A Music So Beautiful the Birds Fell from the Trees

How two exiled Sufi musicians returned to make traditional music in postwar Kabul, Afghanistan.

Maija Liuhto | Longreads | June 2019 | 18 minutes (4,978 words)

 

Late on a Thursday night in a faraway corner of Old Kabul, a community of musicians and worshippers gathers for an evening of solemn prayer, ecstatic singing, and melodies from days long forgotten.

In a small shrine rebuilt after having been destroyed during one of the worst periods in Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, fires have been lit, milky tea is served, and hashish is being passed around. This shrine, called Charda Masoom (Persian for “the Fourteen Infallibles”), lies at the end of a muddy street with open gutters, lined with houses with cracked paint and tiny shops selling trinkets and household goods. On the surface, this congested alley looks like any other in this part of the city.

But what an outsider would not know is that for several hundred years, this street — known as Kucheh Kharabat, “the alley of desolation,” the word originally referring to taverns where people came to drink, dance, and listen to music — has been home to a vibrant artistic community of musicians, who now find themselves with their backs against a wall. Space for them in Afghan society continues to shrink.

Originally, many of them came to the area from India to provide entertainment in the 19th-century amir Sher Ali Khan’s court. Local Afghan musicians followed course and moved to this area to learn traditional Indian ragas from the foreigners, letting their own Afghan folk tunes mix with the melodies of the subcontinent. Day and night, singers sang songs by medieval Persian poets, full of references to wine, love, and passion. Tabla drummers gave rhythm to the heady, trance-inducing music.

This is how the music of Afghanistan was born, in this now-forgotten alley in the backstreets of Kabul.

But all of that is in the past. Tonight, one senses a feeling of dread. Only a week ago, the Islamic State attacked a Shia mosque in Kabul. The worshippers and musicians here, although not Shiite, also belong to a minority religious community despised by ISIS and the Taliban. They are Sufis, part of a mystical, tolerant, and inclusive strand of Islam practiced all over the Muslim world. Sufism, followers of which believe is the true heart of Islam, used to have a large following in Afghanistan, evident in the many shrines found all over the country. The Sufis’ love of saints, music, and tolerance was too much for the extremist Taliban regime, and so the movement was driven underground in the late ’90s.

* * *

Today, the Taliban are stronger than ever despite their regime’s fall 16 years ago.
The worshippers seem tense. Police stand guard outside the shrine while a group of men circle a tombstone inside, silently praying for the descendants of Prophet Muhammad who are believed to be buried here. Outside, another group of men huddles in a circle, wrapped in woolen shawls. Smoke rises from their midst and the heady smell of hashish wafts all the way to the street outside the gates.

Suddenly, small children who have been happily running around are gently asked to leave, guided to the gates by a malang, the caretaker of the shrine, who has messy hair and at least a dozen shiny rings on his fingers. A boy, curious to find out what happens after 10 p.m., lingers by the sturdy, carved wooden door — he hasn’t been noticed. He smiles cheekily and quickly runs after the others, fully aware that Thursday nights are not for children, only for adults.

The musicians have arrived. Inside the shrine, a stage waits for nights like these. A harmonium, tabla drums, and a chimta (jingling tongs) are ready for the men to start playing.


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But this is no concert or performance. This is a religious ceremony called sama, practiced by some Sufi orders, where music, dance, and chanting are used as a means to get closer to God. In Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the devotional music played at sama ceremonies is known as qawwali, made famous by the Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the ’80s and ’90s.

It is time to begin. Abdul Waheed Shaidayi, a middle-aged man wearing a red Kandahari cap climbs on the stage, greets everyone, and starts playing the harmonium. While he sings the introductory verses in Persian, his voice slowly soars higher and higher, picking up the pace. The tabla and chimta players join in, drumming and jingling their instruments to an intoxicating, fast-paced rhythm. The worshippers gradually fall into a trance — some aided by the hashish they have been smoking — and shake their heads while clapping furiously. When the music stops for a while, they recite prayers.

These ceremonies usually go on until 4 a.m. Then, the worshippers perform morning prayers, go to sleep, and wake up around noon. Here, in Kucheh Kharabat, the community lives at night and sleeps during the day.

