Game of thrones

People are now looking for non-partisan politicians, who, not unlike monarchs, can transcend petty communal differences.

TURKEY’S 19TH century Ottoman Ciragan Palace in Istanbul 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
TURKEY’S 19TH century Ottoman Ciragan Palace in Istanbul 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s been billed as the most exciting event of the year for royal-watchers throughout the East. On August 30, the now defunct dynasties of Egypt and Afghanistan will unite in the lush gardens of Istanbul’s Çıragan Palace, when Prince Muhammad Ali, eldest son of King Fuad II, marries Princess Noal Zaher, a granddaughter of the late Muhammad Zaher Shah.
The couple announced their engagement on April 27, to the delight of both families, though it surprised royal-watchers. Even the location for the festivities astonished, since the Palace of Çıragan, destroyed by a great fire in 1919 and only restored in 1989, stood as a relic of the 19th century. Still, many wondered whether this princely couple chose the venue to illustrate that their dynasties could, once again, modernize and stand the test of time.
The Ali-Zaher union comes at a critical moment in contemporary history, with both Egypt and Afghanistan mired in seemingly interminable political turmoil. Royalists in both countries remember the heyday of monarchical rule, albeit through rose-tinted glasses, wishing for glamorous, peaceful and relatively prosperous times.
Although the restoration of absolute monarchies may no longer be an option for the masses (or the US-led international community), members of both dynasties have expressed their readiness to re-enter the political stage in their respective countries to help restore peace and normalcy.
In fact, the upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan will mark the political debut of two potential rising stars, both grandsons of former kings. Prince Nadir Naim, a grandson of Zahir Shah and a cousin of Princess Noal, recently launched a political movement that he claims represents the “silent majority” seeking change.
Zalmai Rasoul, a grandson of King Habibullah (r. 1901-1919) and a former aide to Zahir Shah during his Rome exile, is widely rumored to be preparing to run for the top job.
For Helena Malikyar, an Afghan historian and a great-granddaughter of King Habibullah, these recent candidacies are positive signs that the people are now looking for non-partisan politicians, who, not unlike monarchs, can transcend petty communal differences.
“The royal clan that had ruled from 1826 until 1978 was viewed as above and beyond ethnic and sectarian politics, even though they were Pashtuns [the largest ethnic group],” she maintained.
“Today, after over 30 years of conflict and an array of leaders tried and tested, it seems like there is a return to that perception as people of various ethnic, sectarian and political background are flocking around Dr. Zalmai Rassoul and Prince Nadir,” Malikyar clarified.
SO WHERE does this leave the glamorous new couple? In some circles, there are expectations that Prince Muhammad Ali and Princess Noal Zaher may become a modern royal power-couple in exile, while for nostalgic emigrés, their union may herald a smidgeon of hope by providing a sense of continuity of an age-old custom of interdynastic marriage-cum-alliances.
Irrespective of political goals, sources close to the bridegroom maintain that the marriage was not an arranged covenant, and is in fact a love match. Prince Ali, who resides in Paris, met his princess while on holiday in Istanbul.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the pairing would have met with the enthusiastic approval of both grandfathers, if only because this is the first union between the Egyptian and Afghan royal households, and also because of the turmoil in both societies.
Traditionally, both dynasties were known for marrying within the family, even if the Egyptian ruling family welcomed princely matches with members of neighboring Muslim dynasties in the early decades of 20th century, either to secure alliances or ensure a suitable bloodline.
This custom was largely discontinued when both dynasties were ousted by military coup. King Farouk lost the Egyptian throne in 1952 and lived the rest of his years in exile both in Monaco and Rome. Ironically, the Italian capital was also where Princess Noal´s grandfather, Zaher Shah, made his home after he was overthrown by his cousin in 1973.
Beyond alliances, however, the Ali-Zaher match fulfills yet another requirement for Muslim royals.
“The motivation then and now might have been sometimes to cement alliances but mostly it is a question of religion wherein Muslim princes and princesses should marry within their faith,” says Prince Osman Rifat Ibrahim, whose father was a cousin of King Fuad II and whose mother was an Ottoman princess.
A notable forerunner of the custom was Egypt’s glamorous Princess Fawzia, whose short-lived marriage to Iran’s then-crown prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1939 was widely believed to be politically motivated.
The union, rattled by problems from the start, was likely intended to seal an alliance between two regional superpowers. It was also significant in that it united a Sunni royal and a Shia royal.
Six years later, Fawzia, the beautiful blue-eyed Egyptian princess turned queen of Iran, divorced the Persian royal, who was – at the time – seen as a parvenu as his father Reza Shah had been nothing more than a military general of humble origins who overthrew the centuries-old Qajar Dynasty.
For their part, the Afghan royals habitually either married within their clan or made alliance marriages with influential khans of other Afghan clans. In 1991, however, Princess Zeynep Tarzi, a niece of queen Soraya of Afghanistan, broke with convention by marrying an Ottoman prince, Ertugrul Osman, better known as “Osman Effendi.”
“Throughout the 20th century, a number of marriages took place between members of the Afghan royal clan, the Mohammadzai, and notable families within the Ottoman Empire,” revealed Malikyar. “Those Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish ladies who married into the Afghan aristocracy in the first half of the 20th century contributed greatly in the modernization process of Afghanistan, particularly in the areas of education and women’s rights,” which highlighted intra-dynastic benefits.
IF CYNICS are inclined to dismiss this marriage between descendants of once great dynasties as an outdated convention, or even as an act of self-indulgence, it also holds true that although the protagonists share a pedigree, they were both raised in the West in an environment that did not recognize such lineage.
Educated in European universities, they are today self-employed, tax-paying citizens in their adopted countries, no different from other emigrés from Egypt and Afghanistan.
Prince Muhammad Ali, prince of Sa’id (the title traditionally bestowed upon the Egyptian crown prince), was born in Cairo in 1979, the eldest son of Fuad II and his thenwife, Fadila, née Dominique-France Picard.
He was raised and educated between France and Morocco and now works in real estate in France.
Thirtysomething Princess Noal was born in Rome, daughter of the late Mohammed Daoud Pachtounyar, the fifth son of the last king of Afghanistan. Prince Daoud, a pilot and a lieutenant in the Royal Afghan Air Force, died in the early 1980s in a Rome accident.
Her mother, Princess Fatima, is the daughter of an Afghan ambassador. Princess Noal has a degree in European Business from the French university Institut Saint- Dominique in Rome and earned a technical degree in jewellery design at Webster University in London.
It is unclear whether the couple will attempt to take on a more visible humanitarian role, or perhaps even enter the political fray. The extent of their financial means is unknown, with Noal running her own jewellery design company, and her betrothed said to be involved in real estate. Moreover, it is debatable how much political support they or their relatives might garner, both at home and more importantly, abroad among “kingmaker” countries of the West.
“They might try, but considering what is happening in the two countries, how can two honest people overcome a world of corruption,” hammered Prince Osman.
For the moment, all this is conjecture, as guests fly in from all corners of the globe to attend the nuptials on the European shores of the Bosphorus.
The writer is a Doha-based journalist who has covered the Middle East and Afghanistan for over a decade.