This week, I had to dash to DC for a few hours for a last minute engagement. Landed at National airport on time and hailed a cab to go to the city. We had barely left the airport when the cab driver looked at me and with a heavy accent asked me if I was from India. I know there is an inherent irony in an Indian guy claiming somebody else having an accent 🙂 In any case, I replied in the affirmative and the following very interesting conversation unfolded…
Me: “You know, I come to this city at least 20 times a year. I always meet cab drivers from Ethiopia or Eritrea. You don’t seem to be from there. Where are you from?”
I was surprised. I wanted to discuss politics in Afghanistan but was wondering how to ask him – not knowing what his reaction might be.
Instead I asked “Do you know Ahmad Ali”?
Me: “I think he is a singer from your country. He has an amazing voice. He sings in a language I cannot understand. But I love the tunes”
He still did not know what I was talking about. So I gave a few more details…
“He plays the harmonium with his left hand on the reeds. Also, he always sings in a suit. With a tie on”.
He looked back and yelled: “You are talking about Ahmad Wali?”. I suddenly remembered – indeed the name was Ahmad Wali. He pronounced Wali in a slightly different way but I was more taken aback by his loud voice. You could see that he was excited.
He: “How do you know about Ahmad Ali? By the way, that language you cannot understand is called Pashto”.
I figured that must be the name of the language that Pashtuns speak in. “Oh! I am not sure. I think I came across a video of him in YouTube and then I searched more video and songs of him”.
In the next five minutes, I finally understood why he was so excited. The cab driver knew Ahmad Wali personally! They learnt music together!! They went to Habibia High School together!!!
Fascinating story! Both of them escaped from Afghanistan around the time the Communist coup took place followed by the Soviet Invasion. They went to Pakistan and then to India. He was in Delhi for a year and then immigrated to US. Later I found out from Wikipedia that indeed Ahmad Wali had gone to India on a forged passport and then immigrated to Germany. Evidently, while in Afghanistan, he was a cop!!
Back to my cab driver, he fished out a CD from his glove compartment and then put it in the car stereo system. You could hear a young kid singing in a very beautiful voice. “Is that Ahmad Wali when he was a kid?”, I asked. “No!”, he retorted, “that is me”. Evidently many many years later he went back to Afghanistan and went to Radio Kabul office. They pulled out his old songs that had aired and made a CD and gifted it to him!
We discussed at some length how many of today’s musical instruments in India have common roots with the instruments in Afghanistan. He had some very interesting stories also about how those instruments were initially discovered. I was a little incredulous but it was not entirely outside the realm of possibility.
Unfortunately, our trip came to an end. I did not get a chance to ask him why did not try to follow music as a profession in US (as Wali did in Germany) and why he is still driving cabs well into his sixties.
In fact, I wanted a picture of him but there was a long queue of people waiting to jump into the cab moment I got out. I asked him for a card – he did not have any. So I gave him mine – hope he will write back…