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New York, New York

All the King’s Men

The king of Albania always has a seat at Sam’s Place on 39th Street, which is more than he can say for his home country.

There’s always a seat reserved for the king of Albania at Sam’s Place, a cozy, East 39th Street Italian restaurant that has been run by Albanians for 75 years. The brother of owner Sami Mulosmanaj was a longtime confidante of King Leka, who has claimed the Albanian throne since the early 1960s but never ruled the small, impoverished nation on the Adriatic Sea. So whenever His Royal Highness visits the Big Apple, he heads straight for Mr. Mulosmanaj’s establishment, which looks right out of a just-colorized, Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s version of New York. ‘Oh, he’s been here many times,’ the restaurateur said of the monarch. ‘He’s sat upstairs, downstairs. Many, many times.’

His attention veered to a spirited gathering of men, chatting among themselves in Albanian and English. Dressed in dark suits and ties, the men, and they were all men, often meet for dinner at the restaurant to talk about life in their homeland. The news isn’t good—Albania is a place of ‘crime, chaos, corruption, concrete brutalism,’ in the words of The Guardian. But the group advocates a picturesque salve to their country’s wounds: a constitutional monarchy.

The story of the Albanian crown bears little resemblance to the American and British ideals of royalty: Princess Di dodging the paparazzi, Prince Charles giving a speech about architecture. The Albanian tale has a bit more edge to it, a bit like Albania itself. It began when Ahmed Zogu, the country’s premier, crowned himself King Zog I in 1928.

He was assuming royal power over a land that had always been regarded as ungovernable. For 500 years until the early 20th century, the nation was ruled by the Ottoman Turks, but Albanians, who have always done things their own way, were more loyal to tribal clans that operated under ancient customary laws. The country, full of forbidding mountain ranges and isolated valleys, was geographically inhospitable to central rule. It was also ethnically and religiously fractious, with two major ethnic sub-groups—Ghegs in the north, Tosks in the south—and large populations of Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics. Only 10 percent of the population could read.

Zogu, a wily Muslim chieftain of a Gheg clan, first assumed power in 1922, only to flee into exile after being shot in Parliament in 1924. Six months later, he returned home, staged a coup, and ruled again. After four additional years in power, he decided to elevate himself to kingly status. ‘We are a primitive and backward people, accustomed to the hereditary principle and unable to appreciate the meaning of a republic,’ he said, according to Jason H. Tomes, whose fascinating and comprehensive biography of the Albanian monarch, King Zog of Albania: Europe’s Self-Made Muslim King, was published this month by New York University Press. ‘Something more in harmony with national ideas was needed.’

He claimed to be occupying the throne of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, the Albanian national hero who led a 25-year rebellion against the Turks in the 15th century. But the king was far from an exemplary leader, in Tomes’s estimation. Although he was successful in modernizing some aspects of Albanian life, Zog presided over a regime of corruption and violence. Opponents were silenced, civil liberties were non-existent, elections were fixed. And His Majesty was always mindful of the possibility of the populace turning against him, with good reason: During a trip to Vienna, he narrowly escaped assassination. Two assailants opened fire on his entourage as it exited the Vienna Opera House following a double bill performance of I Pagliacci and the Strauss ballet Josephs-Legende. The king ‘drew a gun from inside his tail-coat and returned fire,’ writes Tomes. ‘…Zog emptied five chambers of his revolver and then asked [an aide] to hand him his pistol, unaware that [he] was already dead. Fearing attack from the other side of the car, he squeezed past the body and ran back into the Opera House, shouting in German, as the police appeared and seized everybody.’

The Albanians at Sam’s Place emphasized that the king brought stability to the nation after centuries of foreign misrule. ‘What I want for my country is what works,’ said one man. ‘And for those years the monarchy worked.’

Throughout the 1930s, King Zog coped with many pressures from Italy, which has historically exerted a large influence on Albania. In 1939, Mussolini invaded, ending the king’s 11-year reign and sending him into exile for the duration of World War II. At the end of the war, the communists took over, transforming Albania into a frightening Stalinist dystopia sealed off from the rest of the world. It was such a hideous regime that some looked upon the king’s tenure with renewed fondness. A broken and ill man, King Zog died in Paris in 1961. The crown was transferred to his son, King Leka, who pined for decades for the restoration of royal rule to the homeland he fled when he was just a few days old. Communism fell in 1990, but, in 1997, voters rejected the new king’s ascension to his father’s throne by a two-to-one margin. Now 63, King Leka, who disputed the election results, is calling for another vote.

The men at Sam’s Place argue that their nation is so mismanaged it makes sense to give the king a try. They say that the ostensibly democratic rulers of Albania are simply communists under new name. ‘The king will give us back our dignity,’ said Hikik Mena, the nattily dressed young president of the New York monarchists. They note that he was educated in the West and would be better able to initiate democratic reforms than a native Albanian. They say that he is free of the taint of corruption.

The varied group of young and old—some of the elderly men fought Italians and Nazis during World War II, some of the younger men spent time in communist prisons before fleeing—travel to Midtown Manhattan from Albanian enclaves in Ridgewood, Bergen, and Pelham Parkway. During a meal that owed more to Italian than Albanian cooking traditions, each man rose to speak a few words about their hopes for the Albanian crown—a constitutional monarchy, they noted, that would be fully democratic. The oldest member of the group, a 90-year-old former college professor named Miftar Spahija Thaci, spoke for them all when he said, ‘I am a Zogist.’

One of the most vocal attendees, Xhafer Elezi, a linebacker-size Yonkers resident with hands like slabs of beef, quieted the room with a story about an incident in Albania’s Tirana airport. He and his wife confronted two men who, they believed, were smuggling two young children out of the country in order to harvest their organs. ‘The children were crying uncontrollably,’ he said. ‘I asked the men, who were not Albanian, “What are you doing?” They said the children are sick and we will be giving them medical treatment. So I asked the kids in Albanian, “Are you sick?” They said, “No. We want our mother.”’

A man from across the table shook his head in disgust and said, ‘It happens every day in Albania.’

When asked if the group would return to Albania to assist in the king’s struggle, Haidar Tonuzi, a retired engineer from Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, mentioned a meeting he had with King Zog and a group of Albanian royalists in Paris in 1960. ‘Someone asked him, “Will we be returning to Albania?” The king said, “I am not going back. But these young people some day will return.”’ Some of the men at Sam’s pledged to return to Albania to help the king, but it was clear that many had made lives for themselves in the prosperous First World. They spoke of businesses they had started, of homes they had purchased in suburban neighborhoods. Several noted that they were naturalized Americans and proud of it.

As Mr. Mulosmanaj arrived with coffee, all the talk about Albania’s troubles started to subside. Soon the slow shuffle toward the door began. But two old-timers couldn’t contain themselves. They continued discussing an arcane matter of Balkan politics.

‘OK, OK,’ a younger man said to them. ‘Some of us have girlfriends, some of us have wives. Let’s get going.’