With his jaunty, Bollywood-style haircut and white embroidered tunic, Mirwais looks as though he would warble like a pretty songbird, but his singing is forceful and worldly, as if he has already seen it all. And he has. Tonight, he croons folksongs of impossible love, betrayal and heroism that flow from the depths of Afghanistan's tragic history. Under a nebula of hashish smoke, two men leap up to dance, circling each other like angry cobras. They turn aggressive and are pulled apart—even the boy's mesmerizing song cannot keep Afghans from fighting for long. When performances get wild, says Mirwais, he tells himself: "I must not be scared, never."
Boy vocalists, long a part of Afghan tradition, were silenced from 1996-2001 by the puritanical Taliban regime, which regarded song as un-Islamic, and had many musicians arrested and beaten. Now, three years after the Taliban defeat, singers are wandering back from exile in Europe and the U.S. to a tumultuous welcome, and Kabul's virtuosos have unearthed the instruments they buried in their gardens. Songs blast from Kabul shops, and more than a dozen radio stations flourish around the country. Mirwais, one of the first to sing in public after the Taliban's ouster, is at the vanguard of this revival. Despite his youth, he recognizes the enormity of the change. In the old days, he says, "If the Taliban caught me, they would have shaved my head. And only Allah knows what other punishments I would have faced."
Young artists like Mirwais have several advantages over their veteran rivals. The cascading clarity of their voices blends harmoniously with the Afghan rabab, an ancient, 19-stringed instrument that is a cross between a sitar and a mandolin. And because he is still a boy, Mirwais is allowed at weddings to sing for both men and women, whose parties are strictly segregated. This will last until Mirwais turns 15 and is considered a man, no longer to be trusted around unveiled women.
Among the boy singers, Mirwais is tops, though he has a 14-year-old rival, Wali Fateh Ali Khan, a favorite of former King Zahir Shah. But among the common folk, Mirwais is considered the best. He and his three-piece band—a tabla drummer and rabab and harmonium players—were booked every night during the three-month wedding season prior to the holy month of Ramadan, when the partying stops. His crowning achievement came last September, when he won a famous singing contest at Kabul's Park Cinema. That day, Mirwais appeared in an immaculate white suit, handling the audience with the insouciance of a mite-sized Sinatra. His performance blew the other contestants off the stage.
As yet, though, Mirwais' stardom has not brought him riches. At one Kabul bazaar, music sellers offer 57 different tapes of his performances, all pirated. At a recent wedding, an Afghan thrust a boom box into the singer's face, unabashedly recording him for future sales. Copyright laws, like road safety and gun control, have not yet gained much traction in Afghanistan.
The soulful melancholy in Mirwais' voice is the product of hard times. He may be only 13, but he has already suffered greatly, and this, he says, may have helped him capture the anguish that many Afghans have endured in the last 25 years of scorching battle and exile. "I sing what I feel," he says with a child's simplicity. His father was a famous musician who died when Mirwais was only 5 years old. The family had the misfortune of living in the Char-Deh neighborhood of Kabul on the front line between two warring commanders; as mortars and rockets exploded around them, Mirwais and his brothers risked their lives every day just to draw water from a communal well.
When the Taliban seized power, one of their first edicts was to ban music. They ransacked the Afghan Radio and Television station, decorating nearby trees and rosebushes with streamers of ripped-out audiotape. (Brave technicians, however, sealed thousands of Afghan records and tapes behind a false wall at the studio, which the Taliban never found.) "We were afraid that the Taliban would kill us," recalls Mirwais' older brother Nur-ul-Haq, a tabla player who says dozens of artists were beaten in public by Taliban zealots. So the family buried their musical instruments under a chicken coop in the garden. Another brother left to sell flowers in Iran, while Nur-ul-Haq hawked carpets in Pakistan. Mirwais, who was just 5 years old when the Taliban took over, stayed in Kabul with his mother.
As a toddler, Mirwais showed no interest in music. It wasn't until he was 6, a year after his father's death, that anyone even heard him sing. According to Nur-ul-Haq, Mirwais had never hummed or whistled until the day when he climbed a pomegranate tree in the garden and sang to his mother. His voice was a revelation. She immediately apprenticed him to a music teacher, Ustaad Amin Jan Mazari, who listened to him and took him on for free. In the South Asian tradition of gurus and disciples, Mirwais lived with his teacher "like a son," recalls Mazari. He did household chores and spent hours each day practicing the broad range of vocal scales found in classical Afghan music. Mirwais came to revere his master. Today, when they meet, the boy's face glows, and he bows to touch his teacher's feet. "He has good talent," says Mazari, "and, by the kindness of Allah, when Mirwais is 40 years old or so, with practice, he will become great."
Lasting that long as a singer may be a challenge. Already, Mirwais works punishing hours, often singing until 3 a.m. and then rising late to ride his bicycle—whose handlebars have sprouted a bouquet of artificial flowers—to a dirt-floor schoolhouse that has no doors or windows to ward off the icy winter winds. Mirwais sits there with other drably uniformed boys, a bright kid with a sad smile. The schoolyard is full of toughs, and he knows better than to show off his one luxury, a new cell phone in which he's stored dozens of jangling tunes.
For now, his greatest danger is not the playground bully but something far worse: the possibility of being kidnapped and sold to a local warlord who fancies young boys. In Afghanistan, where a premium is placed on women's honor and chastity, young boys are often considered fair game for sex. Indeed, according to Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author and expert on the Taliban's rise, the religious movement, with its strict emphasis on law and order, started in the early 1990s after a drunken commander picked up one of Mullah Mohammed Omar's young seminarians and performed a mock, public wedding with the youth. After the abused student staggered back to the madrasah, Omar swore revenge and his movement quickly swept away the criminal warlords.
A handsome, sweet-voiced boy like Mirwais is particularly vulnerable amid the lawlessness of today's Afghanistan, so his entourage of musicians and two older brothers quickly spirits him away after every singing engagement. Still, whatever dangers may exist, Mirwais and the musicians around him know they have much to be thankful for—not least that Afghanistan is finally rediscovering its love of music. Now, sighs teacher Mazari, "All we have to do is persuade Afghans to listen to something other than Bollywood songs. You can't escape them. They're everywhere."