Afghan king 'last man standing,' professor says

Former Elizabethton man's interest in history leads to meeting with exiled king

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   As an elementary student at Harold McCormick in Elizabethton, Jonathan Billheimer never dreamed that he would someday meet the exiled king of Afghanistan. Like most of us, he didn't know that Afghanistan even had a king.
   Through his years at T.A. Dugger Junior High, his undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the years spent pursuing his master's degree in history from East Tennessee State University, Billheimer could not know that he would later travel to Switzerland and Rome to research an obscure monarch with old-world charm.
   Neither did his grandparents -- Herbert and Jessie Billheimer of Elizabethton -- nor his parents, Carol and Carroll Billheimer, formerly of Elizabethton and now residing in Unicoi.
   Billheimer probably owes his interest in history to his mother, an avid history fan.
   "When we would travel on vacations, I would always make them get out and visit all of the historical markers and try to tell them about what all had transpired there. So I was really happy that he went into the history field. That was always what I really wanted to do," she said.
   Billheimer is still amazed at the progression of circumstances which led him to meet His Majesty Mohammed Zaher Shah, former king of Afghanistan.
   "It just goes to show you: You can't be surprised by anything," he said.
   Billheimer, 31, a history professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, was researching the Cold War -- his specialty -- when he became interested in the king because of his longevity: "the fact that he had been in power for so long," he said.
   "I was working on something that was fairly unknown. I was interested in Afghanistan because there was a king that had to negotiate with the United States, with the Soviet Union, and Britain. He got to meet Khrushchev.
   "And then remarkably he ends up living in exile in Rome and virtually no one knows about it. I guess I was more interested in the human aspect of the story than I was the politics of the story," he said.
   Billheimer had an internship with the United Nations in Geneva in 1992 during which time he stayed with a family originally from Afghanistan and began to pick up bits about the Afghan situation.
   "About a year and a half ago I was again doing some research on the Cold War and his name for some reason just sort of surfaced in my mind and I thought it would be interesting if I could track him down and get some kind of access to him," Billheimer said.
   "I started the old-fashioned way: I called the State Department, and they were of absolutely no help. So then I started calling the Afghan Embassies. This was interesting because some of the Afghan embassies are basically manned not by the Taliban, but by the Northern Alliance," one of Afghanistan's more than 70 tribes made up primarily of Tajiks.
   "You never know who you're really going to get," Billheimer said. "I think it was the Afghan mission in New York City that said, 'You need to call the Afghan Embassy to Italy. They would be able to tell you about Your Majesty.'
   "And that's exactly what I did. I finally got in touch with a very nice gentlemen there at the embassy in Italy and he put me on to the people that I needed to talk with -- the king's handlers. After that point, it was basically just a lot of ... faxes, a lot of e-mails, a lot of phone calls, many of which were unreturned for six months, until finally I got a toe-hold in and got an invite over there."
   Billheimer met the king in March 2001.
   "No one was really interested in the man. There were so many people -- historians -- who were unaware of his existence or even of the existence of the Afghan monarchy. Unless you're a specialist in that field, it's justifiable to not know about it because he was relatively obscure," he said.
   The king is "an extremely well-educated man" who received most of his education in France.
   "Most of the Afghan elite, even before the overthrow, were always very much impressed with French culture. So they usually would send their sons to France.
   "He's an extremely suave individual, extremely refined. He's precisely what you think of when you think of an old-world gentleman," Billheimer said.
   He also is a king with progressive ideas, some which eventually probably led to his overthrow by a Communist-backed cousin in 1973.
   "One of the reasons I was told that he was overthrown was that he had come up with a new constitution in 1964 and this would have forbade anyone in the royal family from holding a political office," he said.
   "This was why his cousin was particularly angry. The cousin that overthrew him had been prime minister."
   His Majesty basically was trying to do away with nepotism, Billheimer said, "and that was what his military commander that I interviewed in Rome was trying to drive home to me: that the king was just trying his best to modernize the country and you simply have a bunch of fundamentalist, traditionalist actions that are always resisting this," he said.
   "I was overwhelmed by the fact that in 1959, women were allowed to do away with the berka, which is the traditional body covering. In 1959 you could go see John Wayne movies; you could listen to rock music. They were very much ahead of their time," he said.
   Some would argue that maybe the king was pushing them too far and alienated too many of the conservatives and the fundamentalists, Billheimer said.
