On July 2, 2013 a long ago beautiful princess died, and with her an entire chapter of history came to an uneventful close. Interestingly, the princess’ former dominion was the main event on all the major news networks that day, as well as the next, and the one after that. Reporters probed up and down every alleyway of her nation’s capital looking for stories, and somehow totally missed the story of the princess herself.
In the U.S., pundits were placed before the camera all day long to explain her nation’s history, politics, and society to eager audiences, but the princess and her passing escaped mention altogether. This would have been unimaginable to news-watchers a few decades ago.
The place was Egypt, and the cameras were there 24/7 covering the massive crowds once again converging on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the nation’s president step down. Two years ago that man had been Hosni Mubarak. This summer the president was Mohammed Morsi. As with Mubarak, the army obliged the crowd. On July 3, 2013 they issued a statement announcing the end of Morsi’s presidency, and he’s been kept in detention ever since.
But while all eyes were fixated on Cairo that day, 140 miles to the north in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, a figure from a previously deposed Egyptian first family also left the stage, with little more than a Wikipedia note to show for it. Though the princess seemed far from the minds of anyone watching Egypt that day in July 2013, the last time her nation went through a revolution (in 1952) she was a figure of considerable interest both at home and abroad, a true international celebrity, having graced the cover of Life magazine not too long before Egypt’s 1952 revolution.
Does the name Princess Fawzia ring a bell? Not at all? What if I said her brother was a guy named King Farouk, does that name seem more familiar? Maybe a little, right? You’ve heard the name, you just can’t place exactly where. King Tutankhamun, King Ramses, King Farouk…It sounds vaguely pharaonic, like it belongs in there somewhere. In a way Farouk was the last of Egypt’s pharaohs, though his reign didn’t end until 1952.
The story of how Egypt came to be ruled by a king until that late year is interesting, and we will get to it, but first let’s take a look back at Cairo when Fawzia, King Farouk’s sister, was still a reigning princess.
At that time, Egypt played a much more sizable and glamorous role in the Western psyche, a role that might be hard to imagine now. Today, people are aware of Egypt’s fabled Bronze Age dynasties that gave us the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and so on. But less recognized is the extent to which contemporary Egypt captured the imagination of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Westerner.
If you’re American, try to remember the warm glow you suddenly felt towards Australia after Paul Hogan’s ads promising to throw another shrimp on the barbie for you began to air, or perhaps the way Hawaii and tiki culture loomed large in the psyche of suburban WWII dads in the 1950s. Now imagine that sort of mania extended over generations. That’s what Egypt meant to the 19th and early 20th Centuries in Europe and the Anglophone world.
It started with Napoleon Bonaparte. Back in 1797, Napoleon was still just an ambitious general in the French military. The Ottoman Empire, which nominally controlled Egypt, was weakening, and the Mamelukes, who actually did control Egypt, were in disarray. Napoleon convinced his superiors that the time was right to send a French military expedition to the eastern Mediterranean to gain a geopolitical stronghold against their arch-nemesis, Great Britain, as well as to “export the ideals of the Revolution,” which had begun in France some eight years earlier (also in July).
In all, the French campaign and subsequent occupation of Egypt lasted only three years, concluding with a declaration of victory by Napoleon and a hasty retreat back to Paris. But the French effort had many lingering effects, both in Egypt and Europe.
A unique aspect of Napoleon’s expedition had been the inclusion of a large team of scientists and scholars. They made detailed sketches of the country, mapped its cities and waterways, catalogued its flora and fauna, took archaeological artifacts, made improvements in the infrastructure, and introduced into Egypt concepts of the Enlightenment that had reshaped Western Civilization over the course of the 18th Century. Their sketches and writings, when published as “Description de l’Egypte,” caused a sensation in Europe, spawning the new adventure science of Egyptology as well as the modern overseas tourism industry, and kicked off a wave of Egyptmania that lasted until the 1950s.
Recall how special, almost magical, Central European cities like Prague looked after the fall of the Iron Curtain because they were preserved in the amber of 1939 and thawed out again 50 years later in 1989. Now imagine instead of decades, it’s centuries.
That’s what you had with Cairo in the 1800s. It was one of the great cities of antiquity that had been stopped in time in the Middle Ages when the Mamelukes (contemporaries of the Crusaders) took over.
