BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Programmes: From Our Own Correspondent  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
EDITIONS
Sunday, 16 June, 2002, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Afghan wind blows dynasty away
Zahir Shah (left) led into the loya jirga by Hamid Karzai
Ex-king under pressure from politicians and warlords

On the day Afghans gathered, a fierce wind blew in from the west - a raw and blinding force that swept sheets of sand and dust across Kabul.

It tore through our vast BBC tent, leaving strips of tarpaulin flapping from metal bars.

It was a force so strong it delayed the start of the historic loya jirga.

And as we huddled for cover just inside a door, Soroush, an Afghan friend, said: "We have a saying here. When a strong wind blows with the dust, the king changes."

Bacha gardeshi, they say in Persian.

Indeed, when the elements grew quiet, an old ex-king sped across Kabul in a bullet-proof black limousine with black tinted windows.

Zahir Shah was on his way to the loya jirga, the grand national council where Afghans would choose their new leaders.


The king sat in his pyjamas and said ambitious family members and disgruntled tribesmen were pressuring him to do far more than an 87-year-old man could possibly do

But he was not in the race.

The night before, flanked by American diplomats and Afghan politicians, he sat in silence while an Afghan aide read out a statement attributed to him but hurriedly written by others.

It was a message to the nation that he was not a candidate for head of state.

The sudden announcement shocked and angered his many supporters, and sycophants, including hundreds of delegates attending the loya jirga.

But it was, as his closest friends would say, what Zahir Shah wanted all along.

In recent months, as I followed him on his long-awaited return to his homeland, from exile in Rome, I often asked him whether he would like to be a king again, or at least, in power.

His answer was always the same, expressed with a tired smile, and a lifting of a frail hand: "It's not something I seek for myself."

But there was always that enigmatic last line: "But if my people ask me, I cannot refuse."

In the end, the final decision was made, not by his people who gathered at the loya jirga assembly, but in Zahir Shah's bedroom.


A dark shadow has been cast across his house - the house of a 255-year-old Durrani dynasty, with cousins, sons and grandsons who'd grown up in exile

The American special envoy, a man of Afghan origin, told me the king sat in his pyjamas and told him ambitious family members and disgruntled tribesmen were pressuring him to do far more than an 87-year-old man could possibly do.

He simply couldn't attend meetings, sign papers, and preside over functions that went long into the night.

There had been a very real possibility that Afghans would nominate him to return as head of state or even a king.

That caused panic among Afghan politicians and warlords, including the man who eventually took the top prize, Hamid Karzai.

In the corridors of power, it was decided the ambiguity had to end. The former king could no longer fall back on royal platitudes.


His regal bearing seemed to drain from him as he sat, looking sad and depressed a small figure in a massive hall

But the way it was done cast a dark shadow across his house - the house of a 255-year-old Durrani dynasty, with cousins, sons and grandsons who'd grown up in exile.

Some had hoped to place at least one foot inside the doors of power with Zahir Shah's name.

Thousands of disgruntled tribesmen, his fellow Pashtuns, also looked to him to settle scores.

When the frail ex-king finally took the stage at the opening of the loya jirga, a multitude rose with thunderous applause.

His opponents sat firmly in their seats.

On that day, his regal bearing seemed to drain from him as he sat, looking sad and depressed a small figure in a massive hall.

Afghans listen to loya jirga proceedings on radio
Zahir Shah's words were silenced
He told his people he was so glad to be close to them again.

But then suddenly when he began to read his speech, the sound was immediately cut on Kabul radio and television, and when his speech finished, the audio reappeared.

Zahir Shah had been silenced and it couldn't possibly be a coincidence.

A similar break in transmission occurred in April when he made his historic return after 30 years of exile in Rome. The main television news went off the air.

One Afghan official who numbered among the former king's most bitter critics admitted enough was enough.

Zahir Shah was being humiliated.

He has now been given one title - baba-i- millat-afghan - the father of the Afghan nation.

It's a ceremonial role. Even that may be too much for a fading monarch who never ever really liked the business of being a king, and now spends much of his time remembering the past.

A few months ago in Rome, I sat with him looking at old photographs, and we came across one which had gone missing.

A smile spread across his face as he was taken back to another time and place - to a younger, fitter Zahir Shah who sat with a loyal bearer in the tall grasses of a hill just outside Kabul.

They peered in the distance looking for ibex or birds.

Zahir Shah looked at peace with himself and the world.

The sun was warm, and the wind was still.


Rebuilding

Political uncertainty

Profiles

Issues

FACT FILE

IN DEPTH

FORUM

TALKING POINT
See also:

15 Jun 02 | South Asia
14 Jun 02 | South Asia
15 May 02 | South Asia
07 May 02 | South Asia
15 Nov 01 | South Asia
15 Jun 02 | South Asia
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes