HERAT — Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll: It’s the young person’s menu of choice the world over. Afghanistan, the land of endless war and timeless values, is no exception.
While the older generation bemoans the death of traditional culture, teenagers are happily swapping music videos of titillating singers whose lyrics they may not understand, but whose provocative movements need no translation.
“Shakira has a beautiful body,” sighed Nasir, a 10th grader in Herat, the ancient city in western Afghanistan that many would classify as the country’s cultural capital. He was watching a clip of the Colombian star on his mobile phone. “She is intoxicating.”
In deeply conservative Afghanistan, where a few inches of ankle can set tongues wagging and eyes sparkling, it is understandable why young men admire the scantily clad diva. Nasir and his friends are part of a growing movement in Afghanistan that sees young people rejecting the traditional music of their fathers’ generation in favor of something a bit more contemporary.
“I believe the time for listening to old music is over,” Nasir said. “Young people are looking for something new and interesting. There is nothing we need in the old stuff.”
Not so, says the older generation, for whom the catchy couplets of “Hips Don’t Lie” are a poor substitute for love songs made from the 13th-century words of the poet Rumi.
“This new music is very weak,” said Hafizullah Gardesh, a well known singer and musician: “It is not good for poetry, not good for language, not good for anything. Young people like it for only one reason: it is sexy.”
Afghans love their music. One of the main objections ordinary people had to the Taliban regime was the fundamentalists’ prohibition of any singing that did not involve their own a cappella war chants.
“Weddings were like funerals under the Taliban,” said Abdul Qadir, 28, a Herati shopkeeper.
Traditional Afghan music is based largely on poetry performed to the accompaniment of the stringed rebab, the drum-like tabla and the harmonium. It is haunting and beautiful, but unlikely to spice up a teenager’s weekend.
With the opening up of Afghanistan in 2001, when the U.S.-led invasion chased the Taliban off to a safer distance, young people are gaining access to the wider world through television, the internet and the pirated music videos for sale in shops all over the country.
What they are seeing provides a welcome contrast to what they get at home.
It is considered extremely risque in Afghanistan for women to move to music, requiring female singers to stand stiff and immobile when delivering even the most impassioned lyrics.
A young vocalist, Setara, had to go into hiding for several months after she performed a relatively modest dance number on “Afghan Star” — the televised music contest that has taken Afghanistan by storm.
Shabnam Soraya or Manezha Davlatova would hardly be household names in Paris or New York, but the two singers from Tajikistan are immensely popular in Kabul, thanks largely to their fluid onstage movements.
All of this amounts to a virtual assault on Afghanistan’s traditional values and culture.
“Our country has been attacked not only militarily, but culturally,” said Ustad Khoshnawaz, a 55-year-old singer in Herat whose heyday was back in the 1980s. “People now prefer young singers who play modern music on new instruments.”
The erstwhile maestro now ekes out a living giving music lessons to the few students who remember him and want to learn his craft. He also runs a supermarket.
While Khoshnawaz struggles to keep his musical name alive, Jamshid Tapesh has no such difficulties. The head of Tapesh Music group, based in Herat, said that he is booked every single night for concerts and music parties.
“I make two music videos a year, in Tajikistan,” he said. “I perform with Tajik girls. After people see my videos on TV a few times, they stand in line to book me and my group.”
Tapesh appeals mostly to the younger crowd, whose musical tastes run to a faster, more upbeat style.
“Young people like sexy music. Mostly they ask for Iranian, Indian, Turkish, Arabic or Western songs,” he said.
Musician Jalil Ahmad Dil Ahang calls the fascination with foreign music “cultural suicide.”
“These new songs are against Afghan and Islamic culture,” he said. “And most of them are very poor in terms of quality. Many of the singers know nothing about music.”
Ahang wants the government to step in. “Officials should take measures to protect Afghan music and culture,” he insisted.
Officials in Herat are more than happy to oblige.
“We will force the media to broadcast more local music,” warned Nematullah Sarwari, head of the Herat Information and Culture Department.
He may find this a daunting task. Afghan media companies, like their counterparts all over the world, are interested in attracting listeners, not losing them.
“We almost never receive requests for local Herati songs,” said Ajmal Yazdani, a director of Radio Watandar in Herat. “We try to broadcast the songs our audience wants.”
There are a few isolated patriots of the old ways.
Mohammad Shah, a Herat taxi driver, said he listens mostly to local, traditional music. The new songs, he complained, are against Afghan culture and deviate from social mores.
“The music they play now on radio and TV is copied from other countries,” he said. “Most of the singers are just kids, who cover up their musical weakness behind flashy clothes and beautiful girls. If we take the girls out of the music videos, I am sure that not even two people will want to watch them.”
He may be right. Nasir, still watching Shakira, now seems a bit doubtful.
“I do not understand her language and I do not much care for the music,” he said. “Still, I love the clip.”