Afghanistan's Sentimental King

Zahir Shah Speaks on the Next Afghanistan

How about films?
Since I like history, I like historical epics very much, films from ancient Rome or Greece appeal to me. I have watched the movie Gladiator several times, maybe 20 times. I also like old romantic stories like Out of Africa.

In Afghanistan, did you have different hobbies?
I did a lot of horseback riding. I also went hunting and mountain climbing whenever I had the time. Here, it was all reduced to walking and gardening. Even that has been stopped in the last few weeks. I cannot even go to my garden for security reasons.

Do your daughters wear the veils?
We are all practicing Muslims, but wearing the veil is not obligatory in my household. It is difficult for my daughters to wear the hejab at all times in Italy. They wear it in meetings with other Afghans or when they have Afghan guests for example.

What do you think the status of women will be in a new Afghanistan?
Under our rule, we had a lot in the way of equality of the sexes. We even had women ministers and parliamentarians. That was decades ago. It is hard to imagine how things have deteriorated. I sincerely hope that women would have equal rights with men again.

Are you happy that your family has been with you all these years?
Actually, some relatives have been killed in the last few years. Most of my family, however, is safe and out of harm's way in Italy. I am only thankful for that.

But how could I be happy when I know of so many people whose lives have been shattered by war and terrorism and despair? You can't find one family in Afghanistan who hasn't lost someone. During all these years, I have closely followed the events as they have unfolded and the tragic toll it has taken on individual lives. And right now, the humanitarian situation is just catastrophic. Absolutely catastrophic. With years of war and dislocation, there is so little to produce. And now there is the threat of mass starvation.

Other than the humanitarian situation, what do you think are the most pressing problems in Afghanistan today?
I would mention the problem of illicit drugs and terrorism. These are the problems that the next government has to deal with. Certainly, these would take highest priority. There is also the problem of repatriation of millions of people to their homes.

Afghans are of course capable of tackling these issues, but there is also the need for massive assistance by the international community for these are international problems.

On a lighter note, what language did you speak in Italy?
I do understand Italian a little, although I can't speak it. My education has been in French. I also understand English. So we talked in different languages with our friends and neighbors. At home, we converse in Persian Dari.

What did your neighbors call you in Italy?
They all referred to me as Your Majesty.

Is that how you would like to go back, as the king?
As I told you, I have no attachment to the status of king. I would return as an elder father of the country, someone the people have trust in and who would use his influence over the nation to unify the country in these critical times. A Grand Council would then decide on the future shape of the government.

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