These days, the sama nights are Shaidaiyi’s only chance to play the harmonium for an appreciative audience. Otherwise, he’s mostly idle, his work having long since dried up, save for occasional wedding parties where he is asked to perform. Even there, respect is hard to find, with wedding guests whispering behind the musicians’ backs, accusing them of being pimps and infidels because over the years of war people started believing music is prohibited in Islam.

These ceremonies usually go on until 4 a.m. Then, the worshippers perform morning prayers, go to sleep, and wake up around noon. Here, in Kucheh Kharabat, the community lives at night and sleeps during the day.

In Kucheh Kharabat, however, Shaidayi commands respect. Everyone greets him as he walks down the street the next day. In the local attorney’s office, a congested room where an electric guitar hangs on the wall, Shaidayi is joined by another well-known character in Kharabat: Naseer Hamahang, an imposing man in his 50s. His black hair is combed back and colorful rings decorate his fingers. Hamahang is Shaidayi’s nephew, but he is only two years younger than his uncle.

Hamahang lights a cigarette and takes a slow drag, enjoying this long-time habit that doesn’t seem to affect his singing. The two men, both native to this area, can trace their bloodlines 150 years back to all the famous musical masters of the past. Together, they have lived through days of glory, the horrors of war, and Afghanistan’s beleaguered present.

“People from other areas have come here, bad people,” Shaidayi says as he pours fragrant saffron tea for his guests. “They are insulting the street by calling it Kharabat.” In Sufism, the word desolation has an entirely different, positive meaning. It is associated with the destruction of ego and union with God.

* * *

During the 1990s there was war and years of religious extremism that turned people against this musical community and almost wiped out the culture of Kharabat. When Shaidayi and Hamahang were children in the ’60s and ’70s, their fathers Ustad Shaida and Ustad Hamahang were famous, admired musicians — so much so that most Afghans remember their names with fondness, even while musicians are simultaneously believed to be bad people by the strictly religious.

In Sufism, the word desolation has an entirely different, positive meaning. It is associated with the destruction of ego and union with God.

When the two men were little, Afghanistan hadn’t yet been through the four decades of war and political instability that changed the entire cultural and social fabric of the country. Before the communists, Soviets, and religious extremists came, the kings who ruled Afghanistan acted as patrons of the musicians of Kharabat.

As a boy, Shaidayi often accompanied his father to the royal palace where he performed for the then-king Zahir Shah. It was the king himself who would come and pick them up from Kharabat in one of his armored cars now on display in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul — now riddled with bullet holes, because the Taliban would decades later use them for target practice.

“My father would be shaving and the king would wait,” he says, pointing out how much respect the monarch had for the musicians.

“One night I went with [my father] to the palace. I was about eight or nine years old. My father and the other musicians were singing in the king’s salon and I fell asleep. The queen came and took me to her son’s room and put a blanket on me.”

There were no formalities in the relationship between the royal family and the Kharabatis — they would all sit next to one another, enjoying the poetry and melodies of the songs.

‘My father would be shaving and the king would wait,’ he says, pointing out how much respect the monarch had for the musicians.

Once, when Shaidayi’s father was performing for the king with another musician, Ustad Nabi Gul, the birds in the king’s garden suddenly fell from the trees, he remembers. “All the palace’s workers came out and wondered what had happened. The king said, ‘Don’t touch them — it is just because of the music.’ When the music stopped, the birds came back to their senses,” Shaidayi recalls.

Even women in Kharabat used to sing, dance, and play instruments. Today, this is not possible anymore — it would be considered equal to prostitution and pimping.

“People think that we send our wives to perform at parties. But our wives are not artists, they wear headscarves,” Hamahang says, raising his voice.

Abdul Waheed Shaidayi and Naseer Hamahang. Photos by Maija Liuhto.

Back in the more tolerant days, all the great musicians of Afghanistan proudly called Kharabat their home. The street was lined with instrument shops and traditional cafés where the ustads, or masters, used to sit on takhts, traditional beds, and talk and play their instruments. Each of them had students who would come to learn the art of playing traditional South Asian and Afghan instruments in their talim khanas, or schools.

“From the day we were born we heard the sound of music,” Shaidayi says. “When the students came we would go too and listen and learn how to play the instruments.”

Once, when Shaidayi’s father was performing for the king with another musician, Ustad Nabi Gul, the birds in the king’s garden suddenly fell from the trees, he remembers.

“Growing up here was so much fun,” Hamahang says. “Our childhood was beautiful. Our fathers were very rich. They were living like kings.”