Post-Enlightenment Europeans were enchanted with this old-new land. Egypt became one of the first places European modernism expanded into. The country was a tabula rasa onto which all the innovations of the 18th and 19th Centuries could be manifested.
The French expedition, among other things, discovered the Rosetta Stone, which was being used as building material in an Ottoman-era fort when they found it. This stela, dating to 196 BC, afforded the chance to at long last decipher Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, bringing this ancient language back to life for the first time since antiquity.
Tomb plundering, thinly disguised as Egyptology (see Giovanni Belzoni), began almost right away, and the mummy trade followed. Belzoni was a circus giant cum treasure hunter. In his era you just walked into a tomb and found so many mummies that you got tripped up in their body parts and emerged covered in the dust of their bones. Belzoni and his ilk simply took what they wanted with no cognizance of the scientific protocol observed by modern archaeologists.
Mummy-mania was big in 1800s Europe. There are estimations that the Egyptians mummified over 100 million people in antiquity, and there was still a bounty of corpses to be reaped by 19th Century visitors. Dating back to the Renaissance Era, hundreds of thousands of mummies had been powdered and consumed by Europeans, touted as miracle cures, but generally resulting in nothing beyond severe abdominal pain for the patient. By the 1800s, it became fashionable at dinner parties to feature as the piece de resistance the unwrapping of a genuine Egyptian mummy.
America got in on the action, too. During the U.S. Civil War there was a paper shortage. Thousands of Egyptian mummies were imported to help remedy the situation. Their bandages were unwrapped, yielding a hundred yards or more of linen per mummy, which was then rendered into pulp. The paper made from the mummies was brown, and was used among other things as butcher paper, which is how our meat came to be wrapped in brown paper as it is today. Apparently, mummies could be burned for fuel in steam engines, too, such was their ubiquity.
The 19th Century was a time of rapid and intense modernization, when the world as we know it (or as we knew it before the computer revolution began changing it all over again) came into being.
One over-arching effect of all these changes was that the world became a smaller place. At the start of the 19th Century, there were no telegraphs or trains. Nothing went faster than the speed of a galloping horse or a sailing ship, not even a communiqué. Time itself was a local phenomenon. Not until continental railroads and their timetables came along did anything like time-zones or global clocks need to be considered.
But over the ensuing decades, steam engines were invented. Railroad tracks were laid. The famed Orient Express was established. The journey from Europe to the Near East that once took weeks or even months under rugged conditions, now took days and was done on smooth rails and sleeper cars with white-linen table cloths.
Travel to Egypt was no longer the exclusive domain of expeditioners, but now open to ordinary sightseers, too. If you couldn’t make the trip yourself, with the advent of photography and the mass production of goods in the Industrial Age, it was possible to acquire images and keepsakes of all the exotic locales in the world, to suddenly see with your own eyes and hold with your own hands that which could only be imagined before. In addition, the postal service, also a 19th Century innovation, allowed people to send and receive postcards from anywhere in the world, as well.
The net effect of all this, plus telegrams, newspapers, and magazines, was that the world became a much smaller place. For Europeans, that meant Egypt was now practically next door.
Nowhere on earth seemed so far away and so close as this fabled land of Egypt, full of mystery and enchantment and stuck in a sort of Medieval idyll. It beckoned to Europe’s newly minted throngs of sightseers and armchair adventurers.
There it all was: The pyramids, the Sphinx, the mummies, the ancient tombs, the River Nile with snapshots of life that had scarcely changed since the dawn of civilization. All that plus the standard fezzes, spice bazaars, water pipes, and camel markets of the Near East, only a train ride away from Europe’s capital cities.
As the power of Egypt’s Mamelukes and Ottomans waned, European culture and capital moved in and modernized Egypt’s central city. In the 1860s and 1870s, Cairo enjoyed its gilded age. A formerly swampy tract of land between the Nile River and the medieval walls of Cairo was developed along the European model, featuring upscale Parisian-style city blocks lined with lordly British manor houses, grand embassies, and some of the finest hotels of the Nineteenth Century. Tahrir Square, so often in the news today, is part of this building spree.
