x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The princess who chose exile

Princess Ferial Farouk the daughter of King Farouk of Egypt found her homeland again after a life spent in Europe.

Farouk I, the King of Egypt, with wife Queen Farida and their one-year-old daughter, Princess Ferial Farouk, in 1939.
Farouk I, the King of Egypt, with wife Queen Farida and their one-year-old daughter, Princess Ferial Farouk, in 1939.

In July 1952, as the monarchy in Egypt fell to the coup d'etat staged by Gamel Abdel Nasser, King Farouk's eldest daughter, Princess Ferial Farouk, and her two younger sisters were invited by their father into his office at the Ras el-Tin Palace in Alexandria. The king gave his children a choice. He would prefer to abdicate rather than see the blood of any of his people shed. They had to decide whether to leave Egypt with him, immediately, or remain behind with their mother, Queen Farida, whom the king had divorced in 1948.

The three princesses were determined to remain with their father. They had one hour to prepare for their departure and left on the royal yacht al Mahrusa to an uncertain destination. The king's second wife, Queen Narriman, and their infant son, Crown Prince Ahmed Fouad - who had been declared king before the family fled the country - accompanied Farouk and his daughters. For some time, Ferial remembered, the ship sailed aimlessly, until eventually, Italy agreed to take in the royal family. They landed on the island of Capri and later settled in Santa Marinella, where the king remained, while Ferial and her younger sisters went sent away to Le Grand Verger boarding school in Lutry, Switzerland.

With her education completed, Ferial trained at a secretarial college, later putting her skills in French, shorthand and touch-typing to use in various jobs, until her marriage in London in 1966 to a Swiss man, Jean-Pierre Perreten. The two first met on the ski slopes: she as a student on a school trip, he spending the season working as a ski instructor. His family owned the Mon Abri hotel in the village of Les Diablerets in the canton of Vaud and when her husband took it over, Ferial assisted him.

The pomp and circumstance surrounding the arrival of the first of the king's four children were quite contrary to the simple life Ferial later led in Switzerland. At the time of her birth, at the Montazah Palace in Alexandria, her father was 18 years old, her mother just 17. Nationwide events marked the birth: food was distributed to the poor, an Egyptian pound presented to each of the 1,700 mothers who also gave birth on the same day, and the cannons at the Salaheddin Citadel fired 41 times to advertise the arrival of the female child. The newspapers celebrated: "The star of Princess Ferial has risen, with her luminous face glimmering like the full moon, predicting a happy life." When the first photograph was published of the infant princess, at four months of age, she was said to bear a strong resemblance to Cleopatra, and was feted as "the Princess of Hearts".

The child born into the most auspicious of circumstances matured to be a generous and moderate woman. Although she had been raised as a princess, Ferial never behaved as though she were any better than her fellow man. She spoke seldom of her distress at being exiled from her motherland, and looked to the future. Only latterly had she agreed to be interviewed on the subject of her family's exile and their life in the decades following the revolution. Unable to return to Egypt during Nasser's regime, she was issued with an Egyptian passport in 1973, three years after Sadat came to power. During subsequent summers, she would travel to Egypt with Yasmine to visit the members of their extended family who had remained behind, and they, in turn, came to stay at Mon Abri.

Though she seldom used her mother tongue in Switzerland, in her later years, Yasmine recalled, her mother recovered the language of her childhood, and rediscovered the place of her birth. Inevitably, her experience of Egypt had been limited by her status: as the family had travelled in private cars from one palace to the next, she had had little opportunity to acquire a thorough knowledge of her homeland.

Yet, returning frequently as a visitor, and in the years following her daughter's decision to settle in Cairo, Ferial finally had a chance to explore the country from which she had been exiled. Princess Ferial Farouk was born on November 17, 1938, and died on November 29. She is survived by her daughter, Yasmine Shaarawi. * The National