Nariman Sadek: Egypt's last queen
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Clockwise from above: In London in the 60s; with sons Akram and Ahmed in her Heliopolis apartment in the early 90s; walking her dog in one of the palaces
Cairo in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was a different city. In the first half of the 20th century it was reputed to be Paris on the Nile, a place of wide boulevards devoid of the concrete blocks that now dominate the urban landscape. It was a city that appeared to pride itself on eccentricity, though it was anything but dishevelled. And, of course, it had the glamour of royal connections.
In Cairo there was Abdin Palace and Qasr Al-Qubba, and in Alexandria the grounds of Montazah Palace and Ras Al-Tin. These impressive structures, and their younger, more timid offshoots, mixed Moorish, Turkish, Italian and colonial architecture. And the city boasted acres of land, an expanse of space that is all but unimaginable today.
Abdin Palace has hundreds of rooms -- its imposing façade and column marble halls were molded in 19th century baroque style by Italian architect Verucci Bey, who clearly intended the building to impress. Abdin was considered the home of Egypt's monarch and his family during the school-year months. It was the place that Nariman Sadek, Egypt's last queen and the second wife of King Farouk, tried to call home.
Born on 31 October 1934 to parents of moderate means -- Hussein Fahmi Sadek Bey and Aseela Hanem -- Nariman appeared destined for a relatively average, if comfortable, life: marriage, motherhood, and the respectability afforded by a carefully- deliberated suitor of good family. A commoner, certainly by the standards of Egypt's ruling family, Nariman grew up an only child on the coast of Alexandria. Said to have been even of temperament, content with her painting, music and books, Nariman soon found an eligible young suitor. At 16 she was engaged to the perfectly respectable Dr Zaki Hashem.
It was the same age that Farouk had ascended the throne following the sudden death of his father, the somewhat brusque King Fouad. Dragged from the seclusion of high palace walls Farouk was thrust centre stage, to occupy a role that was clearly beyond his experience and, some say, his intellectual capacity.
As expected, a wife soon became part of palace entourage. On 20 January 1938 Farouk was married to Queen Farida (a princess in her own right), with whom he had three children: Fawzia, Fadia, and Ferial. The marriage ended in divorce in 1948. Cairo gossips pointed an accusing finger at the queen and whispered adultery, though her greatest crime was possibly not having provided a son and heir.
"The king vows to take a commoner as his wife," rang out the newspaper headlines the following days. "King Farouk vows to have a son from a commoner."
"It was not his intention to go out and seek a commoner for a wife," the late Adel Sabet told me before his death in 2001. Sabet, a cousin of the king, became Farouk's intermediary between the palace and the secretary-general of the Arab League during the critical years preceding and following the ruinous 1948 war in Palestine. "But the press was ruthless, with both him and later his second wife, Queen Nariman Sadek."
The king did eventually choose a wife from among the "people", a young woman not of royal lineage. Farouk is rumoured to have first spotted Nariman in a jewellery shop. And Egypt's then- dashing young king brooked no opposition to his desires. Nariman's engagement to Hashem was promptly dissolved.
Unlike the spectacular royal wedding that united Farouk and Farida, the ceremony with Nariman on 6 May 1951 was subdued. The rumour mill was already working overdrive and the whispers were that the marriage was arranged only after doctors confirmed that Nariman was pregnant, and that the child was a boy. The boy, rumours would continue, was born several months before the official announcement on 6 January 1952.
"The rumours were horrifically vulgar," says one of the few surviving relatives of the king. "The stories surrounding Farouk, and all the royal family, are astounding. About the jewellery shop story alone I have heard at least seven versions."
The gossip surrounding their first meeting might serve as a foretaste of what Nariman's life would be as queen. Unlike Farida, who was seen by many as a charming -- and suitable -- bride for a handsome young king, Nariman was always somewhat overlooked. Whereas Farida, and Farouk's sisters -- the stunning Fawzia (who married the Shah of Iran) and Faiza -- commanded pages and pages of the local press, Nariman appeared just a few times as her wedding, subsequent exile and then divorce were chronicled.
