KABUL — Independence Day is one of the few Afghan holidays free of political or ethnic tension, celebrated every Aug. 19 with patriotic speeches and caravans of vehicles draped in black, red and green Afghan flags.
In recent years there have been threats of insurgent violence on this day, with extra security measures put in place.
But there has never been a bombshell like Aryana Sayeed.
The sultry, Afghan-born pop singer-songwriter, who lives in London, is known for her skintight costumes and provocative singing style. She has had several hit songs in Afghan Dari and appeared as an entertainment host and judge on Afghan TV shows, but most Afghans have seen her perform only via social media and YouTube.
A recent televised concert in Paris, at which she wore a nude-toned dress, drew shocked opprobrium from conservative Afghans. She responded by publicly burning the dress and declaring it was not because of “pressure from those who still live in dark ages, but to raise further awareness of important issues in our society.”
Several days ago, Sayeed suddenly announced she planned to give a live concert in the Afghan capital on Saturday night, instantly eclipsing public interest in whatever President Ashraf Ghani might have to say in his palace speech on Afghan independence from Britain 98 years ago.
“People in Afghanistan are sad,” Sayeed, 32, wearing a proper long-sleeved dress, told an interviewer on Tolo TV news Friday evening. “On Independence Day, I think it is good for everyone to be happy and nobody to be thinking about war.” She pledged to donate all ticket proceeds to the families and survivors of a Taliban massacre two weeks ago.
Her original plan was to hold the event at Ghazi Stadium, an outdoor arena that holds up to 10,000 people and was once the scene of Taliban executions and stonings. The proposal sent security officials into apoplexy, fearing terrorist attacks.
After day-long negotiations, the event was moved to a ballroom at the heavily guarded Intercontinental Hotel.
That compromise hardly put the controversy to rest.
Perhaps more than any other Afghan entertainer, Sayeed has become a lightning rod for the cultural and generational cleavages roiling this traditional Muslim society as it emerges from decades of war and isolation into the alluring glare of modern life and freedoms, amplified and accelerated by the Internet. She is every young man’s fantasy, many young women’s inspiration, and every cleric’s nightmare.
Over the past 48 hours, Afghan social media has churned with impassioned debate over Sayeed, her role in society and her concert.
“She isn’t just a singer, she is a revolutionary,” posted Habib Khan on Facebook. “This courageous Afghan woman stands against the clergymen to defend her freedom.” But others said she was trying to impose Western democracy on Afghan tradition.
Sana Sofia Nabizadeh posted that it was better Sayeed “not promote prostitution” than donate “haram” (accursed) money to the massacre orphans.
Naser Ali offered a pragmatic middle ground. “She is an icon of cultural glasnost. If only she could observe the hijab during public appearances.”
On Saturday night, the battle spilled into the driveway leading up to the hilltop hotel.
Hundreds of young men and a few women thronged the road, eager to enter, but a group of protesters blocked the way as several hundred anti-riot police armed with clubs and assault rifles tried to disperse them.
“Don’t allow this international whore to dance and sing,” one protester, a heavily bearded man named Abdul Qadir, shouted above the chaos. “You are tarnishing your religious and national identity,” he cried, addressing the security forces. “You are giving your blood to defend your country. Why not block this impious woman?”
Another protester said Taliban and Islamic State insurgents would use videos of the concert for propaganda.
“They will show these videos to teenagers and tell them your country is full of sedition and vulgar and immoral people,” he said. “They will say you should attack the government because it protects such people.”
As darkness fell, the evening call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque. Many protesters knelt and prayed in place, trying to prevent concertgoers from getting past.
But hundreds of eager young men, as well as some young women with their families, pressed toward the hotel.
The original ticket price was $3, but scalped tickets were selling for $12.
One young man in the crowd, Hamid Paiman, said he had come to send a single message: “No to ignorance and extremism.” His companion, graduate student Misaq Salahi, expressed similar ideals but was also clearly star-struck. “I am in favor of freedom. Women should be allowed to do what they want,” he said, then added, “I am going to support her. I am one of her fans.”
Sharif Walid contributed to this report.