Rauf and Azim
GEORGE MÜRER / Hunter College
In the summer of 2006, four years before I embarked on graduate studies in ethnomusicology, I spent four weeks in Afghanistan and two weeks in Tajikistan, independently documenting music. Among the musicians I filmed, many have since passed away — Zaragul Iskanderova, Mamad Ato, Haji Beltoon, Salam Logari, Mashinai, Ustad Amreddin, Ghulamhaidar, and Mahmud Khoshnawaz. These were all veterans of national broadcast media and other high profile performing arts circuits, and I arrived familiar with most of them through vintage recordings but without a clear sense of the current situation of musical milieus in post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-civil war Tajikistan (I had visited Dushanbe in 2002).
While Afghanistan was everything I had been led to imagine, in terms of breathtaking landscapes and friendly, extraordinarily hospitable people, the overall situation was profoundly upsetting. An atmosphere of poverty and hopelessness was pervasive. Years of war, corruption, and the Taliban’s fanaticism had driven large numbers of people to flee to camps or slums in Iran and Pakistan. People were now returning from exile and also abandoning rural areas for cities in search of employment and stability.
Kabul felt on edge. Anonymous women in burqas did their household laundry in the shallow puddles of stagnating water that were all that remained of the dried-up and garbage-strewn Kabul river. Teeming open air markets overflowed with the cheaply made goods that were flooding in from China. Bread and/or melons were the staple foods for many households. Foreign NGO workers confined themselves to walled, heavily-guarded compounds, subsisting on pizza and lattes that cost the equivalent of months of wages for an average Afghan household. There was little evidence that foreign money invested in Afghanistan did much more than cover these expenses and line the pockets of regional strongmen. Foreign journalists and contractors relied on expensive drivers, fixers, and bodyguards. I met UN pilots who had been firmly instructed not to mix with the general populace under any circumstances. Locals constantly expressed to me a hope that Afghanistan would be entrusted with the lion’s share of the world’s legal, medical opioid production, a matter I raised via e-mail with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, but was met with an incredulous and dismissive response.
I had arrived with two dozen hour-long DV cassettes, which I had assumed would suffice; but in fact I had to ration what I recorded rather stringently. Nearly all of the footage I returned with was of musicians performing on camera, rather than the cinematic moments that presented themselves spontaneously.
There were so many compositions and confluences I would never have anticipated: droves of dragonflies dancing in shifting formations alongside an intercity minibus departing Kunduz at dawn as the driver played a Bollywood cassette distinctly reminiscent of the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack, gloomily keyed sugar plum glockenspiels and all; the pleasant but stiff middle-aged American philanthropist who haunted the bullet ridden common area of Kabul’s fabled Mustafa Hotel, looking profoundly uncomfortable, a perpetual fish out of water, except for that one hot dusty afternoon when The Terminator came on the TV and he suddenly came to life, reciting every line with perfect timing and campy delight; the lonely “complaints” (shekāyāt) box tucked away out of reach under a rickety staircase in the Herat airport…
But the undocumented moments that stick with me most are memorable for their poignancy rather than their randomness. I bought a cheap shoulder bag on the street for a few cents and a day later the strap broke as I sat in a taxi with the late sarinda player Mashinai — a national treasure. He looked with pity at my bag and took out a thread and needle and sewed the strap back on as we inched through Kabul’s infamous traffic. Another day, I visited the aged delruba player Amreddin and noted that he was using a cough drop as rosin for his bow. On July 4, 2006, tensions rose dramatically in Kabul with pair of suicide bombings in the city center — the first ever in the country, I was told. Feeling suddenly vulnerable on the deserted streets at dusk, I happened upon a pair of perhaps nine-year-old boys who, finding me visibly rattled, lectured me on the importance of being brave and strong while in Afghanistan. Another evening, I met a soldier from Oklahoma who was escorting a senior Kazakh mercenary, consulting for the US army, and he asked me why I was in Afghanistan. When I tried to explain it to him as he shot pool with a tightlipped Russian soldier, he took everything I said in his stride and surmised, “so you’re here for shits and giggles then?”
It was by chance that I first encountered Rauf Sarkhosh in 2006, whereupon he invited me to his home, and there I met his accompanist Azim Bamiyani. Both were from the Hazara heartland of central Afghanistan: Rauf from Dai Qundi in northern Uruzgan province and Azim from Bamiyan. Rauf asked one thing of me: he had met a US army colonel in Dai Qundi and there had been some talk of the possibility of him playing at ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) functions in the heavily fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district, where ISAF had its headquarters. Rauf had the colonel’s phone number, but didn’t speak English, so he asked me to call him. When I did, I spoke to the colonel’s aide, who said he’d relay the message that Rauf was in Kabul and interested in seeking paid engagements at various official functions. Nothing ever came of this, I discovered later.
I found the songs that Rauf and Azim performed for me at Rauf’s home riveting on a visceral level, but the two musicians also fascinated me as a duo, each displaying such a vivid linkage to where he’d been over the course of his life and to where he was in this shared present. When I finally reconnected with Rauf in the era of social media, I was surprised to learn that he resided with asylum status in the Swedish town of Vänersborg, just about an hour by train from my second cousin’s farm in Norway, which I had reason to visit in 2019 for her seventieth birthday celebration. I left my wife, daughter, and sister in Sarpsborg and went to Vänersborg to visit Rauf overnight. I regretted not being able to stay longer. This pair of rather brief visits — in Kabul in 2006 and in Vänersborg in 2018 — provided the material from which I have assembled this film.
