Deposed king returns to Afghanistan to fulfill his 'destiny'

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Mohammad Zaher Shah, Afghanistan's deposed monarch, arrived in Kabul Thursday after nearly 30 years' exile in Rome. His return had been delayed twice due to threats of violence which heightened anxiety about his safety.
   The former king agreed in December to return to Afghanistan to help establish a loya jirga, which for centuries selected Afghanistan's government. The loya jirga, which will be convened in June, is basically a meeting of the chieftains. The group will nominate 1,450 individuals who will then select the representatives for what will become the Afghan national government. For the first time, the loya jirga will also include women. The king's presence is expected to convey a much-needed sense of legitimacy to the proceedings.
   The king was accompanied to Afghanistan by his sons, Mirwais Zahir, Ahmad Shah, and Nader Shah, Nader's son, Dowd and a cousin, Sultan Ghazi. The royal family was escorted from the king's compound in Rome by Hamid Karzi, head of the interim Afghan government.
   Karzi, who not only is a friend of the king but also a relative, was injured Dec. 5 during a U.S. airstrike which killed Watauga-native Donnie Davis, Daniel Petithory and Brian Cody Prosser, members of the 5th Group Special Forces assigned to protect him.
   Jonathan Billheimer of Jonesborough, a professor of history at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., spent an hour with the king and Prince Mirwais on March 19 after being granted audience with the king. Billheimer's interest in history and the king began with his "favorite teacher in Elizabethton," Harry Crowe, whom he had for social studies when he attended T.A. Dugger Junior High. "He was the first good teacher that I had that got me interested in history."
   Billheimer first visited the deposed king in Rome in March 2001, one year to the week of his return visit. "I had tried since late December to go over and they said, 'No, it won't be possible.' Finally, in March, I said, 'I'm going to be in Rome for five days. Prince Mirwais called me back and said, 'OK, we might be able to work you in, but I can't promise anything.'
   "The first four days in Rome, I would basically get up in the morning at my hotel, call and say, 'Can you work me into the schedule?' and they'd say, 'It doesn't look like it.' Finally, on the morning of my last full day there, they called and said to be at General Ali's villa at 9 a.m. It was after 7 p.m. when he finally reached the compound. "I had to stand in the garden outside of the compound with these huge floodlights for about 45 minutes," he said. According to protocol, only one visitor was allowed inside the compound at a time. As soon as that person left, another could enter.
   "Prince Mirwais, greeted me, shook my hand, and took me inside. It was just so much more relaxed this time. The king was seated in the corner of the room and we went over and they served us tea. I was told at 5 p.m. that I would only get 5 minutes, and it ended up being an hour," Billheimer said.
   As he was leaving the compound, Prince Mirwais laughed and said to Billheimer, "Well, I told you 5 minutes, but as you see, sometimes when my dad gets to talking about his childhood and about Afghanistan, he just really enjoys talking."
   "When I spoke with Prince Mirwais after I got back to the states, he told me that his father had really enjoyed talking to me and that he was glad to see young people interested in the story of Afghanistan."
   Billheimer said His Majesty not only he talked about his childhood, but about his overthrow in 1973 by his cousin, Daoud, who was assassinated by Marxists in 1978.
   "He told me that even though he was overthrown, he didn't mind losing power because he had ruled for 40 years and was ready for a break. He said it hurt him that his own cousin overthrew him, but overall, he wasn't shattered. He was perfectly satisfied to sort of step out of the spotlight."
   Billheimer said the king's return to Afghanistan was touch and go for awhile.
   "All sorts of rumors were flying that the king himself didn't want to go, which I think was false." Also, he said, the Americans and the Italians were trying to work out provisions for the king's security.
   "The monarchy, the family that the exiled king comes from, is about 200 years old. Modern Afghanistan, as we know it, has only been around for about 200 years. You can sort of conclude from that, that the reason he is so desired and the reason that people look to him so much, he is in many ways the embodiment of the Afghan political identity.
   "There are just so many ethnic groups, so many religions -- even within Islam -- and it is so divisive that the royal family is really the only thing that not only binds the country, but that provides the country with any longevity and any cohesiveness," Billheimer said.
   Even though the king has renounced the throne, "there is a raw emotional and nostalgic power that he has which is extraordinarily valuable. It's as real as any power that comes from a gun or from a rifle," Billheimer said.
   Nearly 88 years old, Billheimer said Zahir Shaw walks unassisted. "When I saw him ... he was sitting in a fairly low couch, but had no problems stepping up and shaking my hand and walking away from the room."
   How the king's return will be received "is the $64 question," according to Billheimer. "I know that his wife stayed behind. But I also know that he has said he wishes to perform this last service to his country and that he hopes to die on Afghan soil. They're not really setting a return date and, indeed, there may be no return date. ... Much will depend on the measure of security that the international force can provide to keep a grip on these opposing warlords, many of whom would like to see him assassinated and removed from the picture."
   Billheimer said it is rumored that the king's sons are interested in achieving some type of political or economic clout within the country, possibly positioning themselves to benefit from strategic oil reserves in the Caspian Sea which would have to be transported by pipe ran through Afghanistan.
   Billheimer said the king will not return to the main residence, but will instead live in a palace that has been prepared for his return. "His father's burial place, which is a mausoleum, is close to Kabul on the outskirts. ... I think he is anxious to visit his father's mausoleum. And if things work out, he has a tremendous desire to travel throughout the country and visit with the people of Afghanistan."
   With the presence of the Taliban and the division of the country, Billheimer said he believes the king is definitely in a certain amount of danger, "and I think that he also is very aware of this. It would have been much easier to remain in Rome ... but he has really chosen this last endeavor because he believes in what he calls the 'dignity of function.' It's difficult for anyone in our era to sort of grasp the type of conviction that he has."
   When Billheimer first visited the king last year in Rome, "absolutely no one really believed that he would ever be going back, both within his friends and family and the outside political world," he said. "But after Sept. 11, that all changed and he has gone back, and he really sees it as his destiny."