Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (608)
Against the tide
The marriage in 1937 of Muhammad Tawfiq Nessim to an Austrian 50 years his junior raised not a few eyebrows. The vast age difference, she being a foreigner and of a class far beneath the pasha's aristocratic lineage all posed problems for Nessim, once the head of the king's cabinet. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk examines Nessim's wedlock woes
A photo of Mary Hubner, Nessim's bride, appearing on the front page of Al-Ahram 's issue of 2 July, 1937
Egypt of the 1930s saw the weddings of two of its most famous politicians: Mustafa El-Nahhas and Muhammad Tawfiq Nessim. While the marriages had much in common they were destined to different fates.
Both men married women much younger than themselves. Wafd Party leader El-Nahhas was only two days short of 50 when, on 12 June 1934, he was joined in wedlock with 27- year-old Zeinab El-Wakil. Nessim, who had served several times as the head of the king's cabinet, was in his late sixties when he married a 17-year-old girl at least half a century his junior in October 1937.
In both cases, the marriages caused political problems for the high-profile husbands. While the Wafd Party chief's wedding was jubilantly greeted by his fellow partisans, his young wife's lust for the high life and her desire to have her husband share in her extravagance would radically alter the image he had created for himself as an austere self-denying leader. It is sufficient to mention that a large portion of the Black Book written by his life-long friend Makram Ebeid, and which eventually brought his expulsion from the Wafd Party, was concerned with specific incidents of abuse of power by Zeinab El-Wakil and her family. It was on the basis of such incidents that El-Wakil was brought to trial following the revolution on charges of corruption. As for the shadow that Nessim's marriage cast on his political career, this is the subject of this episode of the Chronicle.
Unlike El-Nahhas, who married into a well-established family from Buheira, as was only appropriate to his lofty status, Nessim succumbed to a moment's frailty of heart. According to Al-Ahram, he met 17-year-old Mary Hubner while taking the waters at an Austrian spa resort. "He found her very solicitous for his health and was impressed by her high morals, industriousness and diligence. Miss Hubner worked with her father in the hotel management industry."
Egyptians viewed the match with distaste, not only because of the vast age difference but also because she was a foreigner and of a class far beneath the pasha's aristocratic lineage. Al-Ahram adds that the young woman's family welcomed the courtship of the elderly Egyptian politician. They were particularly impressed when he presented the engagement ring which was set with a huge precious diamond the likes of which they would never have dreamed of laying eyes on, let alone being slipped onto their daughter's finger.
The Egyptian public would not be so easily won over, as becomes apparent in Al-Ahram 's coverage of the marriage over the three months from the end of June to the end of September 1937.
On the day after Egyptians were stunned by the announcement filed by Al-Ahram 's correspondent in Vienna, the newspaper relayed an item from the Wiener Tagblatt confirming the report. The Austrian newspaper added that Nessim had wired to Egypt to have his family's jewels sent to his fiancée as a gesture of his commitment to the engagement and that the wedding would take place in October, after which the newlyweds would spend their honeymoon in Luxor. Skeptical about the news that Nessim had pledged his family's jewellery, valued at LE80,000, Al-Ahram contacted some of his close associates. They denied the report.
The following day, on 30 June, Al-Ahram relayed an interview held by the Daily Express with the betrothed couple. Mary told the British newspaper that she would leave the Catholic Church but would not convert to Islam. Nessim said that he had no intention of giving up his political career after marriage.
Two days later, Al-Ahram readers picked up their morning papers to find a three column-wide photograph peering at them. It was none other than "Miss Mary Hubner, the 17- year-old Austrian fiancée of His Excellency Muhammad Tawfiq Nessim Pasha, as reported in detail in the wire release from Al-Ahram 's special correspondent in Vienna." In the same edition, there appeared a statement issued by Nessim's office objecting to the fact that "the greater part of what has been rumoured on this purely personal matter has no basis in fact." Clearly his aides were disturbed by the popular reaction, and also by the fact that Nessim was so determined to have his own way.