But Shaidayi was only 10 years old when he lost his father, Ustad Shaida, in an accident. “It became very difficult to survive,” he says. Not long after, his mother also passed away. He had to drop out of school after eighth grade.

“I started learning harmonium from one of my father’s students, Saleem Qandahari,” he tells me.

Qandahari’s house was right in front of Shaidayi’s. Back then, most of the musicians regularly performed live at Radio Afghanistan and would be busy until noon. Their songs were transmitted all over the city through loudspeakers, Shaidayi remembers. After that, they would come back to Kucheh Kharabat and take an afternoon nap. At 4 o’clock they finally had time to receive their students.

“Because my father was his teacher he had time for me — he respected me,” Shaidayi says. In return for the lessons, young Shaidayi ran small errands for Qandahari’s family, such as buying rice and coal.

As Shaidayi and Hamahang were slowly growing into adulthood, the prelude to war began. First, the king was overthrown by his cousin Daud Khan in 1973. But he was assassinated only five years later, in 1978, by communists who then took over in Kabul.

At the age of 18, both Hamahang and Shaidayi had to enroll in the newly communist country’s army. It was there that their musical talents were put to use for the first time.

“They noticed I was really good at singing so they asked us to create a group,” Hamahang says.

The group’s job was only to entertain the soldiers, and so it was music that saved the men from having to fight in the war that would later come to silence the instruments of Kharabat.

The communists were ruling the country with an iron fist. In a deeply religious country like Afghanistan, not everyone liked the atheism they were propagating. A resistance was being organized, led by a group of religious leaders who became to be known as the mujahideen.

Both Shaidayi and Hamahang — each around 20 at the time — were still in the army when the war started in 1979. The Soviet Union had decided to invade Afghanistan to put an end to the mujahideens’ revolt. While soldiers were sent to fight the guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan, Hamahang and Shaidayi stayed in Kabul, in a fort called Bala Hissar, whose ruins still overlook the muddy lanes of Kharabat.

The group’s job was only to entertain the soldiers, and so it was music that saved the men from having to fight in the war that would later come to silence the instruments of Kharabat.

But worse times were still to come. In 1992, three years after Soviet withdrawal, the mujahideen took over Kabul. An interim government was formed, but not all mujahideen leaders were supportive of it.

A violent civil war erupted, as opposing factions started shelling Kabul, destroying much of the city and killing as many as 50,000 people. Kharabat was directly in the line of fire of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s rockets.

“It was like a rain of rockets,” Shaidayi says.

“We couldn’t go outside. No one even dared to look out of the window to see who was there,” Hamahang continues. “We stayed in the basement of our house. There was nothing to eat besides rice.”

In a matter of days, the entire city became a horrifying battlefield. Prisoners in their own homes, the Kharabatis witnessed what war can do to people.

“Many people were hit by rockets and we would have to bury them in their homes. A lot of people were buried in our homes, too,” Hamahang says.

Going outside was simply too risky. The mujahideen would periodically come to the Kharabatis’ houses, asking them to take their injured fighters to Bala Hissar, the army fort, where they could be treated. If they refused, the fighters would hang the men and cut off the women’s breasts, the men remember.

“I have seen so much cruelty in Afghanistan, so much cruelty,” Hamahang says, shaking his head.

Both men, who were now married, realized the situation was simply too dangerous for their families. They decided to leave their homes and take their families to safety in neighboring Pakistan.

“We left our homes without even shoes on our feet,” Hamahang says, describing the hurry in which they left. Had they waited only a moment longer, they may have died. When they turned to have one last look at their beloved Kharabat, they saw that rockets had hit their relatives’ homes.

“We saw that they were injured, but we did nothing because in that situation you only think of yourself,” Hamahang explains, his expression turning somber.

‘We left our homes without even shoes on our feet,’ Hamahang says, describing the hurry in which they left. Had they waited only a moment longer, they may have died. When they turned to have one last look at their beloved Kharabat, they saw that rockets had hit their relatives’ homes.

A short ceasefire allowed them to get out of Kabul unharmed.

“We took nothing with us,” Shaidayi says. There was no time to rescue precious instruments or tape recordings of their fathers’ performances. Family heirlooms and wealth accumulated through generations were left to the mercy of looting militias.

“When we left, we thought we’d be back in a couple of weeks after things in Afghanistan would calm down,” he explains. Instead, weeks turned into almost 14 years.

