Posted by AFSHEEN101 on 10/5/2007
A famed Afghan singer to visit her homeland after 20 years
Jonathan Curiel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007
She was one of Afghanistan's most popular female singers in the 1960s and '70s, that nation's equivalent of Barbra Streisand or Ella Fitzgerald. Farida Mahwash led a privileged life in her country until 1989, when she fled its civil war and became a refugee.
Eventually she settled in Fremont, joining thousands of other Afghans who have found a welcoming environment there. Mahwash still sings the love songs and traditional music that marked her career in Afghanistan, and she never quit longing to return to the land that nurtured her for 40 years.
Today, Mahwash will realize that dream. She has been invited to give a series of benefit concerts, and will step foot in Afghanistan for the first time in almost two decades. She's excited, nervous, happy and sad - sad at how many years have passed, and at how her native country is still trying to recover from decades of war and upheaval.
"I'm trying not to get emotional, because I'm very excited to go to see my country," Mahwash said at her Fremont home before flying to Afghanistan. "Every time I think about my country, I'm just blocking my throat and I can't sing - I want to cry."
Mahwash remains an exalted figure in her homeland, particularly among older Afghans who remember her songs that were constantly played on the radio.
In music shops around the capital, and in Afghan communities in the United States and Europe, her CDs are still popular sellers. Mahwash is the only Afghan woman to attain the title of "Ustad" - an honorific, meaning "master," that Afghanistan's culture ministry gave to her in 1977.
At age 60, Mahwash retains her youthful looks and her golden voice, which is sampled by young Afghan singers on dance-oriented recordings meant to appeal to a modern generation.
Mahwash left Afghanistan because the mujahedeen threatening the government of then-President Mohammad Najibullah seemed on the verge of taking over Kabul, where Mahwash lived. The mujahedeen targeted Mahwash because she was a prominent female singer and because she was associated with the government-controlled Radio Afghanistan, said John Baily, a music professor at the University of London and an expert on Afghan music.
Kabul's government also targeted Mahwash's family. In the days before she fled, Afghan authorities arrested her husband, Farouk, after he refused to "join them," and kept him jailed for two days, Mahwash said.
After she fled to Pakistan, Najibullah's regime said she had abandoned her country and that the country's secret police would hunt her down and harm her, Baily said.
"Her life was definitely in danger," Baily said.
Mahwash returns to Afghanistan with her husband and one of her five daughters. She's unsure how Afghans will react to their visit, but she hopes they will welcome her family with the same love she maintains for her homeland.
"I will go to cities like Kabul and Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif that accept me as a singer," Mahwash said, speaking through an interpreter in Afghan language of Dari. "I'll have programs there and collect money, and give this money to charity and people who don't have houses and who are in need. ... I will try to be safe and visit places that I feel safe."
Afghanistan has changed dramatically since Mahwash lived there. When she was in her musical prime, Kabul was a Westernizing city where some women wore skirts and many Afghans listened to Elvis Presley and other American artists.
When the Taliban took over in 1996, they instituted a harsh version of Islam that banned all music and forced all women to wear the burqa. Mahwash's return to Afghanistan coincides with the sixth anniversary of the U.S.-led bombings that removed the Taliban from power.
Mahwash says she was unaware of the anniversary date. She says her visit is timed to be at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.
At her Fremont home, Mahwash follows the prohibition to eat food during the day. Her house is replete with mementos of her country, including Afghan carpets, a photograph of the cliff-carved Bamiyan Buddhas, which the Taliban destroyed in 2001, and photos of Afghan musicians with whom she has performed.
Tears roll down Mahwash's cheeks when she remembers her mother, a teacher of the Quran who is buried in Pakistan; the details of her old life in Afghanistan; and the day in 1989 when, hurrying to leave the country, she sold the family's five-story house in the center of Kabul for the U.S. equivalent of $5,000.
"I sold everything - my house, my car, everything," Mahwash said.
When the subject changes to her music and her life in America, Mahwash smiles again. Mahwash, who has sisters and cousins living around Fremont, says that "in the worst time, the United States helped me - this is my second country." She has performed around the Bay Area, including at UC Berkeley and Stanford, and in June gave a concert at the United Nations.
In many ways, Mahwash is fortunate to be alive and still performing at such a high artistic level. When she was in Pakistan, a U.N. official discovered her amid the hundreds of thousands of other Afghan refugees and helped arranged asylum for her in the United States.
Baily, who has studied Mahwash's music and visited her in Fremont, says she is one of Afghanistan's living treasures. In an increasingly globalized world where the Internet allows people to connect with each other from disparate parts of the globe, Mahwash can release new albums that are picked up almost instantly in Kabul.
In that way, the distance between Kabul and Fremont is shorter than it's ever been. Mahwash's visit to her homeland is a chance to bridge that distance as much as possible.
"My dear Afghanistan," she says. "My dear country. ... I love my people."