During this time, Giuseppe Verdi was commissioned to write the opera “Aida.” Set in Pharaonic times and inspired by the writings of a prominent Egyptologist, “Aida” debuted in Cairo in 1871, and with its lavish and stunning costuming, went on to become one of the most acclaimed operas of its age and beyond. Two years before “Aida” debuted, the Suez Canal had opened, thrusting Egypt into the geopolitical spotlight as the brand new number one shipping lane between Europe and Asia. By the 1870s, Egypt was not only a historical curiosity, it was also the belle of the Belle Epoque, and a hot spot of global commerce.
If you want a Yankee-flavored example of how closely Egypt was tied into the international scene at the time, consider the Statue of Liberty. Before Bartholdi set to work sculpting this neoclassical colossus in New York’s harbor, he had proposed constructing a similarly colossal female figure holding up a torch that would serve as a lighthouse at the entrance of the Suez Canal. (Bartholdi had toured Egypt in the 1850s and visited the sculptures at Abu Simbel. Could seeing these ancient stone giants up close have been the inspiration for his own colossus that would soon dominate New York’s harbor?)
Egypt remained a cause celebre for many decades, but its gilded age came to an abrupt end by 1880. To understand why, let’s turn back the clock to 80 years before that, when Napoleon invaded Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean to exploit the power gap left by the declining Ottoman Empire.
After Napoleon’s gambit, France’s greatest rival, the British Empire, sent their navy to check Napoleon’s advances as well as to prop up the Ottomans (then referred to as “the Sick Man of Europe”), lest a fourth empirical power, the Russians, moved in to fill the power gap.
Enter Muhammad Ali. If you’re a late 20th Century American, you are inevitably surprised to learn that there is another historical notable named Muhammad Ali who preceded our own heavyweight champ by a century and a half and was no less impressive a figure.
With Napoleon and the French gone, Muhammad Ali was dispatched by the Ottomans to reclaim the city of Cairo. He instead seized control for himself and killed off the entire Mameluke overclass of Egypt, which left him firmly in charge of the country and also had the effect of releasing Cairo from its medieval shackles.
Muhammad Ali was a realist. He knew the shortcomings of the Ottomans from whence he came, and wanted to modernize his fiefdom to be more like the Europeans, whose relative advancement he respected.
Under Muhammad Ali, Egypt’s cotton trade was revived, and with the proceeds, he was able to finance successful battle campaigns. A little too successful perhaps. He was winning so much land that he was actually making inroads into the Ottomans’ home base of Eastern Turkey. At this point the European powers decided to intervene. They feared the destabilized Ottomans would present too tempting an opportunity for Russia to get its long desired warm water Mediterranean port. So, Britain and France sent in their navies. Muhammad Ali acquiesced, but got what he wanted—permanent title to the viceroyalty for himself and his descendants, who would sit atop the throne of Egypt until 1952, when Farouk (the tenth Hereditary ruler of the Muhammad Ali dynasty) went into exile.
Muhammad Ali proved to be a very effective leader, and the de facto father of Egyptian nationhood. Though neither Egyptian himself nor an Egyptian nationalist, he wrested the nation free from the dominion of outside empires and set it down a successful course towards independence. Muhammad Ali’s son and especially his grandson continued developing Egypt into a modernized nation.
It was under the grandson, Ismail, who reigned from 1863 to 1879, that Egypt experienced its belle époque. Ismail, though committed to expanding Egypt’s influence and developing its industries, was a bit of a spendthrift. In addition to bankrolling a brand new two square-mile quarter of Cairo built to replicate Paris, establishing the Suez Canal, and commissioning lavish works of art like “Aida,” Ismail launched a costly and ultimately unsuccessful war of conquest against Ethiopia.
What allowed Ismail to bankroll all these projects was cotton. It may surprise people to know that even today, Egypt’s biggest source of revenue is not tourism or foreign aid, but cotton exports.
During the U.S. Civil War, with the Confederate States prevented by the Anaconda Plan from exporting their cotton to global markets, the value of Egypt’s cotton sales on the global market quadrupled. This temporary bubble of wealth deluded Ismail into thinking he could bankroll his many projects indefinitely. But the spending soon caught up with him.
Ismail’s European creditors tightened the noose, and he was unable to pay off his debts, which allowed the Europeans to wring concession after concession out of him, starting with his rights to the Suez Canal and ending with the throne itself. An Anglo-French committee took over the day to day running of Egypt, and Ismail was forced into exile.
