Glamorous granny always wins contest

May 31, 2002

On the eve of the Queen's golden jubilee celebrations, THES writers examine why European monarchies endure and look at royal dynasties around the world.

Nushin Arbabzadah recalls her experience of monarchy from war-torn Kabul to UK chic.

Growing up in Kabul in the late 1970s and 1980s, my first encounter with monarchy was through Iranian magazines featuring colourful photographs of the Iranian royal family. But by the time they reached me, Iran was no longer a monarchy. In Afghanistan the monarchy had been overthrown in 1973 after a peaceful revolution. In Iran, its overthrow was a much more bloody affair six years later. For these reasons, even though I grew up in the East, I never experienced the famous despotism of its kings. In my childhood, political power was instead in the less glittering hands of Communist Party members who sported thick black moustaches and wore ill-fitting suits. As an ugly kind of social realism, it was a great aesthetic contrast to the photographs of the Iranian royals who were always dressed immaculately with their crowns and swords. I later asked my parents about our own exiled king, and my mother told me that when the Communists took power they opened the royal palace for ordinary Afghans to see what pompous lives their "oppressors" had led while the people were eating their onions and bread. But when I asked my mother how the palace was, she answered to my surprise: 'Well, they didn't have much really. I think we had better porcelain than they had." Perhaps it was this lack of glamour that made the Afghan monarchy so easily forgettable even while the romantic printed images of the Iranian royals lingered on.

My later education in Germany taught me to look differently at political power, whether displayed through the symbolism of crowns or military uniforms. I saw the Iranian rulers who had captured my childhood imagination in a new light, and monarchy began to seem archaic and dangerous. But later, when I came to England as an exchange student, monarchy was suddenly back in my life, this time with a more light-hearted side, and I would buy postcards of the royal family for my politically aware friends in Germany, who in return sent me postcards of soap and pop stars. It was a competition to see who was more chic, more famous, more kitsch. But in each of these qualities, no one could compete with the British royals.

But matters changed when I became more involved with English people. I found that for many of them the monarchy was more meaningful than their postcards often suggested and I again reconsidered my views of the institution. It was not easy, for the British monarchy was nothing like the kind of monarchy I knew from the East, where kings had real political power and often abused it. The Queen, by contrast, resembled a sober and rather glamorous grandmother. She did not order the execution of her political enemies, but instead gave speeches.

That the British monarchy uses symbols of power - the crowns, gowns, horses and ceremonies - but lacks actual political power may seem difficult to understand. What is the monarchy's use if it is merely symbolic and ceremonial? It seems that a sense of social continuity is the most important factor. In contrast to the many changes in contemporary British life, the monarchy is always there, unchanging and predictable. This lends it a transcendental quality. While in England one cannot rely on public transport or the National Health Service, one can always rely on the Queen.

The golden jubilee has thrown a spotlight on the monarchy in Britain, but the British are not the only people who need to rethink the role of monarchy in their country. The return of the exiled king Zahir Shah to Afghanistan has meant the restoration of the monarchy has become an important issue among Afghans. Shah's presence certainly has a positive symbolic meaning. After so much destruction, he is what reminds and remains of peaceful times and, as such, may do much good during this transitional period.

But decades of war have changed ordinary Afghans' relationships to political power. For the war, and its brutal empowerment of ordinary people through their acquisition of the weaponry usually possessed only by the state, has diffused power among the ordinary people of Afghanistan in an unprecedented way. Like working-class Britons after the second world war, ordinary Afghans have learnt that they are ultimately the decisive factor in the politics of their country. When I recently saw Shah on television I was surprised at his appearance. Wearing a dark and baggy leather jacket and light-coloured trousers on his arrival in Kabul, he hardly looked like a king. But amid the poverty of his people, Shah's lack of sartorial glamour was perhaps an appropriate symbolic gesture. For a brief moment, royal body and national body seemed closer than ever. But as we have seen with Britain, monarchy to some extent depends on its symbolism of glamour to capture the imagination of its subjects. Caught between the opposing poles of the ostentatious requirements of kingship and the Afghan people's need for a monarch who embodies their entwined poverty and pride, the future role of the monarchy in Afghanistan is not yet certain.

Nushin Arbabzadah is Gates scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where she is researching women and cultural patronage in Afghan history.

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