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Sunday, 28 April, 2002, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Afghanistan's former king holds court
BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet and the former king Zahir Shah
Lyse Doucet meets the former king in Kabul
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By the BBC's Lyse Doucet
In Kabul

In Kabul, a lost thread of Afghan history is being picked up, and woven back into a traditional pattern.

A former king has come home to his people.

Under heavy guard in the heart of Kabul, 87-year-old Zahir Shah is holding court again, albeit a modest one.

He insists he has returned, after nearly 30 years in exile in Rome, as a citizen, not a king.

But he is a citizen unlike any other.

Sheltered by a simple gazebo on a warm Kabul day, a frail man of regal bearing welcomes his fellow Pashtuns.

Bearded tribal elders, a sea of rumpled turbans, sit cross-legged on a carpet at his feet.

Tribal elders wait to greet the former king
Tribal elders have gathered to welcome the former monarch
The voice of the frail ex monarch is often just a whisper.

It is his presence that speaks so powerfully - for many Afghans he is a symbol of a distant past when Afghanistan was at peace with itself and the rest of the world.

Now after decades of war, many Afghans see him as a symbol of a new start.

"Our fathers and grandfathers supported your father and grandfather, " declares one turbaned Pashtun elder who rises in the crowd to address him. "We have come here to tell you that now we are with you."


This is Afghanistan of old, the centuries-old bond between a king and his people.

They are the same people, there is the same warmth. It is a such a gift to know that after 30 years nothing has been forgotten.

Zahir Shah
It was severed when Zaher Shah was overthrown by his cousin in a bloodless coup in 1973.

"They are the same people, there is the same warmth," he tells me in the French learned in the Paris lycees of his youth.

"It is a such a gift to know that after 30 years nothing has been forgotten".

After one week in Kabul, Zahir Shah's doctors say his health is the best it has been in years.

Strength and power

In his worn Italian leather jacket and an Afghan sheepskin hat, he seems to draw strength and power from his people.

Some Afghans even credit him with ending four years of drought: it has rained almost every day since he came home.

Do they also ask him about restoring the monarchy?

The former king grimaces and raises his hands in mock protest.

"Thats another thing. It's not something I have ever wanted.

"It's just important for me to be here, a father figure, or baba, as we say."

Zahir Shah
Zahir Shah says he has returned as a citizen
But once a king, always a king - Zahir Shah points out in his first interview since coming home that if the people want a monarchy, he can't refuse.

The former monarch's return has clearly heartened Pashtun tribes, and that troubles Afghans who worry this could upset Afghanistan's sensitive ethnic balance.

Most Afghan politicians have found it politic to call on him, underlining how, even as a symbol, this old man is a force to be reckoned with.

His one official duty is to open the Loyah Jirgah - the grand national gathering that takes place in Kabul in early June.

That's when Afghans will decide who is fit to rule them.

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