The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Former king reflects on India

Kabul, Oct. 13: Inside the fortified high walls off a square in the Kabul locality called the Argh is a king who will turn 90 tomorrow.

Former king Zahir Shah, still revered by many for his reformist zeal when he occupied the throne, is not exactly a recluse but he has given the interim administration of interim President Hamid Karzai reason to believe that he will not make a shy at power again.

He will celebrate a quiet birthday tomorrow. Hamid Karzai has thrown a select lunch for him. He will have a private dinner with family.

Afghanistan's Loya Jirga, Grand Council, that appointed Hamid Karzai as interim President also genuflected to the former king in 2002 when it gave him the title, Father of the Nation. The former king inside the Aramsaray palace in the royal complex ' also known as the Palace no. 1 ' is no recluse. Hamid Karzai honoured him by leaving the palace no. 1 to the man who ruled Afghanistan as monarch for 40 years from 1933 at the tender age of 17 to 1973 when he was toppled while on a state visit to Italy by Daoud. Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan two years ago after Kabul had been secured by the US led forces.

This evening Zahir Shah is seated reading Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code through a thick reading lens. On his lap is a lace of rosaries. He is immaculately dressed in a black designer suit, a subtle light brown shirt and a blue cravate. We are in the first floor of a wing of the palace called the 'Fresh Pool' because in the ground floor is a pool with blue Italian tiles on which float two freshly bloomed lotuses. To his immediate right in the first floor chamber of the building is his cousin General Abdul Wali who also acts as interpreter in this interview to The Telegraph. Zahir Shah is fluent in French, Persian and Italian. He envisages a multilateral role in Afghanistan under UN auspices. Excerpts:

Q. Thank you for the audience and a happy birthday in advance

A: I am happy to receive you. I am getting closer to a century. Sometimes it is painful to live a long life because you are a cripple.

Q. But you also are a repository of knowledge and wisdom acquired through the years

A. When I look back at what one has achieved in a lifetime, I am happy that the people of Afghanistan are appreciative of me... if, at my age, I can be of any help to the people of Afghanistan it will be a source of contentment for me.

Q. And these are troubled times again'

A. It is not a question of envisaging a future for one nation alone. Today you have to envisage a future in the context of a region. My prayers to the Almighty that the people of Afghanistan do not again have to go through the ordeals that have visited them. Our greatest concern and greatest worries are for the children of the upcoming generation... and we need to facilitate their development in a safe country.

Q. You think Afghanistan is getting there'

A. It is important to understand that terrorism has taken an unpredictable dimension. Now it is not possible that one single country can combat it. There is a unity of action that is needed. I hope the UN has realised the dangers of such a situation and hope that in the face of such a situation the UN will take measures

Q. (On relations with India.)

A. The relations that we have with India are very ancient. My family was deported to India and sent to Dehra Dun after the second Anglo-Afghan war by the British and forbidden to re-enter Afghanistan. My family embraced Indian culture and literature and music. I probably know more about Indian music that many of you... Today, thanks to the Indian leadership and also the realisation of the authorities in Afghanistan we are working together again... once, in the course of history, we were not separate nations. Now conditions have changed. We have associated ourselves together again... we share the same blood and the same cultural characteristics.

Q. (On being a monarch in a country aspiring for democracy)

A. The Loya Jirga has given me the title: 'Father of the Nation'. I am honoured.

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