Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Footprints in the sand


In the House of Muhammad Ali: A Family Album 1805-1952, Hassan Hassan, Cairo: AUC Press, 2000. pp146

Hassan Aziz Hassan's memoirs were long in the making, only to languish for many years gathering dust in a drawer occasionally, one must suppose, being added too, padded out with historical details until they became less an account of the author's own life than an apologia for an entire dynasty. Given the nature of such an enterprise, which in parts is very much a rear-guard defence of an institution the author believes to have been unfairly represented, it becomes almost inevitable that there should be as much interest in what In the House of Muhammad Ali: A Family Album 1805-1952 chooses to omit as include. And as a memoir, which is how the volume is billed, it is the glossing of gaps that intrigues, as Hassan Hassan proves himself a master of the tactful omission, of the avoidance as much as the pursuit, both historically and personally.

None of this should surprise, for the preface makes clear what will be the writer's manner throughout the memoir. "Many years ago Professor Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, the well-known author and expert on Middle Eastern Affairs, was looking through some of my family photographs and found them sufficiently interesting to want to publish them. I readily agreed, but she then suggested that a text should go with them. Having no imagination, I thought of putting down our modest family life, with some description of houses and habits."

Note first that the book is someone else's suggestion, the suggestion of someone who found the photographs "sufficiently interesting," the implication being that the author would never have presumed to think them interesting without such prompting. Then there is the disingenuousness of "our modest family life," for that life is hardly modest, and as the tale progresses resembles less and less anything so cosily familiar as a family. The houses, too, however much the author plays them down, tend towards the palatial, while the habits are those of the court.

Hassan Hassan was born in San Remo, Italy, in 1924, during one of his father Prince Aziz's periodic exiles, ordered this time by Lord Allenby, the British high commissioner. His grandmother, Hadidja, was the daughter of Mohamed Ali the Younger, his grandfather the son of the Khedive Ismail. The resulting network of royal relations provides a framework for In the House of Mohamed Ali, a colourful backdrop against which the author recounts his youth, up until 1952.

The surface of the narrative runs smoothly enough, punctuated by occasional, highly-pitched descriptions, of gardens, landscapes, houses, lent immediacy by the author's acute eye for detail and colour. The reader is easily lulled into the bucolic atmosphere of a place where the flowers seem forever in bloom, the table linen crisp, when not embroidered in gold, and the servants' gloves spotless.

Of Marg, the house where he was to spend much of his youth, "a very lovely color was given to the garden by the coral-red sand that covered its paths and alleyways; these were bordered by a cactus-like plant that hugged the ground... The more athletic bignonia, with its rubbery cluster of orange flowers, smothered a palm log-hut where I used to practice my piano; other bignonias, intermingled with purple bougainvillea, went up into dark casuarina trees, making bright garlands from tree to tree."

Of course, it took armies of gardeners to maintain such places -- in the case of Marg 50 of them, "under the control of an old Italian," ensured "not a leaf was out of place, not a grain of red sand in disorder, for wherever we walked a gardener would appear from nowhere to sweep away with palm branches the marks left by our foot-prints."

Such effacement by proxy, though, is hardly the author's style -- he does a perfectly competent job himself, disappearing beneath the unruffled surface of these memoirs to make ripples but rarely.

Even the most traumatic episodes are related with a cool matter-of-factness: following the death of his father he was taken away from his Spanish mother at the age of eight, and placed in the care of the forbidding Princess Nimetallah, the last surviving daughter of the Khedive Ismail. Yet throughout his first interview with the princess he notices only "a Claude Lorrain landscape, whose calm and serene atmosphere I grew to love dearly, and which somehow has managed to remain my favourite mood painting for life." Not realising "what was happening... it was not till later that I was to understand the full magnitude of the loss." That said, there is really nothing more to add, and nothing is, though the event, and others of its ilk, could furnish material for any amount of analysis by a less controlled writer.

The picture Hassan produces of his great aunt is ambiguous -- if only, once again, because of what remains unsaid. "She was born to rule, as a despot it must be said, and however much I may have disagreed and found myself in conflict with many of her decisions, she invariably left me with the uncomfortable feeling that she was in the right. After many years, and having seen many surprising things, she still remains the most commanding figure I have as yet encountered..."

But what conflicts, what disagreements? Before providing any answer the author dives back beneath the surface of his prose, erasing himself as surely as the servants sweep away the footprints in the sand. There was a certain "sadism," he tells us, that accompanied the bringing up of children in his milieu, but if we wait for further amplification we wait in vain. What is reported instead, baldly stated almost at the close of this memoir, is that at the age of 18 -- significantly, as soon as he was legally able -- he walked away from his great-aunt's house, taking a train to Maadi, to turn up on the doorstep of his older sister.