In 1882, the British made their occupation of Egypt formal, and all future khedives (as the hereditary rulers of Muhammad Ali’s line were called until 1922) had to obey British directives. On paper, the khedives were still functionaries subservient to the Ottoman sultanate in Istanbul, the same position Muhammad Ali had when he was originally dispatched to Cairo at the Ottomans’ behest in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion. Of course, that had not really been the case since Muhammad Ali seized the reins of power from the Ottomans and wrote his own ticket. It was a legal fiction that was allowed to continue for diplomatic expedience.
In 1918, with World War I over and the Ottoman Empire finally finished off for good, that diplomatic piece of fiction no longer mattered. Egyptians began a renewed clamor for independence from the British, which was eventually gained in 1922, after which Egypt elected its first Prime Minister and upgraded its khedive to a king.
European interest in Egypt, both cultural and political, remained high during Egypt’s so-called Independence Period. It was in 1922, for example, that Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered by Englishman Howard Carter, setting off a fresh wave of Egypt-mania. This Independence Period is also when Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s literary masterpiece, the Cairo Trilogy, is set, as well as most of his other acclaimed novels.
Though Egypt was a nominally independent nation by then, France and Britain were still actively interventionist colonial powers and freely used the Middle East, Africa, and Asia as their chessboard. The British still maintained a strong presence in Egypt (the Suez Canal alone was a deemed a top priority global asset worth protecting at all costs), and the Egyptian monarchy continued to play a prominent role in the nation’s affairs, thanks largely to European insistence.
Farouk ascended to the throne as a 16-year old in 1936. In the 1940s, at a time when Egyptians were struggling to free themselves from the vestiges of foreign overlords while enduring the hardships of World War II and the 1948 war with Israel, he proved to be an especially unpopular figure. In 1942, for example, he allowed the British to hand pick the next prime minister of Egypt rather than take a stand for Egyptian independence.
In the martial fever that gripped Egypt in the buildup to the 1948 war with Israel, Farouk went about ceremoniously bestowing high military rank upon his family members. Princess Fawzia, for example, was made a Field Marshal. But on the actual battlefront, Egyptian troops were woefully underequipped and largely failed in their objectives. The dichotomy of the boastful King of Egypt, who wasn’t really Egyptian at all, preening in a fancy uniform (and adding to his ever-growing collection of yachts, cars, and other playthings) as his underprepared army was routed, served to further rally nationalists against him.
On top of all that, Egypt’s nationalists were cognizant that Farouk’s royal lineage was neither Egyptian nor Arab, but descended from an Albanian sent by the Turks to rule over their nation with an iron fist 150 years earlier.
In the decade after World War II, the era of French and British colonial dominion over Africa and Asia came to an end. Egyptians were at long last ready to declare real independence, not the provisional kind overseen by a European ‘older brother’ nation.
With the British no longer a mitigating presence in Egypt, in 1952, the Colonels’ Coup, led by Gamel Abdel Nasser, overthrew the monarchy, and King Farouk was sent off into exile, at long last putting an end to the Muhammad Ali dynasty that had begun in the wake of Napoleon’s retreat. A year later, Egypt’s revolutionary government formally abolished the monarchy, officially ending the Muhammad Ali dynasty’s 150-year run, and declaring Egypt a republic.
Though Farouk had the impeccable manners and graciousness of someone brought up in the royal court, he had a notorious depraved side as well. Farouk was a child who never had to grow up, and instead got to boss people around. He wielded the same sense of entitlement that other royals have infamously demonstrated throughout ancient and modern history.
While Farouk can be seen warmly bantering with FDR in 1945, instinctively reaching for a lighter to light FDR’s cigarette, he was also a notorious pickpocket, and had actually pilfered Winston Churchill’s pocket watch a few years earlier.
From the “Mad Monarchs” site: As a young king, Farouk liked to start food fights at banquets. He partied at night, slept in during the morning, and when he did rise for the day, breakfasted on caviar straight from the can. According to one of his sisters, he drank upwards of thirty bottles of soda per day. After having a nightmare about lions, he went to the Cairo zoo and shot the majestic cats in their cages to help him achieve closure (it didn’t work). He owned multiple yachts, villas, and airplanes, and over 100 cars, which he spray-painted red (while forbidding anyone else to have a red car) so that he could race through the streets of Cairo without being stopped by police.
