“I don’t have bodyguards clearing traffic or tailors stitching my clothes. This is America,” says Saba Kebede of McLean, who laughed and looked at her husband, Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, the grandson of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
Washington, flush with royals
On Whistling Duck Drive in Upper Marlboro resides Kofi Boateng, an Ashanti king of Ghana — there are many — who works as a CPA and whose palace is a sprawling McMansion with a football game on the flat-screen TV and pictures of West African royalty hanging over the fireplace.
“Sometimes, these suburbs are so quiet they remind me of my village in Ghana,” says Boateng, closing his eyes and listening to the sound of nighttime crickets mixing with the purr of West African music from a party in his basement.
Kebede and Boateng are just two of the many lesser-known royals who live in the Washington suburbs. They include King Kigeli Ndahindurwa V, who ruled Rwanda until his overthrow in 1961 and now calls Oakton home, and Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who lives in Potomac and runs an advocacy association that is outspoken about the need for democracy in his home country.
While Washington is traditionally a destination for those who seek power, it’s also a refuge for those who no longer have it. Many of the royals who call the region home are in exile; others came because their grandparents or parents, who were deposed, thought that the United States offered better opportunities for their children, while Washington offered the prestige and access of living in a world capital.
Many lead stereotypically Washingtonian lives. They’re diplomats of a different sort, rubbing shoulders with World Bank officials, human rights advocates and senators at embassy functions and fundraisers. Being royals, they preside over births, weddings and funerals in a ceremonial capacity. Being suburbanites, they get stuck in traffic, pick up dry cleaning and help their children with homework.
“In America, the title and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee,” jokes Gul Ahmed Zikria, an obstetric surgeon who hails from the Afghan royal family and completed his surgical residence at Georgetown University Hospital. “But if royals are at home anywhere, it’s Washington, D.C.”
They leave their castles and courts behind, but not their status among their countrymen or the duty that comes with it — even when they live in the Maryland suburbs, work in a cubicle and buy lunch at a salad bar.
A new kind of fairy tale
In the shaded courtyard of an Ethiopian orthodox church in Alexandria, Prince Selassie and his wife, Princess Kebede, are wading through a crowd of women wearing gauzy cotton wraps over their hair and bowing in prayer. A priest holding a silver cross ushers the royal couple into the church’s basement. With incense burning, they jostle to take their seats around a table for a traditional Ethiopian meal.