Two months later, on 10 September, Al-Ahram 's correspondent in Alexandria reported that the former royal cabinet chief had hastened to the port city to meet Mr and Mrs Hubner who had just arrived from Austria. He escorted his future parents-in-law back to Cairo where he put them up in his villa on Pyramids Road. The correspondent was surprised, as must have been the Egyptian public, that the parents had not brought their daughter with them. Apparently, Mary wanted to make a more dramatic entrance. Ten days later, the same correspondent reports that Miss Hubner had arrived aboard a British seaplane and that she would be travelling to Cairo the following day to join her parents in the home of His Excellency Nessim Pasha. The following morning, her fiancé and her parents met her at Ramsis Station from where the party was driven back to the villa on Pyramids Road -- all with the exception of Mr Hubner's secretary, Herr Weil, who got off at the Continental Hotel. Al-Ahram could not pass up the opportunity for an interview.
Miss Hubner had not come directly from Austria, Herr Weil told Al-Ahram. He said Miss Hubner's trousseau was virtually complete when she met her future husband. Al-Ahram readers also learned that Mary was the fourth of five siblings. The eldest was Margaret, who was followed by Willie and John. The younger sister whom she had just visited in Britain was a student in Birmingham. Herr Weil also informed Al-Ahram that the wedding would take place in a week because Herr Hubner's business concerns required him back in Vienna. "He will be leaving as soon as the wedding is over. His wife will remain behind with her daughter for a month or two," the secretary said. Rumours had now become incontestable fact, the results of which would thwart many of the pasha's plans.
Nessim's first challenge loomed in the form of five relatives: Ibrahim Bashat, Mustafa Bashat, Abdel-Qawi Hassan Kamel, Ezzeddin Hassan Kamel and Madam Nazlat Hassan Kamel. The five engaged one of Egypt's most celebrated lawyers, Tawfiq Doss, to do everything in his power to prevent the marriage. On 3 October Doss met with the public prosecutor in the course of which meeting he filed for a restraining order against Nessim.
The pre-prepared document the lawyer submitted on behalf of his five clients claimed that about two years earlier the 67- year-old Nessim had suffered a cerebral stroke, causing mild paralysis. Specialists consulted held that persons suffering such a condition not only suffer physical debilitation but also impairment of their mental faculties. The latter was apparent in the pasha's attachment to a young woman who was not even 17 yet. On top of the vast discrepancy in age, social background, religion and nationality, there was evidence that the marriage was based on "a very peculiar financial pact." Upon his return from Europe, Nessim officially altered his will to ensure that his future wife would inherit half the deed to a large trust and his progeny from her the other half. The trust generated revenues in the neighbourhood of LE150,000.
The request for a writ went on to state that the marriage had been originally scheduled for winter but that because Nessim had suffered a brief relapse the Hubners decided to push the date forward. "Therefore, the fiancée and her parents flew to Egypt to renegotiate the conditions for the marriage. One of their demands was that he sign over the trust to Mary directly. When the pasha's friends and relatives got wind of these demands they intervened and managed to persuade him to refuse. "Nevertheless, because they feared that his physical condition and weak will would cause him to change his mind again, they placed him under the guard of two British nurses. However, the fiancée managed to contact him through a different route and succeeded in persuading him to accept all her conditions. He is now in the process of producing the necessary certification to that effect."
The request then pleaded for an interdiction to this marriage. It argued that for a man of his age and his health, to marry would "either kill him instantly or hasten his death." Furthermore, the manner in which he was inclined to dispose of his money and estate indicated that he was not in full possession of his mental faculties. Finally, the transfer of thousands of pounds out of Egypt to a girl "who has no connection with the Egyptian people and who harbours no affection towards her fiancé, to which testify her financial demands, is a crime against Egypt for these moneys had been originally designated for charitable and philanthropic purposes in this poverty-stricken nation."
The legal action produced an immediate effect. Nessim let it be known that he had deferred to the advice of his physicians who held that the circumstances of his health did not permit for his marriage at that time. Soon afterwards the three Hubners packed their bags, took the train to Alexandria and boarded the next ship bound for Europe.
