Royalty are a dime a dozen in Manhattan. For a country that rebelled against the British over 200 years ago, the U.S.--and New York City in particular--seems to be where kings, queens and assorted variesties of royalty come when, for some reason or another, staying in their native land is no longer possible.
Those who live in the royalty-retreat of NYC might recall the spare-no-expense Fifth Avenue shopping sprees of the late Diana, Princess of Wales during her short-lived marriage to Prince Charles, heir to the British throne. Diana's hapless sister-in-law, Sarah, the original "Fergie," Duchess of York maintains her posh lifestyle, post-Prince Andrew, by hawking diet techniques, jewelry, china dishes and even a line of fragrances for Bath and Body Works.
And let's not forget the duty-free mogul's daughter, Marie-Chantal Miller, who bounced between London high society and New York's swankiest hang-outs before marrying Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece. Since the Greeks seem adamantly opposed to returning to a monarchy, the couple have settled quite comfortably in the Big Apple, where the Crown Prince now works as an investment consultant. The list goes on.
And of course, we Africans have some kings around Manhattan, or at least, heirs apparent and pretenders to thrones. In reality, only two African nations have reigning monarchs with political power: Morocco's King Mohammed IV and Swaziland's Mswati III. Sheiks, Obas, Emirs and other dignitaries, however, abound. But since national boundaries carved out by colonialists respect neither tribe nor chiefdom, these royal fathers now live side by side with the common American.
The story of the African royal in New York is unlike that of their European counterparts. For Sheik Anwar McKeen, the self-styled king of Nuba, in Sudan, it's a hard-knock life. There are no limousines, no black-tie galas and no lavish palaces. Instead, just a modest Patterson, New Jersey home in the shadows of Manhattan's grandeur.
It is often not difficult to find the Sheik at a certain popular African restaurant.
The tall dark man in an Italian tailored suit has the unmistakably bearing of a chief. Even without the black traditional hat, the lanky frame, the regal gait and the princely mien would have identified his status.
To hear this unassuming 61-year-old historian tell it, Nuba is the biblical land of Sheba, where one queen's union with another king spawned the famous dynasty of Ethiopian emperors.
He explains the history of his country. Sudan, which is Arabic for "land of the blacks," is bordered by Egypt, Ethiopia and Libya. Sudan is roughly a quarter of the United States in size with a population of 33.5 million in 2001, of which five percent is under the age of 15. Infant mortality is absurdly high. For every 1000 births 72 die in the first year.
Centuries ago, Arab settlers inter-married with indigenous people. A slave revolt in Egypt in 1315 led to Arab armies invading Nuba, sparking a year-long war that ended with the assassination of Mellik Dawood, the last known Nubian monarch. Dawood's son, Kwoleeb, and daughter, Asa, fled to Ghana. Asa's children became known as the Assante. Kwoleeb returned to Nuba where his people escaped from the Arab slave trade into the Nuba Mountains. "From then on the lineage was passed on in secret because they did not want the Arabs to know the royal family was still alive," McKeen said.
McKeen claims to be a direct descendant of Kwoleeb. But he provides no proof, not even an oral family lineage. His grasp of history nonetheless gives him an aura of credibility.
McKeen, himself born in the Nuba Mountains, tells of his secret coronation in April 1964. "I was called into a sanctuary and told to open a pot. Beside it was a stool, the Nubian throne. The pot had been sealed with beeswax and contained pebbles and oil. There were 648 pebbles in all." It was then explained to him why his father and father's fathers placed pebbles in the pot. "From the time they fled into the mountains each King had placed a pebble for each year they lived in the mountains with the hope that one day the king would restore the kingdom."
The pot and the wooden stool were passed on to him. He could either continue the tradition in secret or declare himself king and restore the kingdom.
But after six centuries, what's the first university educated secret King of the Nuba to do?
In a country where the ruling class maintains an Arabized sentiment, Islamic fervor is at an all time high. A military junta rules and the Nubians mix freely with Arab and Turkish descendants of Nubian women. Rebel fighting by the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (which is comprised mainly of members of the Christian and indigenous religious people of the south) against the Islamic government increased throughout the 1980s. The Sudanese junta attacked and killed minority Christians from the south. Civil war, famine, and disease plagued the country. McKeen laid low for a few years and then he formed a political party to, as he said, "include everyone."
He became a thorn in the side of the government as more and more Nubians were killed. Sudanese officials in the U.S. have long dismissed McKeen's claims of royalty. They maintain that Sudan is the only country where Islamic people entered into an agreement with Nubian Kings to live together. In other words, there was no invasion.
By 1992, he left his three children, the royal stool and the pot behind for the land of the free. His supporters smuggled him to Manhattan where the U.S. government granted the would-be king political asylum after two years. "I struggle. I struggle for my people who are being displaced and the still ongoing slavery," McKeen said. His international campaign against indentured servitude by descendants of Arabs of the dark-skinned Nubians makes few waves.
Indeed, he has waged a campaign in the west accusing the Arab-led government of genocide, of attempting to eradicate the Nuba people and their culture. "I have been to the White House, the state department, the United Nations and universities looking for support."
In 1997, he filed a formal complaint with the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights against the government of Sudan.
McKeen sees democracy as the path to restoring his Kingdom. He is convinced that if elections were held today, his all-inclusive Zinjarab National Cooperative Party could win the majority of parliamentary seats. The Prime Minister would then restore the monarchy.
"It will be a popular democracy and in my lifetime the kingdom will be restored. The king belongs to the people and I believe in a genuine democracy," he said.
He continues to wage a war against the administration of Sudan's President Omer Al Bashir, a former military general.
"[Slavery] is still going on. Nobody is monitoring that area," he said as he explained his new "God's Crusade to Free Slaves" movement. "There is a lot of sympathy, but no support." But what if the appeals of Moses to Pharaoh yielded some fruit? What would this Muslim "king" do with the slaves he hopes to free in the Sudan, Mauritania and the Persian Gulf?
"We want them to have contracts, to be paid and respected as workers, and have the freedom to leave," he said as he ambled down a Brooklyn street, on foot, to yet another speaking engagement.
This article originally ran in the May 2001 issue of The AFRican.