When the family reached the border crossing into Pakistan at Torkham, it was nighttime. There was nowhere safe for the women to sleep, so the men decided they all had to sleep on the ground and make a circle around the women, making sure no one would touch them. Peshawar, the city where most Afghan refugees were headed to, was still hours away.

But once there, the family split: Hamahang, his parents, and his wife decided to stay in Peshawar, while Shaidayi took his sisters, wife, and children south to the city of Quetta, where his brother was waiting for them. Both cities were full of newly arrived Afghan refugees, many living in congested camps on the cities’ outskirts.

“We started from zero,” Hamahang says.

The musicians were in a slightly more fortunate situation than those living in camps however because they could use their musical skills to earn money. “We rented a house [in Quetta]. The house had four rooms and we were eight families,” Shaidayi says.

Slowly, the people in Quetta started inviting Shaidayi and his brother to perform at their weddings. Many of them were Pashtuns, members of an ethnic group that lives on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shaidayi, an ethnic Tajik and Persian speaker, started learning Pashto so that he could perform at their weddings.

As they started making money they could soon afford a bigger house. But they still lived largely hand-to-mouth.

Years went by like this, exiled in a foreign country. But Kharabat remained in Shaidayi and Hamahang’s dreams.

One day, a few years after leaving Kabul, Shaidayi heard of a new militant group on television: the Taliban. The group had taken over most parts of Afghanistan, and its militants were now moving around Kabul, brandishing their Kalashnikovs and punishing women for as little as showing their ankles.

Kharabat was now empty. Countless musicians lay in their graves, buried under their houses which had been bombed to the ground. Or, if they had been lucky, they had escaped the rockets to Pakistan like Shaidayi and Hamahang.

With the Taliban’s rule of fear, a temporary peace also came to Kabul. But there was no question of returning to Afghanistan. Shaidayi heard from his friends that the Taliban had hanged musical instruments and cassettes from trees — just like men — as a warning to musicians.

“The Taliban didn’t allow music or musicians. All those things were forbidden,” he says.

Shaidayi heard from his friends that the Taliban had hanged musical instruments and cassettes from trees — just like men — as a warning to musicians.

In Kabul, people suddenly had to hide their radios and music players out of fear of the Taliban’s brutal punishments. An eerie silence descended upon the city, broken only by the azaan, the call to prayer that rang out like clockwork five times a day, spreading from the first mosque to the next, filling the entire valley of Kabul.

But Afghans were not isolated from the Taliban even in exile in Pakistan.

“The Taliban were there in Quetta, too, but they couldn’t say anything to us,” Shaidayi says. This, according to him, was because the group didn’t have the authority to do anything on Pakistani soil.

The Taliban in Quetta could easily be identified by the way they dressed and talked, Shaidayi remembers. They also frequently carried weapons.

Sometimes, Shaidayi found himself performing at parties members of the Taliban would attend. “They would come and listen to us there. They didn’t bother us,” he says.

* * *

Almost 400 miles north in Peshawar, Hamahang was leading a similar life, recording music with his father and playing at wedding parties.

One day, upon arriving to perform at a wedding, he saw a person with kohl-rimmed eyes and a large turban on his head. “I went to sit in a corner so that he wouldn’t see me. Then I asked who he was. He said he was the chief of the Taliban’s Ministry for the Enforcement of Virtue and Suppression of Vice in Kabul. I became very afraid,” Hamahang says.

The man had come to perform the nikah, the wedding ceremony, for the bride and the groom. He signaled Hamahang to come closer and asked him who he was. “I was shaking from fear,” he says.

When Hamahang identified himself as Ustad Hamahang’s son, the man said, “Your father had a very good life in Kabul.” Hamahang said, “Don’t do anything to me, the minute I walked up to you, I became ritually impure,” meaning he had wet himself out of fear.

“I could tell my companions to take you to the other side of Torkham,” the man said to him. “There, I could do anything to you. I could kill you, but I won’t. Don’t worry, don’t do anything, don’t sing while I’m here. I will wed the couple, I will go, and then you can sing,” the Taliban chief told Hamahang.

Once the man had left, Hamahang says he sang so well that the Taliban chief’s companions became drunk on the music. Later they brought alcohol bottles and started drinking — a serious offence under the Taliban regime.

