| ||Obituary: Muhammad Zahir Shah, last king of Afghanistan|
International Herald Tribune
By Barry Bearak
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KABUL - Muhammad Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan whose 40-year reign, which ended in 1973, was esteemed enough to earn him the ceremonial title "father of the nation" in the current constitution, died Monday in Kabul. He was 92.
President Hamid Karzai, a fellow Pashtun tribesman whom the king supported as Afghanistan moved toward democracy, announced the death on national TV: "With great sorrow, I inform my dear countrymen that his majesty Muhammad Zahir Shah bid farewell to the mortal world this morning at 5:45 and joined with the grace of God."
No cause of death was given. The king had been in frequent ill health, leaving the country several times for medical care after returning from three decades of exile in Italy in 2002. In his final years, he was a frail, seldom-seen man who needed a microphone pinned to his collar so that his feint voice could be heard.
"Zahir Shah was beloved by many people," said Abdul Hamid Mubarez, one of Afghanistan's best-known journalists. "For them, he was a mixture of Afghan and Western culture. He was educated in France and had a chance to observe the democratic system there. He brought back some very progressive ideas."
Born into one of two Pashtun lineages that had ruled Afghanistan for two centuries, Zahir Shah was only 19 in November 1933 when his father, King Muhammad Nadir Shah, was murdered before the young man's eyes during an awards ceremony on the palace grounds in Kabul.
The prince ascended to the throne. But Zahir Shah "reigned but did not rule" for the next 20 years, ceding power to his paternal uncles, according to "Afghanistan," a seminal work of history by the late Louis Dupree.
Zahir Shah never did become a dynamic ruler, always seeming more like a gentleman farmer, at home on his property with a new breed of milk cows or fresh plantings of strawberries. But he did assert himself in the 1960s, introducing a constitutional monarchy and advocating greater political tolerance. Included in his reforms were new rights for women in voting, education and the work force.
These reforms were not always popular in a deeply traditional Islamic society. But the Zahir Shah years were characterized by a lengthy span of rare peace. This tranquility is recalled now with immense nostalgia. On the other hand, peace was not accompanied by prosperity, and the king is faulted for failing to develop the economy.
In 1973, Zahir Shah was overthrown while traveling in Italy, getting treatments for eye problems and therapy for lumbago. His successor was a cousin, Daoud Khan, whom the king had fired as prime minister a decade earlier. Zahir Shah abdicated the throne rather than start bloodshed. But Afghanistan's problems were just beginning.
The deposed king took up residence in a villa on Via Cassia, a main thoroughfare leading north out of Rome. He played chess and took walks. He was sometimes seen sitting in a café sipping a cappuccino or browsing through titles in a second-hand bookstore. He rarely gave interviews, perhaps out of concern for his safety. In 1991, he was attacked by a knife-wielding assassin who pretended to be a Portuguese journalist.
Living so far from home, the deposed king, like so many other Afghan exiles, watched helplessly as his country was wrenched apart. Daoud Khan was himself a modernizer but proved one of a very autocratic sort. He proclaimed a republic but was overthrown by Communists in 1978. The Soviet Union then invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The occupation met ferocious resistance and lasted a decade until U.S.-backed mujahedin fighters finally drove the Soviets out.
Years of lawlessness and civil war ensued until an Islamic student militia - the Taliban - took control of most of the country, rolling into Kabul in 1996. They remained in power until toppled in late 2001 by a coalition of Afghan forces backed by the United States.
Though democracy was then ordained for Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, the octogenarian ex-king, found himself fetched from obscurity. There were many who openly called for a return to the monarchy. In 2002, a new government was to be formed through a loya jirga, or grand assembly. The old man toyed with the idea of becoming president.
"I will accept the responsibility of head of state if that is what the loya jirga demands of me but I have no intention to restore the monarchy," he said. "I do not care about the title of king. The people call me Baba and I prefer this title." Baba means grandfather in the Afghan language of Dari, and much of the nation - especially older people - continued to think of Zahir Shah this way.
President Karzai declared three days of mourning for the former king. Television channels immediately replaced scheduled programs for recitations of the Koran, religious chanting and panel discussions extolling the deceased monarch.
Funeral prayers will be said Tuesday at Eid Gah Mosque in Kabul, according to a presidential spokesman. The body will then be taken by carriage to a hillside tomb.
Zahir Shah fathered eight children. Three sons and two daughters survive him. His wife Homaira, whom he married in 1931, died in 2002, just as she was making final plans to leave Rome and rejoin her husband in the Afghanistan they had left behind.