About ten years ago I was perusing the wares of an Afghan rug merchant named Homayoon. He had a large collection, mostly tribals, which makes for an adventure if you enjoy that kind of thing, which I do. I spotted one rug across the bin, buried under several others but eye catching. It stood out in the way that fine rugs do, even folded and from the side. It was a 4×6, featuring a deep red-patterned border around a cream field crossed with thin red and black lines forming diamonds. It was simple, elegant. I had never seen the pattern before. I asked Homayoon what it was.
”This is a Zahirshahi,” he said, “the pattern of the King of Afghanistan.” It was somewhat more expensive than the others but I bought the rug and eventually hung it on my living room wall. It was and remains my favorite.
Word came yesterday that the man the design honored, King Mohammad Zahir Shah, died in Kabul at age 92. President Hamid Karzai eulogized him as “a great leader who moved his country forward with an excellent and compassionate leadership. He shared sorrow and joy of the people. He loved freedom and his culture. He was a symbol of national unity and worked for the prosperity and development of the Afghan nation.”
Zahir Shah was the last of the Pashtun Barakzai dynasty, founded through fratricide by Emir Dost Mohammad Khan in 1818. Afghanistan entered the 20th century under the rule of his descendant Abdur Rahman Khan, picturesquely nicknamed “the Iron Emir,” a cruel, ruthless warlord who secured the independence of his country from both Britain and Russia, and was the last Afghan monarch for whom end of reign coincided with natural death. Habibullah Khan, Abdur’s son, was assassinated in 1919. Amanullah Khan, Habibullah’s son, abdicated under pressure of revolt in 1929. Amanullah’s brother Inayatullah, lasted three days before also being pressured out. Habibullah Ghazi, a Tajik pretender, was overthrown and executed that same year. The next ruler, Mohammed Nadir Shah, was shot down after a soccer game in 1933. His son was by his side, the Crown Prince Mohammed Zahir, who then assumed the throne as Zahir Shah. His reign lasted 40 years, almost twice that of the Iron Emir, and the longest of the dynasty. In fact his was the longest period of rule since the founding of Afghanistan in an uprising against Persian occupation in 1709.
Zahir’s kingship was noteworthy for its lack of serious controversy. He and his advisers (his uncles, who really ran the country in the early days) kept Afghanistan free of conflict; largely neutral in foreign affairs, and comparatively calm domestically. When the young king was finally able to assert independent power, he instituted a new constitution that guaranteed fundamental political rights, and created the first Afghan democracy, with elections and a parliament. He pursued economic modernization, advocated social tolerance and funded education for women. In these days Afghanistan was tourist destination, its gardens lush, its people happy, and at peace.
We learn from Aristotle that monarchs often are succeeded by tyrants — and in the 20th-century hereditary monarchies frequently gave way to predatory autocracies. At the time this was seen as a form progress. To the Western intellectual class, monarchs were a relic of the past, the product of an earlier historical epoch, or some such fiction. When Zahir Shah was deposed in1973 in a bloodless coup perpetrated by his cousin Mohammed Daoud, it seemed more in the spirit of the times, much more modern. Daoud was the kind of ruler that the international-aid community could understand and deal with, someone who promised centralization, large-scale public -works projects, and what passed for progress. “Some see Daoud as just the medicine Afghanistan needs to cure its centuries old lethargy,” one newspaper opined. A senior diplomat said, “Of course, I would prefer a democracy, but what this country needs is an enlightened tough guy. Daoud’s it.” This type of thinking was an epidemic back then. Monarchs were out of fashion. Strong men were in. Zahir settled down to a life of exile in Italy.
The rest of the story is well known, the tragic, horrific decline of Afghanistan to the dark ages. The authoritarian Daoud fell victim to the totalitarian Communists in 1978, whose internecine struggles precipitated the Soviet invasion the year following. A decade of brutal conflict left the country bloody, divided, and reeling, ripe for reunification under the Taliban theocracy, ushering in their own grim period of utopian horror. The days of Zahir Shah’s reign seemed like a golden age of peace and prosperity, which they were.
How many people now captive in Middle Eastern dictatorships would rather be living under the enlightened rule of someone like King Abdullah II of Jordan, or Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir of Dubai? Or King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, or Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar? These countries enjoy relative peace and sometimes dazzling prosperity, Dubai in particular. Their societies are comparatively tolerant, and Western-oriented. Of course not all monarchies are so praiseworthy, but when stacked up against post-Pahlavi Iran or Syria under the Assads, we really have to reconsider the traditional definition of political development. Zahir Shah may not have been the most dynamic king, but agentle, kindly monarch and his mildly corrupt relatives are better guardians of liberty than nationalistic dictators or stern-eyed mullahs, each with interchangeable secret police and mechanisms of oppression.
Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after the defeat of the Taliban, amid speculation that he desired a resurrection of the monarchy. “I do not care about the title of king” he said. “The people call me Baba [grandfather], and I prefer this title.” He was bestowed the honorific “Father of the Nation,” and was officially referred to as “His Majesty.” Zahir Shah spent the rest of his life using his influence and public stature to help make democracy work in Afghanistan, as he had tried to do 40 years ago. He was revered by the Afghan people as a man of peace, dignity, and wisdom. He did not seek power but only the welfare of his people. Though he refused to take back the crown, he remained a king until his final day.