Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan's CD Anthem

After years of wrangling, Afghanistan gets a new national anthem, but there are no musicians left to play it.
By Wahidullah Amani
It’s finally official: Afghanistan’s new national anthem was played in Kabul on May 14, thereby replacing the old version and becoming a formal symbol of national unity.

But there were no trumpets or cymbals to mark the occasion, held at the Ministry of Information, Youth and Tourism. The song can only be played from a compact disc sent from Germany, as the country has neither the musicians nor the instruments to reproduce the sound live.

Decades of war and the emigration of millions of Afghans meant the national anthem had to be composed and produced abroad.

After several attempts at finding an acceptable version, the words to the anthem were written by Abdul Bari Jahani, an Afghan American living in Washington, DC. The music was composed by Babrak Wasa, an Afghan émigré living in Germany. The final version, performed by well-known Afghan singers from all over the world, was recorded onto CD in Germany.

”I like this anthem, it is very sweet,” said Shah Zaman Wraiz Stanikzai, head of the publications department at the Ministry of Information. “But we still have some technical problems. We do not have an orchestra to play at ceremonial functions – they [musicians] are all abroad. We don’t have the instruments.

“Now, when we have to play it, we will put on the CD and hire musicians to pretend they are playing.”

The national anthem is meant to unite the country, inspire patriotic emotions and help heal the wounds created by decades of war. But it has taken over two years of bitter debate to get the nation’s power elite to agree on it.

The constitution mandates that the anthem should be in Pashtu, contain the words “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great), and mention the country’s main ethnic groups. All three requirements have caused major heartache in a country with deep ethnic, linguistic, and political divides.

“Maybe there are a few people who don’t like it because it’s in Pashtu,” said Stanikzai. “But if they are against this anthem, then they’re against themselves. This is our national anthem, and it is as it should be.”

One of those dissatisfied with the outcome is Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, editor of a political magazine called the Voice of the Mujahed. Mansoor, who is a Tajik and therefore has Dari rather than Pashtu as his main language, is a perennial critic of government policies, and the anthem is a particular irritant for him.

“I want the anthem in seven languages,” he told IWPR. “If the government is giving preference to one ethnic group over others, it is very dangerous. I do not respect this anthem, and if it is played on any occasion, I will not stand up for it. It’s [President Hamed] Karzai’s anthem - let him stand.”

Others - including even Jahani, who wrote the words - object to the use of “Allahu Akbar” in the text.

“That is something sacred; we are supposed to recite these words in mosques and holy places, not play music to them. It is not allowed in Islam,” said Jahani in a telephone interview from his home in Washington. “Still, it is finished, and if people like it, then good luck to them.”

The requirement that all major ethnic groups be honoured in the text also created problems, since Afghanistan has dozens if not hundreds of individual groups. In the end, 14 were singled out for mention, giving the hymn a bit of a shopping-list quality. It also angered some, like Hindus and Sikhs, who were left out.

But most people nevertheless agree that the new anthem is an improvement on the old one, which dates from the mid-Nineties and sings the praises of the mujahedin who helped drive out the Soviets. Many Afghans are bitter about the destruction of the factional wars that followed the end of communist rule in 1992, when the mujahedin engaged in a bitter power struggle, wreaking havoc in the process.

“The old song was a mujahedin anthem,” said academician Habibullah Rafi. “Replacing that one with this new anthem is a very good thing.”

He conceded that the new song had some problems, since so much of the text was dictated by the constitution. “The poets had some difficulties,” he said.

Rafi should know – he himself composed an earlier version of the anthem, which was first accepted but later scrapped by the president. Still, he professes himself satisfied with the new song.

“In the end, we did what the constitution said,” he said.

The production of Afghanistan’s new anthem cost 40,000 US dollars, and called on the services of more than 70 singers. Famous expatriates such as Nashnas and Miss Afsana were on hand for the recording, and the final version is quite stirring.

“I heard the new anthem on television,” said Hamayoun, 17, who sells fruit in the centre of Kabul. “It made me very happy. After such a long time, we have a national anthem that belongs to all the people.”

Hamayoun was scornful when asked about the language issue, saying, “Those who complain that it is in Pashtu do not want peace in this country.”

“It is very beautiful,” said Nooraqa, who sells dishes on the street in Kabul. “It does not matter whether it is in Dari or Pashtu or whatever. It is religious and it is also modern.”

But engineering student Hedayatullah, 28, was not pleased with the use of sacred words set to music.

“The anthem is nice but it isn’t good to play music to ‘Allahu Akbar’. That is sacred. As for the language, it doesn’t matter if it is in Pashtu. That is the language of the majority. For the last ten years the anthem has been in Dari, and no one complained. We shouldn’t complain now.”

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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