Most of us are beginning to understand how far away and yet how near the problems of Afghanistan are to us. For one man who now lives and works in Sarasota-Bradenton, the journey from Kabul to the sunny climes of Florida has been a longer and stranger one than we can imagine.
That man is Prince Zaland Sherzad (most of his American friends call him simply "Z"), a member of the royal family headed by the aging, exiled former King of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah. (The king’s mother and Zaland’s grandmother were sisters, and his grandfather was a brother to the king’s father as well.) Born in Kabul in 1939, Zaland grew up in a period of relative stability in Afghanistan. Zahir Shah had ascended to the throne in 1933, and Zaland’s father worked for his government for the next 40 years, as a minister of commerce and also of telecommunications.
But Zaland spent much of his youth in Europe. "My mother was in love with Europe," says the softspoken, bearded Zaland, dressed casually in jeans and sneakers. "So she asked for my father to have a position, like an ambassador, abroad. We spent three or four years in Rome and also lived for a while in Paris, Belgium and Spain."
Zaland learned to speak several languages besides his native Pashto, and he eventually earned a doctorate in political science and law from the Sorbonne. But he admits that degree was to please his father, who was determined that all of his sons be diplomats. Zaland, like several of his brothers, dreamed of a more artistic calling. Back home in Afghanistan, he studied architecture and engineering-background that has served him well both in the mechanical metal sculptures he designs today at Sarasota’s Towles Court and in years spent working with heavy machinery on agricultural projects in Afghanistan.
"My father-in-law asked me to work for him on a project in Mazar-Al-Sharif," recalls Zaland. "And for two years I did, working on welding a huge pipeline there. But it was hard. It was six hours from Kabul and I couldn’t take my wife and kids with me."
So for a time he concentrated more on his sculpture, and he had several exhibitions both in Kabul and at embassies abroad. The king, he smiles, was a frequent buyer of his works.
But life changed forever for Zaland and his family when the king’s own cousin, Mohammed Daoud, who had served for years as prime minister, overthrew the king’s government in a coup in 1973. "He had been working for years to undermine him [the king]," says Zaland. "He sent many of our country’s students to Russia, supposedly for military training, but in reality to develop them into Communists.
"You understand," Zaland explains, leaning forward and speaking with intensity, "for us the Koran was a holy book, to be placed always above our heads out of respect. Yet these students, when they were graduating from their training, they would have to put their foot on the Koran, on the floor, to accept their diplomas. They became used to Russian vodka, Russian women, Russian ways."
Years of political turmoil followed the coup, with Daoud himself being overthrown and killed, along with many members of his family, by the leaders of Afghanistan’s Communist Khalq Party in 1978. Zaland and members of his family, including women and children, had been taken into custody in 1975 for "interviews."
"We did not even have a chance to pick up our cigarettes," says Zaland. "We had nothing with us." After six months in prison, the women and children were released when the Saudi Arabian government agreed to pay 5 million pounds in ransom. But Zaland remained in jail for three years, under deplorable conditions.
"We were in a building in the desert, all of us," he recalls. "There was no bedrooms, no bathrooms, no kitchen. There was a barrel of water we used for drinking, for bathing. The water was green, and there were many sick people. For food we would have a piece of dark bread and perhaps some soup"-from a pot feeding 300 people, into which a few carrots or onions had been thrown.
But worse than sickness or deprivation, Zaland says, was that "Every night at 11, we would hear cars coming. And every night people disappeared. They were being killed.
"In the beginning it was really hard for us. There was no permission to pray, no permission to keep the Koran, no permission even to talk. But by the end of the second year, we had accepted that this was our ‘beautiful, sweet home,’" he says ironically.
Zaland’s liberation from this hell came when Babrak Karmal, the president installed by the Soviets after their invasion in 1979, decided to free the prisoners as a public relations gesture. His family dispersed throughout different European countries. Zaland was in Germany when he received a phone call from his wife, who had made her way to the United States with their children. Eventually, she and Zaland were reunited in Santa Barbara, California, and Zaland began to use his experience as a welder to take what jobs he could, while his wife worked in a boutique.
"It was very hard," he says simply. "I got so shy because it was so hard to learn the language. The welding was good for me, because I worked from a blueprint; I did not need to talk with anybody to do it. But I did not work on my art for a long time, because after welding all day it was not enjoyable."
His wife persuaded him to turn to art again, however. When they moved in the 1980s to the Washington, D.C. area, he again exhibited some of his metal sculptures, while still working maintenance and engineering jobs during the day. Life seemed to have returned to some semblance of normalcy-until 1995, when his wife of 38 years was killed in an automobile accident.
At that point, Zaland admits, he began to lose his faith in Islam. Now, he says, he believes only in a religion of humanism. "There is just us, just people, nobody else," he says. "And if there is a higher energy, a power, it is not interested in humans."
But he is happy to be here in Florida, even though, he laughs ruefully, he is "the only Afghan in Sarasota and Bradenton," his relationship with a woman who helped bring him here later ended, and he has recently been fighting prostate cancer. He has found good friends, he says, and loves to look at the bridges that bind the area’s keys together.
"Everything is so easy, and it’s such a beautiful country," he says. "Whatever you are looking for, at the pet store, the grocery store, anywhere, you can find." He has, in fact, found a place to display his sculptures, at downtown’s Sonnet Gallery. Currently he’s doing sketches for several upcoming works, including one titled "Tora Bora" (after that mountainous region of Afghanistan) and another tied to the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
And although he says he has no plans to return to Afghanistan, he holds out hope for his troubled country’s future, especially now that the United States is playing such a major role there. "God bless the United States," he says. "If not for them, we would never get our country back."