Farouk was not a tall man, but thanks to his appetites and a possible glandular disorder, he soon ballooned up to a hefty playing weight of 300 lbs.
Again from Mad Monarchs: When the Shah of Persia (the father of the man whom Farouk’s sister Fawzia had so famously married, more on that later) died in 1944, and his coffin landed in Cairo, Farouk stole the ceremonial sword, belt, and medals right off the corpse, needlessly complicating diplomatic relations between Egypt and the Persian nation. After Farouk was deposed in 1952, the items were returned.
When Farouk fled Egypt, he was able to smuggle the bulk of his fortune out with him but was forced to leave his many lesser possessions and vast collections behind, where they became objects of curiosity and derision, and included what is believed to have been the largest porn collection on the planet as well as the world’s most valuable coin collection at the time.
In exile, Farouk became a citizen of Monaco, while living primarily in Italy. He soon divorced his wife and, on a dwindling fortune, continued trying to live the life of a playboy, feasting in fine restaurants and dating a succession of attractive younger women. On March 17, 1965, Farouk took a 22-year old Italian woman out for dinner in Rome. He ate oysters, lobster, and lamb, and after lighting up a giant cigar, collapsed at the table, dead at the age of 45.
During his reign, Farouk sired three girls and a boy.
All three of his daughters died in the 2000s, aged 59, 64, and 71. His son, Fuad, bears the distinction of being the last monarch of Egypt, having been hastily coronated King Fuad II by his abdicating father back in 1952. However, Fuad’s titular reign lasted less than a year before the Egyptian revolutionary government nullified the monarchy.
King Fuad II was raised in Switzerland. He later emigrated to France, where he married a Jewish woman who converted to Islam and assumed the title Queen Fadila of Egypt upon the union. She bore two children, a prince and a princess, before the couple divorced in 1996, whereupon Fuad II returned to Switzerland. Fuad II is still feted among Egyptian royalists as the rightful ruler of Egypt.
Fuad I, in case you were wondering, was none other than Farouk’s father, who reigned from 1917 until his death in 1936. To give you an idea of what life was like in the family Farouk was born into, his father Fuad I married his first wife in 1895. After having two children (one who died in infancy) the unhappy couple quickly divorced just three years into the marriage. During that time, Fuad was shot by his brother in law in the leg, chest, and throat. The last bullet could not be removed and, according to the Mad Monarchs website, resulted in the king making sporadic and uncontrollable dog-like barks for the rest of his days.
Twenty years later, Fuad I married his second wife, and the relationship was no less stormy than the first one. Fuad kept wife number two locked up in his harem every night, and upon his death, it’s said, she gleefully sold off all his clothes to a second-hand shop in triumph. But not before giving birth to the future King Farouk and his four sisters.
Farouk was born in 1920, and his sister Princess Fawzia was born a year later. The other three daughters, Faiza, Faika, and Fathia, arrived later in the decade.
After the revolution, Princess Faiza and her husband went to Istanbul, then Spain and France, where they divorced, with Faiza moving on to Beverly Hills, where she lived until her death in 1994. Faiza, along with her husband, had the privilege of being placed briefly under house arrest by her brother, King Farouk, for suspicion of revolutionary activity in the waning days of his reign.
Princess Faika married an Egyptian commoner from the palace diplomatic corps in 1950 in a civil ceremony in the city of San Francisco. This marriage did not have the blessing of her brother, the King. They later married in a religious ceremony in Cairo, where the couple stayed on after the revolution and raised four children before Faika died at the age of 56 after a long illness.
Princess Fathia was born in the Vermont Hotel in San Francisco in 1930 and spent most of her life in the United States. She shocked the royal family by marrying Riyad Ghali, the diplomat assigned to watch over the princess and her mother during one of their early stays in the U.S. Ghali was not only a commoner but a Christian.
Further scandal ensued when Fathia and her mother, the former Queen of Egypt, converted to Catholicism while in the U.S., leading Farouk to more or less excommunicate both women, cut off their monthly allowances, and banish them from Egypt.