The 14 months during which Nariman was queen were turbulent. For her husband, Sabet writes in Farouk: A King Betrayed, 1951 was "a watershed year, marking the beginning of the end... Following the failure of negotiations in London, the recently elected Wafdist government proceeded to provoke the most serious crisis with Britain since the days of Orabi. That October, they denounced the 1936 Treaty and the Sudan condominium arrangements and declared a guerrilla war against British forces in the Canal Zone. The brutal British response was the massacre of an Egyptian police outpost in Ismailia, which in turn led to the burning of Cairo, the fall of the Wafdist government and, a few short months later, the abdication of Farouk and the establishment of military hegemony."
The Cairo fire began on 16 January, 10 days after the birth of Farouk's heir, Ahmed Fouad. In the marmoreal halls of Abdin the king and his wife were still celebrating the birth of their son.
"Through the splendid baroque windows of Abdin Palace the flames of Cairo burning were clearly to be seen," Sabet said. "Yet Farouk withheld the order for military intervention until the burnings were well advanced. The Wafdist government could only look on impotently as His Majesty's banquet proceeded."
The months preceding Farouk's forced abdication were marked by impotence. And it was impotence, an inability to act, that afflicted Nariman, as she observed her husband and her home.
"Life was a routine of meals," she says. "And then I would read. It was unheard of to enter the kitchen, or ask for something to be made. Everything in the palace was organised. What was most important was that I was there for the king when he was ready for his meals. Dinner was usually very late, at one or two in the morning. I would have of course eaten by then, but I would sit with him."
In the next room, and just outside the dining room doors, were security and intelligence. Every move of the young couple was monitored and planned. To the 17-year-old, snatched from the seclusion of a sheltered family life and a predictable future as the wife of a doctor and, in time, a respectable family man, and thrown into the grandeur of palace life, having to project the public persona of a queen was perhaps too much too soon. One of the daughters of an advisor to the king recalls looking at Nariman and considering the queen one of her peers.
"She was like us," the lady shared, asking her name to be withheld. "She was so young and looked so out of place. My father worked very close to the king and we would be taken occasionally to palace balls. She should have been with us, the children."
It is a poignant anecdote.
Following the fire, and the political turbulence that appeared to be sweeping everything away, Nariman found her husband ever more distant.
"He would spend many hours away," she said several years ago, in her last substantial interview before health complications impaired her speech. "Everything went so fast, and in the end there were many days when I would barely see him."
The events leading up to the 23 July 1952 Revolution were tense, and the tension permeated the palace walls. Nariman recalls the time as one of waiting.
"You always felt that something was going on in the next room, where the guards and the security were. You couldn't just sit and drink tea and relax."
It was only a few months after the fire, and after the birth of the heir, that Farouk's fate became clear.
"He knew," Nariman recalls. "You could see it in his face. His head was somewhere else."
In the summer the family retreated, as was customary, to the place of Ras Al-Tin in Alexandra.
"For two days I didn't see him," Nariman says. "And then we heard some gunshots. I went onto the balcony, and the king came, put his arm to shelter me, and brought me into the room again. He told us to pack."
Farouk never had a reputation for bravery. "He did not quite have what was necessary of a leader," Sabet said of him. "He lacked the analytical power necessary of a leader."
"He lacked both courage and convictions," Gamal Hamad, one of the free officers, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "He was a liked man on a personal level. When he would come to the Officers' Club in Cairo in the days prior to 4 February  the officers would follow him, sit with him in his favoured room. He was a good story-teller, he had a sense of humour. He was entertaining."
As a leader, however, he lacked zeal.
"We went ahead of him to the boat," Nariman says, recalling the abdication. "We were in Ras Al- Tin, so we didn't have many of our things with us. Everything was in Abdin and Montazah."
Nariman, her step-daughters, and the six-month- old heir were driven to the Mahrousa, the royal yacht. There they awaited for the arrival of Farouk.
"He didn't know what would happen to him," Nariman said.
Farouk's personal bodyguard, Gharib El-Husseini, recalled the last few hours in his memoirs.
"He asked me to make sure the family was escorted to the Mahrousa safely," he wrote. "And then he asked me to return and to walk behind him as he descended from the palace towards the boat."
