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Former Afghan Monarch Considered Unifying Force - 2002-03-13

On March 21, the former king of Afghanistan will return to his home country for the first time in nearly 30 years. Zahir Shah will return, not as king, but as a kind of elder statesman.

On a street in Kabul's most-fashionable neighborhood, a massive, frantic renovation is under way to make a house fit for a king - Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan.

Royal aide Zia Mojadiddi says the prospect of returning has reinvigorated the 87-year-old former king. "By the time he decided that he must return, I saw a lot of change. He became much younger than I expected, and he's full of energy, and a lot of enthusiasm to return. And he is very, very happy that he is returning back home," Mr. Mojadiddi says.

Zahir Shah was deposed by his own cousin in 1973 and abdicated, shortly thereafter. He has lived in Rome ever since - watching, in sorrow, as his country slid into a cycle of war and civil strife.

Although he is not coming back as a monarch, Zahir Shah is still highly respected. To many Afghans, his return represents better times. He is seen as a unifying force whose presence can perhaps help heal old wounds and break Afghanistan's cycle of sorrow.

One worker - Qobad - is busy planing a door. He is an amputee, as the result of an encounter with a land mine. With Mr. Mojadiddi translating, he expresses the hope many Afghans have for the return of Zahir Shah.

"I am crippled. I am amputated. I have four kids," and he says, "I am very happy, I am glad that I am doing this job for the return of his majesty. I hope peace will return, unity will come back and this is my heartmost desire for his return."

Zahir Shah will return on March 21, the Spring Equinox on the Northern Hemisphere. It is also Nowruz: the Afghan new year. To celebrate the event, there will be music and dancing - both banned during the years of Taleban rule. There also will be wrestling and buzkashi - a rough-and-tumble game on horseback in which two sides tussle over the carcass of a dead calf.

Mr. Mojadiddi says Zahir Shah will then visit the other major cities - Mazar-i-Sharif, Qandahar, Herat, and Jalalabad - in the lead-up to the June Loya Jirga: the grand council that will choose Afghanistan's new interim government.

The government-owned house - while not exactly a palace - is posh by Kabul standards. There are eight bedrooms, large grounds and a swimming pool. But extensive renovation is necessary, as, like many houses in Kabul, it has been run down. A force of some 30 workers painters, plasterers, woodworkers and plumbers is working around the clock to get it ready in time.

Mr. Mojadiddi says Zahir Shah will stay in the house, rather than the palace, because he is no longer king and, he adds, he has no pretensions to reclaiming his throne.

"The palace is for the president. It has been for the president of Afghanistan and his majesty will come as an Afghan elder and he will reside in one of the places, the best place in Kabul. And, he will be like the father of the nation," Mr. Mojadiddi says.

Zahir Shah plans to stay in Afghanistan, health permitting, until June, when he will preside over the opening session of the Loya Jirga, where he hopes to see his homeland start to carve out its destiny.