usually we go on music ceremonies. In Pakistan we get some chances during the winter season to perform at marriage functions while in the summer we go to Kabul. This continuous displacement and traveling leaves us with little time to concentrate on the health and education of our children”, Shah Muhammad observed, adding that sometimes he thinks that he should say farewell to his profession and find work in another field.

During my visit in the building, I observed that a number of Afghan children and young people aged between 13 and 17 years visit the building, unofficially called The Afghan Music Academy, to acquire different music skills. These ill-fed and illiterate young Afghans stay here for hours to master their skills so that they may earn a livelihood for their families in the future.

Zar Wali

Problem of identity


Commenting on the life of these young musicians and singers, Zalmai, an Afghan tabla master, said that in many cases these young people are addicted to hashish and other drugs and thus destroy their lives. Apart from security concerns and financial compulsions many of the young Afghan singers are confronted with the psychological problem of identity in Pakistan. Zar Wali, son of the prominent Afghan singer Shah Wali who migrated to Canada a few years ago, said that he had been living in Peshawar for the last 25 years.

“To be honest, I feel I am Pakistani because I lived my life here. I know nothing about my home and village in Afghanistan. My father is in Canada. In the current situation of continuous war and instability in Afghanistan I can’t live with my wife and children there. Here in Pakistan they say that I am an Afghan refugee and I have to leave one day. Tell me, where will I go? Believe me, I don’t understand this situation,” Zar Wali said with tears sparkling in his eyes.

Due to war, instability and lack of opportunities a number of popular Afghan singers including Nashanas, Ahmad Wali, Naghma, Mengal, Rahim Jehani, Haider Salim, Shah Wali, Qamar Gula and Farhad Darya have migrated to countries in Europe and America over the past years.

Photos: by the author





Abdullah Sadiq

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