The Washington, D.C. area is home to one of the largest Afghan communities in the United States. Others are in California, Texas, New York City, Kansas City in the Midwest and Nashville in the southern state of Tennessee. An Afghan singer is a welcome guest in all of these communities.
Ehsan Aman was in his late teens and already a famous singer when he left Kabul in 1981, two years after Soviet troops invaded his country.
He said, "They started forcing people to do certain stuff. Especially the artists, we were forced to sing pro-regime, pro-Communist songs. I refused to sing. And there was a song, and God's name Allah was there, and right after singing that song I was put under very tight surveillance, and I had to get out, somehow."
The song that precipitated Mr. Aman's flight to Pakistan was interpreted by the authorities as being anti-Soviet, when it was broadcast briefly on Kabul national radio. "It says it's just a prayer, that God, please keep my love alive. And then it's basically just a prayer, 'Allah, Allah,'" he said.
Ehsan Aman was taught to sing by his father when he was four years old, living in a provincial town in Afghanistan, some 600 kilometers southwest of Kabul. His reputation as a singer began while he was still in high school. Then, when the family moved to Kabul, his performances at Kabul University concerts brought him to national attention. When he came to the United States as a refugee at age 21, he thought he could make music his career here - but initially it didn't work out that way.
"When I came here to the United States," he said, "I continued singing among the little groups of Afghans here, basically in the Washington, DC area, New York and some in California - very small gatherings. And then I started working as a civil engineer, which is what I studied in college. I worked continuously as a civil engineer for I would say 10 to 11 years, without any musical activities."
Ironically, he found that being a civil engineer was not a very secure profession. "I got laid off from work a couple of times," he said, "and that's how I decided to start singing, to have the musical career as like a business career, so I would always have something to fall back on if something like that happened to me in the future. So basically now I'm a full-time musician, most of my income is from music. But I do some small civic engineering projects here and there on my own just to keep me current with the technology and everything."
As the Afghan community in the United States grows, so does Ehsan Aman's popularity. Some people remember him from his performances as a student in Kabul, others become acquainted with him through his concerts or the CDs he has released here.
His repertoire appeals to a broad spectrum of Afghans, consisting as it does of everything from traditional Afghan folk songs to modern techno-music in Dari. "It's like this," he said as he started to sing. 'That's something that you say - your darling, your sweetheart is as sweet as a flower, as beautiful as a little flower.'"
Mr. Aman said that he feels he is living in two different worlds, the more tradition-bound Afghan community and the modern American one. "We kind of balance between the two," he said. "Within the family circle we practice all the traditional stuff, you know, especially the holidays, the way we act, the way we talk. But when we go to work, we have to be, we have to act, or we have to - how [do] you say this - perform like Americans, otherwise it's not possible. Now it's in our system, we do this subconsciously. In the beginning it was an interesting switch, it was a little hard to adjust to the modern system, but now we are very comfortable."
Ehsan Aman said he is optimistic that Afghanistan, after years of sorrow and bitterness, will now finally be able to develop into a modern, good community. But he doesn't know whether he would want to return to Kabul to live. After twenty years here, America is home, he said. He does, however, hope to return to Kabul to sing.
Mr. Aman said, "There's a strong possibility that I might perform in the Kabul stadium with other singers. That's one of my dreams. When I was a kid, when I was passing by the stadium, you know, I always wanted to perform there. And I think it's very possible now."
A song calling on Afghans to work together for the good of their country, which Ehsan Aman hopes to perform someday soon in Kabul.