By Dr. Matin Royeen
Today is the 13th anniversary of the passing of our beloved last Afghan King, Zahir Khan. I would like the noble people of Afghanistan to celebrate the life of this irreplaceable gentle giant who ruled his nation for 40 years with human dignity, excellent political stature and love for all Afghans. For my generation who witnessed social transformation, political reforms, tranquility inside and masterful international and diplomatic relationships with other nations under his statesmanship was unprecedented.
Fifty years ago, I left my home country of Afghanistan for pursuit of higher education in the United States, but I have cherished the memories of that Golden Era under the stewardship of Zahir BaBa all my life. I would like to share some interesting information about this monumental figure who was a very important part of the Afghan political life for seventy years. I have been very curious about the life of this special man for whom I have had much respect and admiration since my childhood. I am happy to share with readers some humane and personal side of King Zahir from BBC interviews conducted by David Sells in Rome and Mina Baktash in Kabul and from other media sources.
Birth and Childhood: Mohammad Zahir was not a prince when he was born in Deh Afghanan (1914-Kabul) in a small house with a humble life. Several members of the family shared the same room and lived under strict rules. Although his father had the highest military rank at that time, Mohammad Zahir was very familiar with life’s economic hardships. I have tried to capture some of his conversation as he was responding to questions in Italics.
It was difficult for people to believe that we could not afford to eat meat and rice for dinner at home. I was very young when I attended school in Sha-ra-ra and could not even walk that distance from home to school. Later, I was happy to attend Istiqlal School where we were not subject to physical punishment by teachers. I learned that the British teachers were very strict because of their belief in punishment in dealing with children.
Trip to Paris and Culture Shock: When I was 14, my father became ambassador to France and I embarked on the trip through Peshawar, Bombay to France which was an interesting experience. I became nervous going through tunnels that I had never seen before and Peshawar surprised me too. Seeing the sea for the first time in Bombay was amazing and watching ships in rough waters was thrilling and scary, thinking that the ship would not survive the force of nature. I had seen Indian laborers on my way to France and was even more surprised to see white laborers with blonde hair in France.
Acculturation to Democratic Values in France: After our arrival in France, I met a lady whose job was to serve as a guide to ambassadors’ families. She encouraged me to live with a family in order to learn French and introduced me to a lawyer who was a member of the French Parliament. I became friends with this family and had the opportunity to watch the debates and discussion in the national parliament. From this experience, I learned to value the democratic principles in practice. The school in France was very strict and I enjoyed reading books in the
library. Movies and music interested me too, I tried to learn how to play the Se-Taar without much success.
Also, I had become good friends with a young man during my stay in France. After years of my return home from France, I received a letter from the man’s mother stating that she has not seen her son for twenty years and appealed for help. I knew that the young man was living in India. I wrote a letter to the British Ambassador in India (India was the British Colony at that time) inquiring about this young man. Two days later, the British Ambassador informed me that my friend was engaged in scientific research on music in a university in India. Finally, the mother was able to contact her son with my assistance.
I became acquainted with another family who was interested in traveling to Afghanistan. I learned that he had written about poverty in Afghanistan. This caused me to cut ties with this family. Unfortunately, sometimes even the truth is unpleasant to bear. Most people I met in France, thought Afghanistan was in Africa. Now, Afghanistan is well known to the world both for the good and the bad. But I hope the world would not view us as terrorists. As a responsible member of the global community, we Afghans are against terrorism. After seeing other countries, I came to the realization that life in Afghanistan despite its limited development was good.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, the Americans overthrew the Taliban and Zahir khan was getting ready in Rome to return to his homeland and play a meaningful role of national unity in the post-Taliban era. He had rejected a previous invitation in 1991 to return to Afghanistan by saying, I did not regard the president’s (Najib’s)invitation to my country in 1991 to be an Afghan invitation, it was only manipulated by the Russians.
Preparing to Return Home from Rome after 29 years: This time, I am going to Afghanistan on my own choice. The prerequisite to everything in Afghanistan is peace. What I wish for now and what I wish for tomorrow is democracy. During the last ten years of my rule, there was a real democracy in Afghanistan. My hope for returning to Afghanistan is not for a kingdom. I have not sought my kingdom in the past and will not seek it in the future. We will leave this decision in the hands of the people. The Taliban damage to our country was worse than the Mongols and the Russians. “Fortunately, most of them were not Afghans, many were Pakistanis. who wreck savage and misery on people”. Afghanistan is in dire need of financial help..we would rather not get this aid from individual countries, but receive it in a joint, coordinated form like the European Union…etc. Upon return, my first thought is the security of my country..one must be optimistic …my one wish for Afghanistan is to follow the road to reconstruction in peace and tranquility.
The former King returned to Afghanistan at age 87 on April 18, 2002. His was warmly welcomed to his homeland by all ethnic groups. There were some indications that many delegates to the Afghan Loya Jirga were ready to vote for him to lead the nation. But, due to political meddling (both from outside and from inside), the dynamics changed and Zahir khan supported Hamid Karzai to lead the government. Zahir khan was given the title of the Father of the Nation by Karzai.
Conclusion: I was a teenager in Kabul during his Majesty’s reforms such as a new constitution, a constitutional monarchy system, freedom of press and political parties in the 1960s. His leadership skills in forging a balanced foreign policy, expansion of diplomatic relations with many countries, maintaining a delicate balance with neighboring countries as well as with the superpowers during the cold war were impeccable. I cannot imagine the extent of his trauma by witnessing the assassination of his father at age nineteen and bearing the weight of a troubled nation on his young shoulders as the new King. It seems his democratic ideals and philosophy of humanism (he was against capital punishment) were shaped by his experiences in France. And, by the 1960s, he was able to put them into practice free from the influence of his elders who were strong figures in his government for three decades. Personally, I will always cherish the memories of this kind man who held his nation together for forty years. He was the icon of national unity in Afghanistan.
After his passing on July 23, 2007, President Karzai properly eulogized Baba Zahir by saying, ‘ He was the servant of people, the friend of his people, he was a very kind person, kind hearted. He believed in the rule of people and in human rights.”
On a more personal note, I regret not having had the opportunity to meet Zahir Baba and to thank him for being a part of the Afghan life for 92 years. His simple life began in Deh Afghanan and ended as Baba of De Afghanan. This is the highest honor one could achieve in the rich Afghan tradition. May the blessings of your soul spread the seed of unity in every Afghan household.
Your gentle heart, steady character and silent wisdom
were the true gifts of an elegant statesman in the Kingdom
Dr. Matin Royeen Ph.D is an Afghan-American educator. He can be reached at: [email protected]