It is difficult to conceive a documentary film on music in or from Afghanistan without placing oneself in dialogue with John Baily’s films (e.g. 1985; 2008). These center largely on Herati lineages of musicians, and greatly expand on and support his written scholarship by examining not only recent evolutions in repertoires and technique, transmission and terminology, organology and performance context, but also the effects of war and displacement, with much of his work conducted in Peshawar, Mashhad, London, Kabul, and California, as well as in Herat1. Although I similarly strive in Rauf and Azim to position the bristling chemistry of musical performances as central to the viewing experience while acknowledging circumstances of upheaval, hardship, and loss, it is not the product of extended residencies in the field. It pairs a single — for me, serendipitous — musical moment in Kabul at a moment of flux, with detailed annotations long after the fact.
It is hard not to think of what might have been added to this film given more resources and a more singular focus on my part: visits to Hazara towns and villages in Central Afghanistan; an in-depth portrait of Azim as a wedding performer in Kabul and now in Iran; and much more attention to the breadth of Rauf’s musical activities in Vänersborg. These range from his interactions with young Hazaras, through picnic outings and dambura lessons, to the cultural events he has been invited to participate in, such as Nawruz celebrations and festival showcases highlighting the cultural diversity that refugee communities have brought to Sweden (although at the time of writing, political ground has been rapidly gained by the Swedish anti-immigrant far right). I would have loved to be on hand to film his appearance at the Nordic Guitar Con, where he was certainly the odd man out on a bill consisting mainly of Scandinavian metal bands.
In contrast with my other ongoing film projects, the volume of material woven together in this film is quite sparse. This paucity favors an emphasis on confinement and memory, where the songs performed must stand in for, speak for, and gesture to an expansive body of experiences that remains inaccessible to the filmmaker, to the viewer, and, in many senses, to the subjects themselves in the cinematic present. The film is comprised in large part of testimonies, both musical and verbal, that are uttered from the confines of homes in Kabul, Vänersborg, and Tehran. When we hear from Azim, the sense of confinement is extreme: he, his wife, and children are forced to stay cooped up indoors most of the time, with Azim as the only one risking the consequences of emerging in order to support the family. He has made it very clear to me how frustrated and dismayed he feels to be unable to send his children to school.
Hazaras have been routinely excluded and persecuted within the larger social landscape of Afghanistan, and are especially targeted on religious grounds by the Taliban. At the time of writing, large scale killings of Hazaras — including an incident where at least 52 mainly young women were killed at an education center in a Hazara neighborhood in Kabul (Faizi 2022) — have prompted outrage, despair, the hashtag stophazaragenocide, and an outpouring of empathy and solidarity from Tajiks and Pashtuns in Afghanistan, embodying the spirit of “hamdilī” (being of one heart) that Rauf Sarkhosh extolls in his late father’s mission, which is now his own. In response to the brutality and systematic oppression exercised by both the Taliban and the Iranian regime, Iranians, Afghans, Hazaras, Kurds, Arabs, and Baloch show more crosscommunal and transregional mutual investment in each other’s struggles than I have ever observed in the past. Now, when I exchange voice messages with Azim, I am trying to stay abreast both of how he and his family are faring in their capacity as refugees, and how their safety is affected by the ongoing protests and reprisals across Iran at this moment, which is both hopeful and ravaged by merciless violence.
I have found both musicians to be tremendously supportive, not only of my dissemination of their art, but also of the dissemination of their stories. They share the precarity of exile and a longing for wholeness and social harmony with so many others. Now a Swedish citizen, Rauf is publicly addressing crowds assembled in Gothenburg to demonstrate against the Taliban regime while Azim is burdened with further isolation due to internet shutdowns, yet expanding his circuit of wedding performances to Hazara communities in cities outside of Tehran.
1 Much other work deserves mention, both cinematic endeavors (Quraishi 2010, Longley 2018, Wolf 2021) and oral histories and ethnographic accounts (Klaits and Gulmamedova-Klaits 2005; Doubleday 1988; Sakata 2013).
Baily, John. 1985. Film: Amir: An Afghan Refugee Musician’s Life in Peshavar, Pakistan. Documentary Educational Resources.
———. 2008. Film: Ustad Rahim. Royal Anthropological Institute.
Doubleday, Veronica. 1988 . Three Women of Herat. London: I.B. Tauris.
Faizi, Fazel Rahman. October 3, 2022. “Death toll in last week’s Kabul school blast climbs to 52.” AP News.
Klaits, Alex and Gulchin Gulmamadova-Klaits. 2005. Love and War in Afghanistan. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Longley, James. 2018. Film: Angels Are Made of Light. Daylight Factory.
Sakata, Hiromi Lorraine. 2013. Afghanistan Encounters with Music and Friends. Los Angeles: Mazda Publishers.
Quraishi, Najibullah. 2010. Film: The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. Clover Film.
Wolf, Richard K. 2021. Film: Two Poets and a River. Huckwolf Productions.
George Mürer is an ethnomusicologist and filmmaker specializing in music, ritual, and culture in Kurdistan, Greater Khorasan, and the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean region. He has presented extensively his feature-length work Her Bijî Granî, about the sonic aesthetics, subcultural dimensions, and professional circuits of electrified North Kurdish wedding music. Other ethnographic documentary projects he has presented include work on Qaderi sufi practice in Kurdistan, interregional music making in Badakhshan, musical cosmopolitanism in Kuwait, and the varied cultural settings in which Arab musical idioms are engaged in Indonesia and Malaysia. He is also developing a film as a companion to his dissertation, which concerned musical and ritual contexts among the Baloch communities of the Arab Gulf States.