Once on his own again, the elderly palace official did not lack people to advise him to abandon the idea of marriage. Prime among these was Al-Azhar Rector Sheikh Mustafa El-Maraghi who called at the pasha's home and spent more than an hour with him.
Nor did the fiancé lack people to defend him. Muhammad Amin El-Samalouti wrote to Al-Ahram to complain of the injustice against a man reputed for his benevolence. He had placed a total of 169 feddans in trust, the proceeds from which were dedicated to a hospital being constructed in Giza, another hospital under construction in Mansoura, a clinic located near the family burial grounds in Imam El-Shafie in Cairo, and to the funding of the upkeep and maintenance of these buildings. El-Samalouti adds that several persons had advised Nessim to alter the provisions governing these trusts during the recent controversy over his marriage, but that he absolutely rejected the idea. El-Samalouti continues, "When His Excellency decided to take a partner to keep him company in the tranquillity of retirement upon which he had finally resolved after having sacrificed most of his youth and a goodly part of his old age in the service of his king and country, he merely transferred a portion of the trust estate into a personal estate so that he could bequeath it to his wife and progeny upon his death. There is nothing in this transaction that gives cause for censure against this great man."
Even so, the Egyptian Guardian Council pressed ahead with its investigation into the restraining order requested by Nessim's relatives. The council appointed a committee of several top physicians: the chief of forensic medicine, two internists, the director of the national mental hospital and expert in dermatology and venereal diseases Youssef Barada. After being sworn in, the committee visited Nessim at his home three times, each session lasting three hours. It then produced a report which appeared in Al-Ahram of 26 October 1937.
The physicians found a number of deficiencies in their subject's memory, emotional state and power of judgment. He was unable to remember the dates of the death of King Fouad and Prime Minister Adli Yakan or to recall how many shares he owned in the national water company. His Excellency "has come to regard all those close to him with suspicion. He has become easily influenced and emotionally confused. He is quick to anger and easily appeased, which makes him vulnerable to falling under the sway of individuals who might try to sway him to their interests." On the basis of their findings, the physicians recommended that Nessim be allowed to continue to manage his own affairs on condition that he not be allowed to dispose of any property until after obtaining the approval of the Guardian Council. In other words, they suggested, he should be kept from acting against his own interests or those of his family and his charities, but he should not be declared mentally incompetent, which they cautioned could be injurious to his health.
If Nessim was able to take any comfort in the physicians' report it lay in the fact that it did not declare him physically or mentally incapable of marriage. With regard to the rest of the report he engaged a team of Egypt's top lawyers -- Ibrahim El-Halbawi, Moharram Fahim, Azer Gabriel and Aziz Mashraqi -- to contest it. Their first action was to get another team of senior physicians to examine their client. Not surprisingly, the findings of these physicians contradicted the results of the previous round of examinations. Nessim, they concluded, was in good health and his memory and mental faculties were sound. "There are no grounds to put any restrictions whatsoever on his personal freedom or legal competency," they declared.
On 5 November 1937 Nessim treated the Egyptian public to another surprise. Even as his defence team was contesting the decisions of the Guardian Council, he flew to Europe. His relatives and their advisors who were demanding he be declared legally incompetent seized upon the opportunity to cite his sudden departure as evidence of his frailty of mind. In fact, Nessim had not rushed off to be reunited with the object of his dotage. He did not even go to Vienna. Rather, his destination was London and Paris where he intended to obtain a certificate of health that could not easily be contested at home. His personal physician Dr George Haggar, who had accompanied Nessim on this trip, told Al-Ahram 's London correspondent that while Nessim had the greatest respect for Egyptian doctors, both those who diagnosed him as ill and those who contradicted this diagnosis, he decided it wiser to consult a number of European specialists. Among these were professors of forensics, psychiatry, internal medicine and neurology at the faculty of medicine in Paris. The doctors confirmed unanimously that Nessim was in perfectly sound mental health. "He has no trace of mental disorder or malignant disease and under French law would be deemed perfectly competent to conduct his personal affairs and administer his properties." Nessim hastened back to Cairo carrying with him the report of the French physicians in hand.