Disowned by her own son, the Queen Mother lived in exile in a 28-room West L.A. mansion, before her fortunes were further reduced after the 1952 Egyptian coup, when her family’s properties in Egypt were confiscated by the state.
Riyad Ghali turned out to be a less than stellar financial adviser, husband, and son-in-law. He squandered much of what remained of his wife’s and mother-in-law’s fortune, leading the former queen and princess to file for bankruptcy in 1973. The former princess went to work briefly that year as a cleaning woman.
In 1976, while Fathia was visiting her estranged husband in his $200 a month West L.A. apartment, in a drunken stupor he shot and killed her, and spent the rest of his years in a California state prison.
The former Queen of Egypt, mother to Princesses Fathia, Faika, Faiza, Fawzia and King Farouk, lived out her remaining years in a Beverly Hills home provided by friends.
With all the notoriety surrounding Egypt’s last monarch and his immediate family, it was Princess Fawzia whose star shone earliest and brightest. As a teenager, her alluring beauty was already apparent. At the age of 17, a marriage was arranged between Fawzia and the equally youthful Crown Prince of Iran. This union not only tied two major dynasties of the Near East together, but it represented an historic joining of Shiite and Sunni royal houses. Two marriage ceremonies were held, a Sunni wedding in Egypt, and a Shiite wedding in Iran.
Princess Fawzia was whisked off to the Persian nation, where, before her 19th birthday, she bore the crown prince a daughter. Upon the forced abdication and quick death of his father, the Crown Prince of Iran became the Shah of Iran in 1944 with Fawzia by his side as Queen Consort.
This is the same Shah of Iran who in 1979 would be deposed himself in an Iranian revolution that saw the first Islamic theocracy established on top of a formerly secular state, and set off a geopolitical maelstrom that still reverberates today.
It was during this brief tenure in Iran that Queen Fawzia appeared on the cover of Life magazine. For whatever reason, Fawzia was desperately unhappy with her life as Queen Consort of Iran. She returned to Egypt and obtained a divorce from the Shah in 1945, at the cost of leaving her daughter behind in the Persian nation.
Over the past two and a half years, we have seen what was supposed to have been a Prague Spring on the streets of Cairo that toppled a 30-year dictator, Hosni Mubarak, followed by a history-making popular election that brought in an outsider, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, to head the Egyptian state.
But now, a couple of years into it, what this sequence of events has shown us is who really runs Egypt. Hosni Mubarak may have been removed as President, but not the political machinery behind him. Under the auspices of free elections, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi ascended to the presidency. But within a year of allowing him to assume office, the army abruptly announced his removal (on the same day that Fawzia died). Now it is Morsi who is in detention, while Mubarak has been set free.
The fact that Princess Fawzia’s long life ended in Alexandria, Egypt surprised me. It’s not often that a member of a resented and deposed royal family stays on in his or her country of origin for a lengthy, peaceful life. Most of Fawzia’s immediate royal family was out of Egypt soon after the revolution if not before, but she stayed on.
This contradicted my initial impression of the Princess as an ersatz movie star, a product of Swiss boarding schools who would have preferred a gilded exile anywhere to common citizenship in her former dominion. After all, a putative reason for her leaving Iran (and her daughter) behind was that the nation was too provincial for her tastes.
In the 1940s, Egypt was still a place that knew how to swing. In the 1950s, with the revolution and the pan-Arabism ushered in by Nasser, Cairo’s social character began to change. It wasn’t a place for hobnobbing international playboys and high society anymore. Not a welcoming environment for an ex-princess either, one would presume.
Then I saw a picture of Princess Fawzia with her second husband, and it all seemed to make sense. Husband number two, a man named Ismail Shirin, was a high-ranking officer in the Egyptian military, and in the picture of the two of them together, he looks like the classic military strongman.
Well, that explained it, I thought. With her pedigree, her beauty, and her magazine cover, Fawzia was possibly the most eligible woman in the entire Arab world in the late 1940s. She had her pick of men, and she picked well. The Princess had married a man so powerfully ensconced in the Egyptian military hierarchy that she was untouchable even in the post-monarchy era. Once part of the pre-revolutionary Egyptian ruling elite, she was now part of the post-revolutionary Egyptian ruling elite.