Clockwise, top left: Hassan Aziz Hassan, painted by Jean-Denis Maillart in 1946; the author's father, Prince Aziz Hassan during his military service in Germany; a costume ball given by the author, second from left, back row, with Princess Faiza, centre, holding out her hand to JoJo Nahoum, son of the Grand Rabbi of Egypt; and the author as a baby with his mother, sisters and brother at San Remo, Italy

"I took her completely by surprise, still in her green satin bed, her maids drawing curtains, bringing breakfast on a tray, and without more ado I told her I had come to stay. She immediately telephoned Marg to inform them of my presence... The news was very coolly received. She was told that my personal belongings would be sent over immediately, and that she herself was in disgrace, as it was obvious that she must have instigated the whole affair, since I was too much of a simpleton to take such a step by myself." And, "like all family decisions of the period," this was "final, dramatic and irrevocable."

From San Remo to this dramatic exit, via school in Turkey and then England, from which he was evacuated at the outbreak of the Second World War, Hassan treads a careful path between past and present, filling in necessary historical details and providing sketches of the leading personalities, from Mohamed Ali to King Farouk, of the places they lived, the food eaten, the gardens laid out, the furnishings and fabrics, jewellery and manners. Tellingly, the author seems always to have been happiest in other families' homes, with the Reeds, with whom he stayed in Turkey, and the Robsons, with whom he boarded when a pupil at Leighton Park, the Quaker school in England.

Of the Reeds, sadly: "For me this encounter outside my own family was to leave me with the illusion that everyone in the world was kind and beautiful," the implication being that it was certainly not an impression that could be gleaned from within his own immediate or extended circle of relatives. And if, in this memoir, one is to identify any loss of innocence that break occurs not with the coup d'état of 1952, and the eventual loss of his fortune, but with the Second World War, a conflict in which the Robsons would lose two sons and after which "Asia Minor would never be as lovely again, Epidaurus as magical, or buttercups in a field or bluebells in a wood as innocent."

Meanwhile, though, life would continue. "King Farouk's reign," Hassan records, "is associated in my mind with a sort of tidal wave of entertainment," one that would continue until the fires of 26 January, 1952, which sounded the beginning of the end and which would lead to the departure of King Farouk and the eventual abolition of the monarchy in 1953 when all the possessions of the Mohamed Ali family were confiscated.

It is, then, almost half a century ago that this memoir ends, an abrupt termination that once more betrays the author's determined self-effacement. The palaces and pleasure gardens had been swept away, and the princes and princesses who inhabited them. Sadly, Hassan Hassan died last month, though he would certainly not have presumed any interest in the past four and a half decades. In any retelling of those years he would, after all, be forced centre-stage, a place he consistently refuses in the memoir he has penned.

There is, though, a democracy to the author's discretion, which applies to all, and any hint of scandal, if noted in passing, receives no more than a polite nod. Thus, of Abbas Hilmi I: "He would at times seclude himself in desert palaces, from which rumours of strange rites began to be whispered. Nothing is known for certain of accusations of dissipation held against him, accusations which may well have been inaccurate or exaggerated as they so often are when a person holds high office, but his death seems to confirm his bad reputation. He was murdered in his palace of Benha by two male slaves." And there the curtain is drawn. Does the author believe him "an old-fashioned Turkish gentleman with exquisite manners" as, we are told, he was described by some, or was he "a somber despot" as others maintained? Hassan Hassan refuses to furnish the reader with an opinion, simply remarking that there is absolutely no reason at all why a despot should not have beautiful manners.

One among many such gambits that the author pulls like rabbits from a hat to circumnavigate the unpleasant -- both in accounts of his personal difficulties and in the history of the dynasty he records. Indeed, the only real denunciations displayed in these memoirs are reserved for unsuccessful decorative schemes -- the Byzantine Room at Abdeen Palace, the worst, is "ridiculous and offensive... a museum piece of bad taste," while Aunt Emina's dining room curtains "of plain red silk from China," always shocked the author, though he concedes "they sound eminently appropriate."

In the House of Mohamed Ali is social history shorn of the sensational, a book of steely propriety. That it remains compelling throughout is a tribute to its author's sense of place, and to the accretion of perfectly visualised detail in the many descriptions. The photographs, too, lend a concreteness to the personalities and places described, providing a final glimpse into a world that is no longer.

Reviewed by Nigel Ryan

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