Kabul Cosmopolitan: Radio Afghanistan and the Politics of Popular Culture, 1960–79

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:50 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Mejgan Massoumi, Stanford University
In contrast to the well-developed body of scholarly research on the impact of the state, the tribe and Islam for nation building and the formation of political ideologies in the Afghan context, cultural history – including the cultural and social history of everyday technologies – offers much that remains to be studied. This paper brings attention to the history of the development of radio in Afghanistan as an important window on the social, cultural, and political processes that took place in a thriving cosmopolitan city in the latter half of the twentieth century. It also highlights the new sounds, voices and communities that the radio cultivated, giving a more rounded understanding of the Afghans’ public life during this time. While radio broadcasting in Afghanistan began in the early 1920’s with the purchase of two broadcasting systems that functioned out of Kabul and Kandahar, it wasn’t until the early 1960’s that with the acquisition of German transmitters, a national radio station was established. Listeners followed local broadcasting that offered programming on politics, society, arts, culture and music featuring artists in and beyond Afghanistan. Both participants in and the content of radio reflected the diverse make-up of the growing capital city, Kabul. By following the thread of appeal of Afghanistan’s most popular musical icon to-date, Ahmad Zahir, we can better appreciate this diversity and the cross-border connections and exchanges that the radio enabled and disseminated. By tracing the circulation of Ahmad Zahir’s music into the Middle East, Central and South Asia, this paper offers a close examination of the scale and contours of Afghan connectivity with the wider world during this time period. Sources for this paper are drawn from sound recordings, newspapers and other print media, memoirs, historical photographs and a collection of interviews with employees of Radio Afghanistan.