It would make sense that Fawzia would marry into one of the powerful families that ran Egypt and go on to live a life of quiet regal opulence as a leading lady of the Nile nation if she wanted to. But this may not have been the case at all. In the one personalized obituary of the princess I managed to find, friends and family remembered her as a humbled, mostly sad person, living a modest life.
Although her husband had been a colonel in the Egyptian army when the Free Officers instigated the revolution, he had married into the wrong team. He was loyal to his wife–the King’s sister–and her family, and therefore not part of the inner circle of revolutionists. Yet, the two managed to stay on in Egypt for the rest of their lives (with frequent trips abroad), so some sort of arrangement with the new regime must have been reached, though those details are nowhere to be found.
I was able to locate video footage of Princess Fawzia’s funeral on an Egyptian blog (since taken down). It looks like it was filmed with a smartphone, and the event seems to have attracted no more than a few dozen people in a hastily convened sendoff on the crowded streets of Cairo, as the Princess’ body was escorted to her final resting place beside her husband, who died in 1994.
The funeral showed no indication that during the turbulent and action-packed late 1930s and 1940s, this woman had been arguably the most recognized and celebrated face in the Arab world. No indication that her youthful marriage to an equally young Iranian prince paved the way for an historic union between Shia and Sunni royalty.
After spending her teens and twenties as an international celebrity, the last sixty years of the Princess’ life remain shrouded in mystery as she is laid to rest in near anonymity. With Egypt and the rest of the world seemingly having moved onto other things, it will likely stay that way.
In all my travels, nowhere was the adage ‘life is short and death is long’ so apparent as in Egypt, home of the oldest recorded continuous civilization in the western hemisphere. Ancient Egypt is still celebrated today for its finely attuned culture of ancestor veneration and quest for immortality. It is a tradition that has never fully left Egypt in all the subsequent centuries of foreign rule and externally imposed culture.
One of the most notable features of Cairo’s urban geography is the City of the Dead, a four-mile long necropolis on the city’s southeastern flank that in the recent decades of overcrowding has become a viable neighborhood of the Egyptian capital. Squatters and distant relatives of the deceased have taken up residence in the mausoleums and courtyards, among the tombstones, eating, sleeping, watching TV, just like anywhere else.
On the other side of Cairo, across the Nile, sit the world’s three most famous tombs, the Great Pyramids, dominating the skyline as they have everyday for the last 5,000 years, reminding everyone in the Nile Valley below that life is short and death is long.
Despite these constant reminders, Cairo is a city teeming with life, as Egypt’s birth rate soars and its median age seems to grow younger and younger. Greater Cairo’s population is closing in on 20 million and increasing everyday. It is the largest city in both the Middle East and Africa, and probably has been for most of history.
Each day impoverished Egyptians from the countryside push into the city in search of economic opportunity, and each day a small number of living Egyptians pass on into eternity, joining the ranks of the city’s already incalculable population of the dead.
It’s humbling to contemplate a city so big and so old and try to sort out even a fraction of the human-scale stories–with their beginnings, middles, and endings–contained within. It’s an impossible task for even the most industrious chronicler.
Half a world away, I consider the crude cellphone footage of the forgotten princess’ casket as it is hastily loaded into a makeshift hearse and sent out into the chaotic, horn-honking maw of Cairo traffic towards a final resting place in some near-anonymous grave.
With the backdrop of protest and martial curfew, the last thing on any Egyptian’s mind that day appears to be the princess who reigned over them sixty-odd years ago.
Photographs of Fawzia from the last 60 years are not easy to come by. One Egyptian blogger did manage to track down a picture of the princess in later years during a visit to the U.S. in an extended family member’s online album, and that’s about it.
After the Iranian Revolution and the Shah’s death in 1980, Fawzia’s eldest daughter, the one she was forced to leave behind in Iran, went into exile in Switzerland, where she continues to reside today. During these latter decades, Fawzia and her husband Ismail would spend their summers in Switzerland so that estranged mother and daughter, two deposed princesses, could reunite in their autumn years.
Somehow, this seems like the right place to end our narrative.
Life is short and death is long. Nothing reveals this better than Egypt, where yesterday’s mummified nobleman is today’s butcher paper, and today’s glamorous princess is tomorrow’s sorrowful old lady, forgotten even in her own nation.