x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

A forgotten Egyptian Princess remembered

In its day, her wedding was as sensational as that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in London last year, Rym Ghazal looks at the life of Egypt's Princess Fawzia.

Portrait of Queen Fawzia, first wife of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi of Iran, in Tehran.
Portrait of Queen Fawzia, first wife of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi of Iran, in Tehran.

She was only 17. The beautiful Egyptian Princess Fawzia captured the hearts of her people as she stood in her wedding dress on the terrace of Cairo's Abdeen Palace with her handsome 20-year-old Iranian prince at her side.

And so, on March 16, 1939, with the world on the brink of war, the Middle East rejoiced at a wedding of empires.

It was a union heavy with political significance, with Britain playing the part of matchmaker, to strengthen the links between Iran and Egypt. Educated in Switzerland, Princess Fawzia first met Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who two years later became Shah of Iran, on their wedding day and only after the marriage contact had been drawn.

"The blessed royal marriage" as it was called by local newspapers, received saturation coverage in the media, down to the gifts brought over by the groom, three precious pearl necklaces, a diamond ring, a mirror, and a beautifully hand-printed Quran photographed for the public to see.

It was a marriage that lasted barely 10 years, producing a single daughter, Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi. The divorce was officially attributed to the health risk posed to the queen by the "Persian climate". But during that time, the Egyptian princess who looked like a movie star became one of the most recognised faces in the world, captured on the cover of Life magazine in September 1942 as the "Queen of Iran" by the legendary photographer Cecil Beaton.

The queen, Beaton wrote: "Had sad and mournful eyes, pitch-black hair, a perfectly sculpted face and soft, graceful hands bereft of the wrinkles of labour."

Then as now, the world loved a fairy tale princess. The public was enamoured by the royal graces, fashions and poise of real-life royalty.

Even today, the princesses and queens of the Arab world still capture the imagination of the masses and set trends in both the political and social arenas.

Queen Rania of Jordan, like her predecessor, Queen Noor of Jordan; Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco; Sheikha Mozah of Qatar; Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, wife of the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid; and Princess Ameerah Al Taweel, wife of the Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, are just some of the royals today who have become fashion icons and some of the most photographed women in the Middle East.

Fashions may have changed, but princesses from past dynasties were also once closely followed by the public. They were admired, copied and photographed in immaculate black and white.

The old photos of princesses made rounds again in the virtual world last week.

The glamorous Egyptian princess, oldest daughter of one king, sister to a second and wife to a third monarch, fell on hard times with the 1952 revolution in Egypt that toppled the royal family and left her almost forgotten - until her death.

Fawzia, the last Egyptian princess and the first wife of the last Shah of Iran, died last week at the age of 92 in Alexandria. She was a symbol of a forgotten era.

Her simple funeral was captured on phone cameras and attended by just a handful of family members and friends. She was buried next to her second husband, Ismail Chirin, an Egyptian army officer, in Cairo. She had two children with him, a daughter and a son after her divorce from the Shah in November 1948.

"She led a very secluded and simple life compared to her sisters, who continued to make headlines throughout their lives," said a family friend.

Fathia, the youngest sister, was killed in 1976 by her ex-husband, who shot her with a revolver six times. Faika, the second-youngest, married an Egyptian commoner in the United States, where she had a civil marriage that her brother, the exiled King Farouq, initially refused to endorse. Princess Faiza was active with the Red Crescent in Egypt during her brother's reign. All had already passed away.

"She didn't go out much in public, and surrounded herself with just the closest family and friends. She was the last Egyptian princess living in Egypt. From queen to living on a very basic income, it was a hard fall, but she took it all in great stride and style," the friend said.

The nostalgia brought on by her passing was captured through the condolences and prayers posted on her official Facebook page.

"Rest in peace, beautiful princess," most wrote. One Facebook user posted: "We want beautiful princesses and handsome princes again in Egypt."

The page was set up just a year ago by her grand niece, Fawzia Latifa, the daughter of King Ahmed Fouad Farouq and Fadila, who had dedicated it to the royal family of Egypt. It included posts on the latest engagements and marriages between the relatives and historic facts about the dynasty.

Fawzia Latifa, the namesake of her great aunt, wrote in reply: "Welcome and thank you for your kind interest! I seize the occasion to thank the people showing attachment and interest in Mohammed Ali's Family, Dynasty and the History of Egypt. I edit this Facebook page, with no partisan aim, in order to stay positively connected with my beloved Egyptian fellows."

Born in Monaco, the young Fawzia is a postgraduate from the Institute of Political Studies of Strasbourg, and works in media and communications in Paris. The few last members of the Egyptian royal family all reside in Europe following the exile of King Farouq to Italy, where he died. The royal family is of Albanian, Circassian and French descent.

Princess Fawzia's nephew, King Fuad II, Egypt's deposed and exiled last monarch, posted the news of her death on his official Facebook page: "The royal family of Egypt announces to the nation that it is mourning the passing of Her Royal Highness Princess Fawzia Fuad, daughter of King Fuad I and sister of His Majesty King Faruk I and aunt of his Majesty King Fuad II and the former Empress of Iran."

Regularly posting photos and handwritten letters, King Fuad II keeps in touch with the Egyptian people through Facebook, where he expresses his wish to one day "come back" to Egypt with his family.

"I set up this personal page to stay in touch with the Egyptian people. It is not intended to be politically driven," he states. "I just want to keep alive the memories of pages of Egyptian history where my ancestors had a role, a past with which we can all make peace and move forward from there."

King Fuad had visited Egypt quietly in the past, but has avoided making any official visits. Living in Switzerland, he is last King of Egypt, an honour bestowed on him when he was just six months old by his father as one of his final acts before abdicating in July 1952.

One insight into the private life of the gentle quiet princess who rarely made public speeches was written in the 1992 book The Rise and Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty: Memoirs of Former General Hussein, where he mentions how she would communicate to her husband in French. She did not speak Farsi and the Shah did not speak Arabic.

"She was extremely pretty but languidly shy," he wrote. "She was, in no way willing to attend official banquets. Whenever she talked to people, her beautiful face turned red."

 

rghazal@thenational.ae