   His Majesty was overthrown in a "coup de tat" by his cousin in 1973. The king was away in Rome visiting a bone doctor for an arm injury he had received in an automobile accident and which had not healed properly.
   "He basically never returned," Billheimer said.
   "A lot of people think the Communists came in; but before the actual Russians there was a Communist Party in Afghanistan and his cousin had sort of struck up a strange alliance of Communists and Marxists and basically maneuvered him out of power."
   Afghanistan remains largely defined by its geography, Billheimer said, with people doing things the way they have been doing them for a thousand years.
   "That's why they are so resistant to a lot of change," he said.
   The country also is defined by its major religions: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Zorastrianism and the king has always tried to respect the tapestry of religions.
   "It's ironic, if you think about it. Most religions are centered around notions of redemption. Yet Afghanistan seems to be a country that cannot find redemption at all," he said.
   Billheimer hopes to visit Afghanistan if the king returns to power.
   "I would love the opportunity to follow him back to sort of complete this human focal point," he said.
   His Majesty appears to be the favored choice of both the United States and Britain, which have been shuttling envoys back and forth to meet him in the last month.
   "There is a very real concern that we could end up getting rid of the Taliban and bringing in some new people, but the situation would be similar to like it was in the early '80s before the Taliban came in -- which was more civil war," Billheimer said.
   "The United States and Britain want to be very careful what type of government they set up. They really see the king as the one individual for whom everyone has an adequate amount of respect. The rest of them are these very shadowy characters who deal in arms and who might deal in drugs."
   Billheimer said the king, now 87 "or very close to 88," has been uniquely positioned above the fray. He came to power in 1933 at the age of 19 after witnessing his father's assassination and seeing numerous cousins murdered or assassinated.
   "I guess one of the fascinating things about him is that in many regards, he is the last man standing. He has managed to stay alive. I know a lot of people have criticized him for staying in Rome for 30 years away from the scene -- that he's too hands off, he's too insulated from everyone else.
   "But this is basically his means of survival. If he's 87 years old and he's managed to make it this far, I think he probably knows how to stay alive," Billheimer said. The king survived an assassination attempt in Rome in 1991 by a visitor posing as a journalist.
   "I look for him to return when there's a United Nations force that's basically keeping a watch over things," Billheimer said.
   "It seems to me that he would be part of an interim government and then obviously with the hope of staying on as a ceremonial head of state as opposed to say, a president. Many people respect him and call him 'Bar-bar,' which is 'Father.'
   "It is curious to see how he will go back because, technically, he did renounce the throne, although he still goes by the title, 'His Majesty, the former King of Afghanistan.'
   "I was told when I was there that he only wanted to go back as a head of state. But if they're interested in stability and continuity, it would almost make more sense to have him go back as a king who then could pass the crown on to one of his sons."
   However, Billheimer said, His Majesty's position has always been that there are not going to be any more kings in Afghanistan.
   "His platform all along (has been) to convene the Loyajirga, which basically translates as the Supreme Council of the Chieftains. That's what he wants to do: He wants to bring the chieftains together first in Rome, then bring them together in Afghanistan and by that means set up a government which is acceptable to all parties involved."
   His Majesty's youngest son, Prince Mir Wais, a financier, was interviewed by Billheimer at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome.
   "He is the closest of the king's children and wants more than anything to bring stability to Afghanistan, Billheimer said. "He told me that he was willing to go back to Afghanistan and to die if need be."
   He would be the logical successor to the king should a monarchy be established.
   Even some members of the Taliban are reported to support the return of the king.
   "When I interviewed some of his advisers there in Rome ... they told me that there was at least half of the Taliban that would be willing to accept the return of His Majesty as a ruler.
   "(The advisers) always wanted to point out that the Taliban is not Afghan -- and this is really being misreported in many papers today.
   "Out of all of these alleged terrorists, not one of them has been an Afghan national. What you see in Afghanistan, to a large part, they are from Saudi Arabia, they are from Egypt, they might be from Pakistan. Afghans are Persians, they are not Arabs, as far as race goes.
   "What's being done by the Taliban is not an Afghan thing; it's what they call an 'imported Islam' that is not indigenous to the country.
   "(The advisers) feel that basically only about half of the Taliban really follow Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Saudi leadership, and that the rest could very well end up siding with the return of the king," Billheimer said.