Afghanistan Mourns King Zahir Shah

Afghanistan mourns the loss of its former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who died at age 92 after a long illness. Government offices are closed and flags are flying at half-staff for the man whose reign was one of the most peaceful in the war-torn nation's history.

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Afghanistan is mourning the loss of its former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who died at age 92 after a long illness. Government offices are closed, flags are flying at half-staff for the man whose reign was one of the most peaceful in this war-torn nation.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this story from Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Melancholic recitations of the Koran greeted Afghans on their television this morning. Guest on talk shows wiped their eyes as they recalled their former king.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Afghan President Hamid Karzai says his distant relative, Zahir Shah, was the father of the nation who cherished his people, a former king who presided over a rare tranquil period in Afghanistan's modern history. There's nostalgia these days for that bygone era, given the growing number of bombings and battles that are likely to make this year the bloodiest year since 2001. Historians say the tall, media-shy king kept the peace with his neutral foreign policy.

Under his 40-year rule that began in 1933, Afghanistan stayed out of World War II and the Cold War. Zahir Shah also helped modernized his deeply conservative Islamic country. He turned the country into a constitutional monarchy in 1964. He gave women the right to vote, go to school and work, but his reform stalled because he was reluctant to share power with the prime minister and parliament. After a bloodless coup by his cousin in 1973, Zahir Shah lived in exile in Italy. He returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban and lived as an ordinary citizen.

Inside his hardware store, 25-year-old Adri Sherazai(ph) said he will miss the former king.

Mr. ADRI SHERAZAI: (Through translator) He was larger than life, according to our fathers and grandfathers. He worked hard for our nation for four decades.

NELSON: But next door, shopkeeper Moon Shazade(ph), who was 60 and was alive during Zahir Shah's rule, called him ineffective.

Mr. MOON SHAZADE: (Through translator) He was like "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves." For 40 years, he stole money from the people and built maybe four roads. He did nothing for our nation.

NELSON: Such mixed reviews are not surprising, says Paul Fishstein who heads the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think-tank.

Mr. PAUL FISHSTEIN (Director, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit): People have different attitudes toward Zahir Shah, but I think generally many Afghans look back at that period very fondly. The expression they use, it was kind of a golden age. I think there was also a sense during the years of Soviet occupation and the civil war, and then beyond that, there was - at least in some quarters of society, there was an anticipation that he would really come back and exert some kind of leadership role and help the country pull out of its problems.

NELSON: That never happened. Many believe the king was sidelined by the United States and former mujahideen after the Taliban was overthrown and opted instead for the installation of Karzai. But they say Zahir Shah never gave up on his dream of unifying Afghanistan's many tribes. He will be buried this afternoon on a hill in Kabul named for his father.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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