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Archive for Sunday, October 7, 2001

Afghans’ royal sentiments revived

October 7, 2001

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— The days of the king were so different, Afghans say. They remember happy school days, weekend picnics, nights spent watching "Gone with the Wind" or listening to Tom Jones records.

And they remember what it was like to live in peace.

Nostalgia's prism is always colored. But these memories, offered last week by Afghans in the border city of Quetta as their nation faces yet another threat of conflict, are a bit different.

There is talk that 28 years after a bloodless coup unseated him, exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah may be preparing for an encore appearance in the nation he once ruled.

"The king stands as a symbol of unity among most Afghans. At this time, there is no one else in sight who can take his place," says Haji Dilbar, a turbaned former nomad only two years younger than the 86-year-old former king.

As the United States prepares to strike at the ruling Taliban for refusing to hand over alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, world leaders are warning that the Taliban's days in power are numbered.

That has drawn attention to Zaher Shah as the one man who could unify Afghan factions to form a new system of government with or without him back on the throne. Zaher Shah has lived in exile near Rome since 1973.

In Quetta, a dusty city about 25 miles southeast of the Afghan border, many Afghans seem to like the idea, if for no other reason than they remember the king's time as an era of peace.

"We had schools, and no Afghan had to pay for an education. It was all free," said Hamid Kerzai, a former deputy foreign minister.

After the Taliban came to power, schools for girls were closed. Boys could obtain only religious education. And most forms of light entertainment like music and cinema were banned.

Not so during Zaher Shah's 40-year reign, Kerzai says. He remembers seeing "Gone With the Wind" on the big screen and listening to Tom Jones music with friends.

Even some Afghans who grew up in poverty remember the past as the good times.

"We were poor, but things were good. Not everyone had electricity or running water, but we had something more important. We had peace," said Dilbar, who fled with his family to Pakistan after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Much of the nostalgia is probably due to the fact that when compared to his successors, the king looks pretty good.

After he left Afghanistan, three presidents were assassinated, including Mohammed Daoud, who ousted him. The Soviets left in 1989 and the communist government they left behind fell three years later.

The new rulers fought among themselves, destroying Kabul and killing thousands of civilians. They were ousted by the Taliban in 1996 and have been fighting the militia ever since.

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