Afghan currency flutters with king

Kabul money traders hope the exiled ruler makes return soon

April 01, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - At the raucous Sharzoda Currency Exchange, the value of the country's skittish currency is determined these days by one man: the former king, 87-year-old Mohammad Zahir Shah, living in exile near Rome.

When the former king said months ago that he planned to return, the afghani, as the currency is known, rose against the dollar. It rose higher when a date for his return was set: Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 22. When that deadline came and went, the currency fell. His entourage promises he will arrive in the middle of this month.

The reason the afghani strengthened early last week from 34,000 to the dollar to 32,500: "We heard on the radio that the king will give a speech," said Hamad Bashid, a burly, worried-looking trader in a white tunic and round white cap. Nobody knew what Zahir Shah would say. Just the anticipation of hearing something soothed jittery nerves.

Six days a week, the currency exchange's 2,000 traders mill around a crowded courtyard, yell from the balconies and gossip - all as part of the bargaining. In a frenzy of schmoozing, they trade fistfuls of $100 bills, wads of Pakistani rupees and big bricks of the large, blue-green 10,000-afghani notes.

Since the Soviet era, traders say, Sharzoda has reflected Afghanistan's political fortunes. It reached its lowest point at the end of last year, just before the Taliban fled Kabul, when $1 was the equivalent of 80,000 afghanis. It peaked a few weeks later, after Hamid Karzai was named head of Afghanistan's interim government. The afghani strengthened to 14,000 to the dollar.

Since then, the market has settled on the actions of the former king as the key to the currency's direction. So, every morning, as the traders gather in its 300 shops or loiter in the courtyard, they discuss one topic: When will Zahir Shah return?

To many traders, the one-time monarch is a logical leading indicator of Afghanistan's prospects.

"The former king is a person who saved his country in the past," said the chief of the market, Amin Jon Khosti, a square-jawed man who wears a traditional jumpsuit, tunic and flat woolen hat. "And he will save his country in the future."

After 23 years of warfare, he said, "the people are very thirsty for the coming of peace and security."

Elevated to the throne at age 19 after his father's assassination, Zahir Shah ruled over Afghanistan for 40 years. No one was executed during his rule, which ended in 1973, when he was overthrown by a cousin. Given Afghanistan's subsequent history of violence, it seems a remarkable record.

Some Afghans see the former king as the only figure who can unite the country. But each time he has had a chance to return, Zahir Shah has decided against it.

The changes of heart have cost traders money. Most of them invested heavily in afghanis, expecting that Zahir Shah's arrival would send the price to perhaps 25,000 to the dollar. When the former king decided to stay in Rome, every trader who bet on the king's return suffered a loss.

Not every trader admires the king, but, like business people everywhere, they value political stability.

"Security," said Khosti, "is the groundwork for good business."

Most of the traders would rather not share their political convictions.

"Whoever brings peace to Afghanistan," said one trader, "we support them."

The tomb of Zahir Shah's father, Mohammad Nadir Khan, was far quieter than the currency exchange. A few young men strayed up the hill to his monument, badly damaged during fighting between factions in the capital in the early 1990s.

A new concrete staircase leads down to the burial crypt, where the king's marble sarcophagus lies in dusty grandeur.

Nahim, 21, visited out of curiosity, nothing more.

"The coming of the former king doesn't have any benefit for the people," said the former Northern Alliance soldier, slouching against the marble wall of the tomb. "For 40 years he ruled Afghanistan, and that didn't help our country. Some people support him. Some welcome him. But I told you my opinion."

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