Strumming My Shashtar For Ahmad

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — It was easy enough for me to break Tajik Travel Rule No. 3.

(That’s the one that goes "when dining in a dark, dingy hotel bar in Dushanbe, never answer to strangers who come up to you and say, ‘Ahmad, is that you?’")

After all, I already had broken Tajik Travel Rule No. 1 ("never dine in dingy hotel bars in Dushanbe") and Tajik Travel Rule No. 2 ("dine if you must, but don’t drink the cognac."). So naturally, when the swarthy stranger in the Fourth Floor Bar at the Hotel Dushanbe asked me, "Ahmad, is that you?" I responded tipsily, "It is I."

Bad move. For the Ahmad in question was none other than Ahmad Zahir, the late, legendary Afghan singer, otherwise known as "Bulbul i Afghan," the nightingale of the Afghans. The barman knew what was going on. With a big grin, he produced an Ahmad Zahir CD. I looked at the picture on the cover.

And suddenly I saw what they saw: the same long, dark hair; the same jutting chin; the same, uh, slight weight problem. I was a dead ringer for the dead singer.

This was like being the best Elvis impersonator in a bar in Memphis, only worse, because no one in Dushanbe tries to impersonate Ahmad Zahir. I was the first Ahmad sighting since the musician had died at the age of 33 in June 1979, in an automobile accident (which many believe was staged by Hafizullah Amin, the "Butcher of Kabul," whose regime Zahir had criticized).

From the Ahmad Zahir web site (www.AhmadZahir.com), I later would discover that my lookalike had been an accomplished musician and composer, who updated ancient Afghan folk forms with eclectic, engaging arrangements that borrowed liberally from Western and Indian culture. The result is haunting, exotic, yet accessible music.

Such Zahir favorites as "Dewana-am Dewana-am" (I Am Crazy, I Am Crazy), "Deldaar Raseeda" (My Love Has Come), or his moving eulogy to his mother, "Maadarem" (My Mother) may never make it to MTV, but they sound great on MP3. Zahir’s crossover style and the fact that he often sang in the Dari language, which is similar to Tajik, extended his music’s appeal beyond the borders of Afghanistan.

Back at the bar, many, many bottles of cognac later, someone handed me a shashtar — a four-stringed cross between a guitar and a banjo.

"Ahmad," said one man. "If you have indeed returned to us, please play us a song."

Now, if I had known any better, I would have remembered Zahir’s words that Copy khani hunar nist (Copying is not a talent) and found a way out of it. But having broken Travel Rules Nos. 1-3 hours earlier, I had no problem ignoring Travel Rule No. 4 — "if you don’t know any Afghan music, just say so."

I did not know "Dewana-am Dewana-am." So instead, I tried "Norwegian Wood."

"I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me ...". The party ended abruptly right there.

One night, many weeks later, I dreamed of Ahmad Zahir. He wanted to know why I was so interested in his music. Ahmad saw the resemblance and found it amusing. He was teaching me to play "Dewana-am Dewana-am" on a shashtar when my son Alex woke me up.

It was Christmas morning.

"Papa, why are you smiling?" Alex asked.

David Filipov is Moscow correspondent for the Boston Globe. Anna Badkhen will return from vacation next week.