Afghanistan’s Sentimental King


Mohammad Zahir Shah, 86, has spent nearly the past three decades in exile in Italy. The deposed Afghan king could provide a sort of figurehead for a new coalition government in Afghanistan—if the United Nations and the Northern Alliance now steamrolling through the country agree.

In the days before U.S. strikes began, a role for Zahir Shah in any post-Taliban regime seemed a given. In September, Northern Alliance representatives even traveled to Rome in an effort to court the king’s support for their opposition effort. As an ethnic Pashtun, Zahir offered the hope of winning the allegiance of those from the country’s largest group, which largely backed the Taliban.

But as the Northern Alliance began racking up military success—taking Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul amid alleged massacres—commanders no longer saw the need for Zahir. Yesterday, the Northern Alliance told CNN Zahir was welcome to return—but as for as Zahir’s role in government, one negotiator said, “Don’t place any bets yet.” The former ruler, for his part, told CNN he would travel to his home country as soon as possible.

It’s not clear how he’ll be received, but late last month, he spoke to this reporter about the country and the people he loves.

Voice: Describe your 28 years in exile.

Zahir: They were difficult years for me, even though life was generally rather serene here. I missed Afghanistan a great deal. My heart ached to see it again. I have missed its rivers, its mountains, and its kind-hearted people. I have a mysterious feeling now about going back. Ending long years of exile, going back to my country after so many years, all the wars and misery the people have suffered—these are not simple emotions.

Was it hard for you to get used to the idea of not being king?

Being a king, as far as its power and trappings, never had any appeal for me. I was above all concerned with the fate of my country. When I heard about the coup d’état against me, I had a sinking feeling. It may seem like a pat thing to say, but I had a premonition of things to come. I knew Afghanistan very well and knew how delicately the disparate ethnic and cultural strands were held together and how easily they might unravel. I was very sad, very sad.

Your father was assassinated. Tell us about that time.

I was with my father the day he was martyred. He was assassinated before my eyes. That memory has never left me.

Of course, side by side with that, I have many fond memories of the time I spent with him as well. In particular, the time I had with him during my school days in the south of France are especially memorable.

Are you frightened of going home? Do you know exactly where you would go?

I have no worries about returning to my country, as I have thought of nothing these past few years but returning to Afghanistan among my countrymen. I have a relatively simple life here. As far as what location I would go to once I am there, I don’t know yet. My old palace at the Royal Arg is in ruins, like most other governmental buildings in Kabul. The location or the state of the home I will occupy is of little importance.

Will your family go with you?

In the first stage, my sons and grandsons will return, and then later the rest of my family. My wife is both happy and apprehensive. She has many nightmares about the dangers facing her family.

How have you managed financially since losing the throne?

As it became clear after the coup that our exile was going to be a rather long one, the government in Kabul gave me a token sum. At the time, I had no money with me, nor did I have any investments overseas. Fortunately, some friends of mine came to our rescue. There were also some Islamic governments that assisted us a little. God was always with us.

You used to live in the city of Rome. Why did you leave for the suburbs?

In 1994, a man posing as a journalist attacked me with a knife. He had aimed for my heart but a cigarette case that I always carried in my breast pocket saved my life. After that, we had to move to a more secure location.

The police said that (the man) carried a Portugese passport, but we never found out about his motives or his real identity.

How have spent your time in Italy?

I had a very simple routine. I would leave my house every morning to buy the papers and a cup of coffee. I walked a lot. I would visit the library. Then I would go back home to watch the news on TV. I did some gardening. I liked to listen to the discussions on TV about books or current events. At night, I would watch a movie. My evenings would end by reading a book.

I have great fondness for historical books. I also enjoy French poetry, books on mythology, and philosophy. I try to read most of the books that come out about Afghanistan. On the average, I read two or three books a week. Lately, I have read a biography on Henry IV and one on Alexander the Great. I used to have a large library in Afghanistan. I don’t know what has become of it.

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.