Remembering Fahrelnissa Zeid: 'One of the most eccentric women I knew'
Princess Majda Ra’ad, the daughter-in-law of Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid, shares her memories of the Turkish artist with Myrna Ayad. This account, part of our Remembering the Artist series, is based on their interview
People cautioned me. They said Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid was a colourful, impressive personality, but a difficult character. I gathered she was special: when Ra’ad, her son, and I were dating, he would dress in colours that caught her eye when he visited her. The day finally came when I met her. It was in 1963, at Ra’ad’s graduation from the University of Cambridge. Shortly after, he proposed.
We married in my native Sweden, honeymooned all across Europe and spent time in Ischia to see my in-laws. That was my first shock. Ra’ad dispensed a lot of instructions – “Mother does not like this, do it that way, do not do that” – and in turn, she would whine to him about my “disobedience” and my intolerance of her cigarettes. I stayed in our bedroom most of the time. She was not bad to me; I just was not used to her. As days passed and the visits increased, things got better.
There was something inimitable about the combination of her eccentricity, creativity and generosity. She was one of the strongest, most determined women I came to know, largely because of her life, but more importantly, her character. Fahrelnissa came from an aristocratic Turkish family and had been painting from a young age. She first married a Turk, Izzet Melih Devrim, aged 19, in 1920, with whom she had three children and lived in Istanbul. However, the spousal, motherly and societal duties imposed on, and expected of, women in the 1920s did not stop her from pursuing her passion to study art.
In 1934, she divorced Devrim, and a year later, married my father-in-law, Prince Zeid bin Hussein, in Athens. Initially, they lived in Berlin where he served as ambassador of the Kingdom of Iraq to Germany, but then they relocated to Baghdad, which marked her first experience on a plane.
Conservative Baghdad depressed her, so she travelled around Europe before settling in Istanbul. She boldly staged her first solo exhibition in her home in Istanbul in 1945, which was very successful.
Her husband’s next appointment as ambassador was to London, where Fahrelnissa transformed a room at the Iraqi embassy into a studio and held a show there in 1948, which Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother attended. She later had several shows in London as well as Paris.
Fahrelnissa was intuitive, too. In the summer of 1958, my father-in-law was asked to return to Baghdad to act as regent, but she convinced him not to. A military coup resulted in the assassination of many members of the Iraqi royal family. My in-laws left the embassy and moved into an apartment, where Fahrelnissa cooked for the first time. She was 57. Looking at her life, I cannot but admire that no matter the gravity or frequency of negative experiences, she always extricated a positive outcome. Having to cook for the first time inspired her Paleokrystalos series, which began when she cooked a turkey and became fascinated with its bones. She then settled for chickens, painting their bones and later cast them in resin. She offered the neighbours chicken on condition that they return the bones.
After my father-in-law died in 1970, Fahrelnissa lived in Paris, but became lonely and moved to Amman to be close to us. As several trucks unloaded her belongings, I knew our lives would change for ever. She never interfered or told me how to run my house – she only wanted attention and that meant daily visits. With instructions, no less. We had to dress in colourful clothes, and grey was not a colour. I was sometimes asked to change, and on the odd day that I would not stop by, she huffed and puffed and asked if I had been to China. Ra’ad visited her every morning and she would prepare a large sandwich, assuming that he was not fed at home. Oh, how she was protective of him.
Her demands did not stop people from visiting her and she would regale them with stories about her family and art. She loved to talk about her brother, Cevat Sakir Kabaagacli, who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. He was later exiled to Bodrum, where he became a novelist and ecologist. Cevat was the subject of the book The Fisherman of Halicarnassus, and he really put Bodrum on the map. There are two statues of him there.
In Amman, Fahrelnissa moved from abstraction towards figuration, painting portraits of us and close friends. There were paintings everywhere, not a centimetre was empty, and I anxiously watched the poor drivers and servants hang some on the ceiling. She even put paintings on the floor and would peek to see who stepped on them or walked by. Her work was her world and it became ours, and because it was everywhere, we lived it day in and day out.
She painted for hours on end in a trance. Otherwise, she ruled from her bedside. In her very colourful and cluttered bedroom, she received guests, read Nietzsche, listened to Tchaikovsky, Frank Sinatra and Julio Iglesias and wrote many diaries in Turkish, French and some in English. She gave away a lot of her paintings. “Take these,” she would say. “They might be worth a million one day.” In her later life, Turkish art dealers snooped around, and she realised she should not have given so many away.
Her audience of enthusiasts grew, and it became natural for her to teach. In 1976, the Royal National Jordanian Institute of Fahrelnissa Zeid of Fine Arts was born and gave her fulfilment for 15 years. When she died in 1991, our children catalogued all of the art in her house, which came to us. There was the curious case of 14 trunks that had not been opened since her arrival to Amman in 1975. In them, we found a letter from French banker and art patron Lord Rothschild, who was involved in the Treaty of Versailles, electricity bills from Berlin in 1938, and a sketch on a table mat by Marc Chagall with whom she had lunch in Paris. She had not asked us to do anything with her work after her death, but she would have been thrilled with the Tate retrospective in 2017. It is a pity it did not happen in her lifetime.
Fahrelnissa hosted parties and invited painters, writers, diplomats and others, all of whom dressed to the nines and attended from 10am until the evening (especially on her birthday on January 7). Donning a gown, jewels and lots of make-up, she sat on a gilded Ottoman throne that she had inherited. Everyone approached to kiss the “queen’s” hand.
She turned to art in times of despair and joy, and there is no denying that her paintings are energetic and alive. Perhaps that is why I still feel her presence. Sometimes strange things happen, and I think she is sending us a message. She died on my birthday, on September 5, and on her birthday the following January, we hosted a party in her honour just as she would have. We did not do that the next year, and when we returned after visiting her grave, one of her large paintings had fallen off the wall. I could almost hear her exclaiming: “Why didn’t you have a party?”
Remembering the Artist is a monthly series that features artists from the region
Updated: September 5, 2020 10:13 AM