It had been agreed that Farouk would receive a 21-gun salute as he moved from the palace door to the boat. There the nine free officers would meet him, headed by general Mohamed Naguib.
"He asked me to stay by his side," El-Husseini wrote. "He was scared. He didn't know what they would do."
Both Nariman and El-Husseini recall Farouk's fear that in those final moments, as he took his final steps on Egyptian soil, one of the trumpets would also come with a bang.
"He was trembling," Nariman said. "He didn't know if he would ever make it to the Mahrousa. He thought they would shoot him."
Aboard the Mahrousa the nine free officers shook his hand.
"And then he came into the cabin," Nariman said, "and began to weep. When we arrived in Capri, before he came down onto Italian soil, he bent down and kissed the deck of the yacht -- the last he might ever see of his homeland."
In their exile in Italy Farouk the family man tried hard. But the man who had once been svelte and charming had ballooned into someone whose weight had become the focus of national scorn. In the few family pictures taken in Capri the heaviness in the air is palpable. These are not snapshots of a happy family.
"I began to see him less, there was too much tension. He was very distracted and scattered. I felt like he was somewhere else. I couldn't take it anymore."
And so Nariman left -- alone. She could not take her son with her. From then, under the tutelage of her mother -- the resolute Aseela Hanem -- things moved fast. She was divorced in early 1954, and was married on 3 May of the same year to Dr Adham El-Naqib, the son of one of the royal family's doctors. The marriage is said by close friends to have been tumultuous -- Nariman was reputedly "divorced" by her husband on several occasions. But out of a relationship that lasted seven years came at least one blessing -- a son, Akram, who now runs a legal practice in Alexandria. In 1967, Nariman was married again, to another medical doctor, Ismail Fahmi.
It is in the home of Ismail that my compassion for Egypt's last queen grows.
The search for the street is trying -- the narrow side-street is quiet, dark, nondescript, an anonymous piece of Heliopolis's urban sprawl. The small building is dwarfed by its neighbours. The apartment, up two narrow flights of steps, is small.
But today, 52 years on, the grandeur and luxury of the past must seem trivial. Nariman is more-or-less silenced following a string of health complications, including a stroke and brain tumour. There is little energy to reflect upon the past. Battling the present is all-consuming.
"Everything happened so fast," she says. "It's as if I didn't really have time to feel anything."
Perhaps. But perhaps as well the turmoil of those youthful years, of losing her son (whom she has seen just a few times over the years), of being vilified by a press that stole, as effectively as the system into which she married, her youth, has taken a heavy toll. And for those around her, her husband and her second son El-Naqib, the past is something they would prefer to lay to rest.
"You cannot imagine now how ruthless the press were," her son Akram El-Naqib says. "It is not at all surprising that none of those still alive want to talk."
"Anyone who has been subjected to that level of vilification, that intrusion -- why would they still want to expose themselves to the public? She may have been in the spotlight for a short time, but what was done to my mother was very disturbing."
And unlike Farida, and the princesses, and the first queen's mother, whose personalities were looked into, their interests, pastimes and passions explored, Nariman has always been a cipher: she was the commoner in royal dress, in a wedding gown laced with threads of silver and diamond studs. The attacks came from two sides.
In her small apartment, far from the vastness of Abdin, her memories only her own, Nariman remains grounded. She recites from a surah about belief, about forgiveness, and about the meaning in life's paths.
In her last television interview, several years ago, Nariman answered question after question about Egypt's last king, Farouk, who died on 18 March 1965 in a restaurant in Italy. In between questions, and the fiddling of the microphone, the raw footage of the interview shows Nariman, momentarily, give herself voice.
"We have spoken much about King Farouk," she said in her timid, tired voice. "And," she mumbled, "what about Nariman?"
It is a line that sounds simple, and easy to shrug aside. But it speaks volumes of the life of a young woman who would be crushed by a title.
"Tell us about Farouk."
"How did he react?"
"Describe the personality of our last king."
They are questions Nariman has been asked endlessly since her return from Italy.
In her Heliopolis apartment they could hardly seem less relevant.