For a while, it seemed the Taliban had meant to stay in Afghanistan. Years went by. At times, the families would visit one another; a week or two in Quetta, a month in Peshawar.

The year 2001 rolled in, at first like any other. But then came the 9/11 attacks in New York City. “We didn’t realize anything would happen to the Taliban when we were watching the attacks on TV,” Shaidayi says. But Afghanistan’s fate was about to change once again. In October, the United States invaded the country and chased the Taliban and their al-Qaeda associates away. But the country was in shambles following decades of war. It was not time to return yet.

While living in Pakistan, Shaidayi and Hamahang’s fame had started spreading to all the corners of the world where Afghan refugees lived. Hamahang had already toured the United States with his father in the late ’90s. While there, he had met several famous musicians from all over the world and had even been offered the opportunity to settle in the States. But the dream of one day being able to return to Kharabat had made him refuse.

* * *

In 2004, it was Shaidayi’s turn to see the world. One day, he received a phone call from London. An Indian man at the other end of the receiver wanted to invite him to perform at a Sufi concert along with other Afghan and Iranian musicians.

A few months later he found himself in England, sitting in front of a mostly British audience.

“A lot of people asked me what I thought about London,” he says. What I always remember is that when I was singing a song about Ali [Prophet Muhammad’s nephew] and the person who was playing tabla was translating the lyrics, all the British people were crying. It was very interesting for me.”

After the concert, a group of British people came up to Shaidayi and invited him to read Sufi poetry on a hilltop. They said they were followers of a Sufi saint, Hazrat Ghaus. “When I read the lyrics of a qawwali song, they all fell into a trance.”

* * *

In late 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected president of Afghanistan. Hamahang and Shaidayi soon started hearing good news from Kabul. “Streets had been fixed, a lot of construction was taking place, and a lot of capital came to Afghanistan,” Shaidayi recalls.

In 2005, they finally packed their things, vacated their houses in Peshawar and Quetta, and headed for the Torkham border crossing, more than a decade after the first frightening night spent there.

Despite all the construction and development, a devastating sight awaited them on returning to Kabul.

“Kharabat had vanished,” Hamahang says.

Determined to see the area return to its old glory, the families started slowly rebuilding their houses. But nothing would ever be quite the same again. The years of war and horror had changed the people of Kabul.

Although many were glad to have music return to their lives after years of haunting silence, not everyone was happy to see the Kharabatis back.

“The people who had stayed in Afghanistan during the Taliban — the poor people who weren’t able to go to Peshawar — experienced a lot of terrible things, and they were psychologically affected. Because of that, some of them had very bad ideas about us,” Shaidayi says.

Still, most of the Kharabatis started teaching and performing again, hopeful that slowly things would get better. And for a good 10 years, Shaidayi had a steady, albeit meager, flow of students. But most of the students only took classes for a few months then disappeared. Two years ago, Shaidayi had to give up the small office he was renting as his teaching space. “I simply couldn’t manage anymore,” he says.

The Taliban period had influenced people’s ideas about music. It was seen as something illicit now.

“Some days ago I met with a person who wanted to learn to play the rubab [a traditional string instrument]. He told me his wife had said to him, ‘Why do you want to learn music, it’s not good.’ This is because of illiteracy. People don’t understand,” Hamahang says.

The Taliban period had influenced people’s ideas about music. It was seen as something illicit now.

Music is not explicitly prohibited in Islam. There are scholars who believe it to be permissible and those who do not. Conservative mullahs and imams of mosques often speak against music in their Friday sermons, or khutbas, because they have been influenced by extremist interpretations of religion. Their words are taken seriously in Afghanistan.

There is a mosque near Kharabat where the musicians often go to pray. The mullah there behaves well with them, partly because the Kharabatis give him money each month.

“But he is against our work. He doesn’t view it positively,” Shaidayi says.

Once, Shaidayi went to pray in a mosque further away. The mullah recognized him. “Because of that, he started his khutba by saying that music is forbidden in Islam, music is bad, and that musicians make women dance.”

Slowly, the men understood that the peace in the early years after the U.S. invasion had only been temporary. The Taliban had regrouped and Kabul became unsafe again. Now, bombs explode on a regular basis and ISIS has started targeting the Shiite community of Afghanistan. Corpses pile up and anyone who doesn’t agree with the extremists’ interpretation of religion must fear for their lives.