The case of Tawfiq Nessim now entered its last phase. In a session of the Guardian Council, Tawfiq Doss submitted a lengthy deposition on behalf of Nessim's relatives. The document contained the medical report submitted by the medical team appointed by the council testifying to Nessim's mental infirmity. Doss went on to dismiss the report submitted by the Egyptian doctors brought in by Nessim's lawyers. "The doctors were not appointed by the council, their medical qualifications have not been established and they received payment for compiling their report," he argued.
Meanwhile, Nessim's lawyers were busily translating the reports of the French physicians. Those doctors found that as a consequence of a mild stroke in 1936, Nessim suffered a slight paralysis on his right side and a barely discernible slurring of speech which impeded neither his oral or written comprehension. Nor did His Excellency display any inclination to convulsive laughter or crying. As for his mental faculties, there was no evidence of any impairment of judgment or reasoning abilities. "In his discussions with us, the flow of his ideas and his arguments were logical in all the subjects we broached," his French physicians wrote. "His memory is perfectly normal although there are some lapses on simple and inconsequential points. There is nothing in his wish to marry that indicates that he has departed from reason or that he is incapable of appreciating his personal interests."
Apparently many in Egypt had now begun to side with Nessim, or at least had begun to think his relatives had taken the matter too far. Upon his return from Europe, the British ambassador and other British embassy officials, other prominent foreigners, Egyptian government officials, friends and notables called on him at his home and left greeting cards congratulating him on his safe return. However, congratulations on his successful defeat of the campaign to have him declared mentally incompetent were not yet in order. All these people, like the rest of the Egyptians, had to await for the decision of the Guardian Council.
This body met again on 10 December with Atribi Abul-Ezz presiding. Before this session, Nessim's defence team had submitted two depositions, the first refuting the validity of the report submitted by the medical examination committee formed by the council. In this statement, the lawyers argued that the physicians had not kept a detailed log of their examinations of Nessim. "Rather, they only compiled their report after they had completed their examinations, relying solely on their memory, which is sufficient to cast doubt on the conclusions they drew in their report." The second deposition contained the results of the examinations conducted by "internationally celebrated physicians." As these examinations determined that Nessim suffered no mental impairment as the result of his stroke, there were no grounds to impose any form of restraint on his actions. The statement took the opportunity to remind the council that the medical team it had appointed had advised against prohibiting Nessim from managing his own personal and financial affairs.
Thus the ground had been prepared for the 10 December session. That morning, Nessim's lawyers paraded a succession of prominent figures, all of whom testified to his mental well-being after his stroke. They included former ministers Youssef Suleiman Pasha and Abdel-Maguid Omar Pasha, and the famous journalists Faris Nimr Pasha and Muhammad Hussein Heikal Bek.
The rest of that morning's hearing and the first part of the afternoon hearing were given over to the lawyers of the plaintiffs. But the decisive word was left to chief public prosecutor Muhammad Galal Sadeq who stated that since there was nothing in the physicians' reports to indicate that "his excellency Tawfiq Nessim suffers a debility warranting restraint on his freedom, the prosecution asks that the request for a restraining order be dropped." The Guardian Council adopted his position in its ruling, which further obliged the plaintiffs to pay the costs of the court.
As was customary in such occasions, Nessim's friends and supporters cried out, "Long live justice!" Al-Ahram took up the theme in its report on that final session. It congratulated Nessim, adding that the council's ruling was "consistent with his excellency's reputation for equanimity, careful deliberation, integrity and dedication in every post he has assumed and for his faithful commitment to duty in the public and private spheres."
Having survived that ordeal, there was nothing to prevent Nessim from marrying his Austrian betrothed, who hastened to Egypt for that purpose. However, if justice had sided with the pasha, time did not. After that fraught period of separation, he was only able to enjoy a few months of conjugal bliss, for as fate would have it he died on 7 March 1938. One cannot but conclude that the mating between hoary autumn and blossoming spring is an ill-fated match, although one is left with the question as to whether the former died of illness or of grief.
A photo of Mary Hubner, Nessim's bride, appearing on the front page of Al-Ahram 's issue of 2 July, 1937