Do Europe's Ex-Royals Have Anything to Offer in the 21st Century?Breaking News
tags: aristocracy, monarchy, European history, Albania, Royal Families, Habsburg Dynasty
One peculiarity of European aristocrats is that their names pile up, like snowdrifts. It’s lunchtime in Tirana, the capital of Albania, and I am about to meet Leka Anwar Zog Reza Baudouin Msiziwe Zogu, crown prince of the Albanians.
The Albanian royal residence is easy to miss, tucked away on a quiet side street behind the national art museum. While Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms, including 188 staff bedrooms, 19 staterooms, and 78 bathrooms, the Albanian residence would be among the smaller, more understated houses in a wealthy American suburb. Its front gate opens onto a yard where the country stores its unwanted Soviet statues: Lenin, Stalin, and the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha all gaze with stony fortitude at a generic Stakhanovite maiden. Lenin has no arms. Hoxha’s nose is missing. The gate is guarded by an elderly manservant for whom the term faithful retainer might have been invented. Because I am British, his thinly disguised irritation at my presence makes me feel right at home.
And here is the prince: 39 years old, more than six feet tall, with a sandy beard, navy blazer, and soft South African accent, saying goodbye to his wife, Crown Princess Elia, and their 1-year-old daughter, Princess Geraldine. The pair are about to go to the park—without bodyguards—and Prince Leka II takes me inside, to the drawing room, where the faithful retainer brings me an espresso. Next door is a room devoted to Albanian history (“what a lovely scimitar,” I find myself exclaiming, my reserves of small talk inadequate at the sight of the family’s sword collection), and beyond that is a cozy lounge with a leather sofa, its domesticity slightly compromised by the bows and arrows hanging on the wall.
Leka’s cosmopolitan name tells the story of his family. Zog is for his grandfather, an Ottoman bey, or chieftain, who became prime minister of Albania in 1922 and upgraded himself to president three years later, then to king in 1928. That arrangement lasted for 11 years, before Mussolini invaded, in 1939, and made Albania part of the Italian empire. Zog fled to Greece, along with his wife, Geraldine, and two-day-old son, whose name would later be styled Leka I. The family subsequently moved to Turkey, then France, then London, then Egypt, and then back to France, where Zog died, in 1961. His widow and son moved to Spain and then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before ending up in South Africa.
Leka II’s other names pay tribute to the leaders who helped the royal household in its long exile: Anwar is for Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat; Reza is for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran; Baudouin is for Boudewijn, an uncle of the current king of Belgium. Msiziwe is a Zulu honorific, derived from the word for “helper,” a reminder that when Zog’s grandson was born, in South Africa, the government symbolically designated the maternity ward as Albanian soil.
Prince Leka grew up in the last days of apartheid. He has a strong childhood memory of visiting the beach at Durban and asking why the family’s Zulu driver could not join them. “It was a white beach,” he says. Then he looked across at the Black children playing in their segregated area and wondered why he couldn’t play with them. “Do you ever watch Trevor Noah?” he asks me. “I resonate with his ideas, his philosophy,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “If we don’t recall our legacy and the torments of the past, it’s nothing good for the future.”
Leka is a paradox—a royal prince living in a democratic republic. His position is lonely, as the only son of an only son. He has assigned himself an immense task: to act as a unifying figure in a poor country with a febrile political system still scarred by half a century of authoritarianism, in a region marked by religious violence. And the tools available to him are few: a resonant name, a gentle manner, and a handful of social-media accounts. Leka is active on Facebook and Instagram, and occasionally drops into Twitter, where his unverified account promises to share a “combination of personal and official happenings.”
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