“From Amanullah Khan’s reign up until today, these mullahs have destroyed our lives. Not only ours, everyone’s,” Hamahang says, suddenly agitated.

And so it has become a question of life and death for the Kharabatis to prove that they are good Muslims, even though their ways of worshipping might be different from the mainstream.

“Our fathers were musicians, but they never sat behind their instruments without first performing ablutions,” Shaidayi says. “They prayed five times a day and so do we. We are Muslims.”

But it is not only mullahs, the Taliban, and other extremists who threaten the Kharabatis.

‘Our fathers were musicians, but they never sat behind their instruments without first performing ablutions,’ Shaidayi says. ‘They prayed five times a day and so do we. We are Muslims.’

One night, Hamahang saw two drunken men with guns outside his house injure a child. He ran outside and asked what was going on. “They shot me, too,” he says, showing his injured hand. The bullet went through his palm and now he is no longer able to move his right middle finger. The men, he says, were part of a criminal gang that sells drugs in Kabul. “No one can do anything to them because they are powerful.”

The gangs often lure the musicians to come to shady locations, speaking of parties and promising them money. “When we arrive, there is nothing there. They beat us, take our keyboards, and all our instruments,” Hamahang says.

Powerful former mujahideen commanders sometimes bring girls and young boys to dance at parties — a practice known by the name of bacha bazi that is often connected to sexual abuse.

“If we go to a party, how can we know that they are bringing a boy or a girl to dance there?” Shaidayi asks. “If we sing, it is uncomfortable for us when someone is dancing in front of us. And if we don’t sing, we will be beaten by them.”

It is a rainy Thursday afternoon. The houses in Kabul are cold and the smell of gas from heaters lingers on men’s traditional suits, or payraan tumbaans. Shaidayi walks down Kharabat wrapped in a woolen shawl. He has just returned from the mosque.

Hamahang appears from around a corner and greets Shaidayi. He has been invited to perform on Afghanistan’s largest TV network’s music program tonight. Occasionally the other Kharabatis go too. But interest in traditional music has decreased even among the more liberal and educated Afghans as Western-influenced music videos have taken over TV channels.

“Now people only watch. They don’t listen. … If there are no girls in the video, nobody is interested,” Shaidayi says.

While Hamahang prepares for his performance, Shaidayi wants to visit some of his former colleagues in the nearby Shor Bazaar where some Kharabatis have their offices. As he is starting to cross a busy road, a man who looks like a beggar comes to greet him. He is also a musician.

Not too long ago, the man’s desperate financial situation drove him to attempt to sell his daughter, Shaidayi explains. But the other Kharabatis, although poor themselves, intervened, collected some money, and prevented this from happening.

Finally in Shor Bazaar, Shaidayi sits in front of his harmonium on the carpeted floor of a room where some Kharabatis still continue to teach their students. The stuffy room smells of hashish and gas from a small heater. Shaidayi starts singing as the man to his left plays the tabla and the one to his right a clarinet. Immediately, everyone is transported to a different world, mesmerized by the melody and lyrics of the song. The piece is a ghazal, a genre of poetry popular in South and Central Asia, composed by Shaidayi’s father, Ustad Shaida. It tells the story of two lovers, Laila and Majnun, a Sufi parable for the relationship between God and his worshipper.

All of this would be considered haram, or forbidden, by the Taliban. But for the Kharabatis, this is the very essence of religion.

“The Taliban don’t like music. If they decide to kill someone [for that] we are the first ones to end up dead,” the tabla player in the corner says after the song has finished.

Shaidayi stands up to leave. Outside, the weather is murky and depressing. Winter has arrived. He slowly walks toward his rented flat in Kharabat, careful not to ruin his shoes in the puddles and open gutters. On the other side of the town, a bomb has just exploded. Sirens fill the air for a while as the injured and dead are transported to hospitals. Then, life must go on again. In the evening, Hamahang’s performance is broadcast on TV while the rest of Kharabatis prepare for another qawwali night in the shrine at the end of the street.

Kharabat may never again become like in the past, but the community worshipping inside the shrine will always welcome Shaidayi and Hamahang. There, away from the eyes of others, it can almost seem like no time has passed.

***

Maija Liuhto is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She covers Afghanistan for the Los Angeles Times and the largest Finnish daily, Helsingin Sanomat. Her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English, the Christian Science Monitor, and VICE.

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