Atop a hill overlooking Afghanistan’s war-shattered capital, a tattered blue-domed mausoleum evokes memories of the country’s royal past. For many, it symbolizes their hope for the future.
For 23 years, King Zahir Shah has lived in exile in Rome. Now talk is increasing of allowing the 81-year-old monarch to return, hopefully to reunify his nation.
Many Afghans remember his 40-year reign as a golden age of tranquility in a land ravaged since by tribal war, foreign invasion and faction fighting.
The mausoleum on “Martyrs Hill,” its marble face now disfigured, is also a testimonial to the years of chaos. The royal graveyard is littered with land mines, rubble and the rusting hulks of tanks.
“If the king would return tomorrow then everything would be okay,” said Air Shah, who is no relation. “When we had a king, we had a country.”
An opening for the king may have come with the capture of Kabul on Friday by the Taliban, a rebel force that grew out of Muslim religious schools in despair over the relentless power struggle among rival Afghan factions.
The newly ousted government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani was firmly against the king’s return. The Taliban seem less hostile.
Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, a bearded cleric who heads the Taliban administration of Kabul, says the king would be welcome, albeit as a figurehead to unite the country and preside over a strict Islamic system.
“He is an Afghan, a Muslim,” said Rabbani. “He can play a role in the future of Afghanistan and come here.” In Rome, Zahir Shah has been listening to such statements with interest.
“The king has stated on many, many occasions that he is at the service of Afghanistan’s citizens … and will perform any role or duty that the people of Afghanistan will democratically and freely bestow on him,” Abdul Wali, the monarch’s son-in-law, said Saturday.
It’s difficult to see how Zahir Shah might be reconciled with the Taliban’s restrictive interpretation of Islam. On Saturday, instructions blared from Kabul’s mosques that women should stay home and girls’ schools should close until further notice.