Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 February 2002
Issue No.572
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

50 years ago this week, King Farouk celebrated his last birthday as king of Egypt. Al-Ahram Weekly offers glimpses of the monarch's early years and his last birthday party

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Who was King Farouk? Fayza Hassan attempts to understand the last monarch of Egypt: failed king, cheap crook and philanderer, or misunderstood sovereign and maligned ruler?

Fouad's body leaves Abdin Palace
Farouk and Farida
A WEDDING AND A FUNERAL: top, Fouad's body leaves Abdin Palace; bottom, Farouk and Farida
BIRTH OF AN HEIR: By the time Fouad (Farouk's father), the twelfth and youngest son of Khedive Ismail, was transformed by the British from a penniless prince in search of a role into the Sultan of Egypt, it was well understood that the country's nominal ruler could only be a puppet of the overbearing colonialist power: Fouad, having grown up abroad, speaking no Arabic and despising the Arabs (whom he routinely described as ces crétins), fit the part as the British saw it. He was therefore appointed to the post, which he accepted gratefully.

His first order of business was to find himself a new wife to replace his cousin Shevikar, whom he had married chiefly for her money. He had used it to make himself rich and therefore no longer needed her, especially since the only son she had given him had died aged nine months. A daughter, Fawqiya was however conceived during that period. Having no hope of producing more offspring, Fouad divorced her and sought a suitable replacement. There was no way he could have married his mistress Mrs Suarez (she was married and Jewish), so he looked about for a more fitting candidate: someone regal, beautiful, docile and, above all, fertile. To establish himself properly, Fouad needed an heir more than ever.

Nazli was 19, the daughter of the minister of agriculture and although not of royal stock, a member of Egypt's grande bourgeoisie. She was descended from the French officer Soliman Pasha, who had married the daughter of Sherif Pasha, thrice prime minister. Nazli had been educated in Paris and spoke French as fluently as Fouad. At first reluctant, she finally agreed to meet the sultan and found him irresistible. They were married in an intimate ceremony on 24 May 1919.

Now Fouad had to have a boy. He became religious and began praying, promising God that he would stop drinking and gambling if his wish was granted. One day, it is said that a nightingale perched on the royal bedroom window. The superstitious sultan declared that if the bird sang three times he would have a son. The bird sang three times and Farouk, whose name was chosen because it started with Fouad's lucky letter, was born at Abdin Palace on 11 February 1920. In the words of William Stadiem, one of the authors who have documented Farouk's life, "gossip notwithstanding, the formal arrival of Farouk was celebrated throughout Egypt. Fouad gave the palace obstetrician a bonus of one thousand pounds in gold. He ordered ten thousand pounds in gold distributed to the poor and another eight hundred for the mosques in Cairo. Throughout Cairo and Alexandria, delta and desert, lambs were slaughtered and roasted in celebratory feasts, cannon fired all through the night and the faithful called to prayer for the newborn prince, whom in April, Lord Allenby formally recognised as the 'lawful heir to the Sultanate'." The announcement of his birth provoked the same rumours that 32 years later were to plague the birth of his own son Ahmed Fouad: gossip had it that Nazli had borne the child before Fouad married her and smuggled the baby into the palace, waiting until a propitious time for his official birthday. Had the baby been a girl, Fouad would have discarded Nazli, it was whispered. While this was not a very credible scenario many claimed that Farouk had been at least conceived out of wedlock.

Immediately after Farouk's birth, Fouad transformed himself into a Turkish sultan as far as his wife was concerned, locking her up in a harem guarded by numerous eunuchs and demanding that she bless him with more children. She produced four daughters one after the other (Fathiya, Fawziya, Fayza and Fayqa) and was provided with a bevy of nannies, governesses and wet- nurses to relieve her from her motherly duties. Fouad ruled of his harem of one with an iron grip, extending his strict supervision over his son, for whom he made all decisions alone. Nazli was allowed to visit her son for one hour a day and for the first years of his life the prince was more attached to Ina Naylor, his governess, than to his mother, whom he accused of wearing too much rouge.

A LONELY CHILD: Gerda Sjoberg, an auxiliary nanny at the palace whose diaries were serialised in Swedish newspapers after Farouk was deposed in 1952, describes a typical day in the young prince's life when he was about four. The day for Farouk began at 8am, when a small band awoke him by playing the Egyptian national anthem outside his window. A Nubian servant then came into his chambers, drew his bath and laid out his clothes. After his bath, Gerda would help the prince dress then sit with him while he was having his tea -- toast with butter and marmalade. After breakfast, his chief manservant Mohamed entered the room wearing a red embroidered robe, kissed the ground, then kissed Farouk's hand. Mohamed led Farouk into the palace gardens, carrying an umbrella to shade the prince from the burning sun and moving as the sun moved. For an hour, from 10 to 11, Farouk was simply to sit in the garden to learn patience, while Gerda told him a story or the band played for him. Then he would do 15 minutes of calisthenics or stretching, after which, his hands washed and his hair brushed by Gerda, he would be taken to the harem to visit his mother.

From the harem, Farouk would be taken to the palace dining room where he would sit alone at a splendidly decorated table to be served a lunch of roast chicken, green beans, chocolate cake and grapes by two Nubians in Nile green robes and white gloves. A two-hour nap would follow. At 4.30 the prince would be up again, more formally dressed in a green silk suit with a white collar and cuff links. He would have tea in the palace with his sisters and play in the garden until 7pm, when it was time for his second visit to his mother. Gerda would take him back to his chambers where the Nubians would assist him with his nightly bath, then she would tell him a story to put him to sleep. According to Gerda, Farouk was fascinated by her young nephew, Jan, in Sweden. Farouk put Jan's photograph next to his bed and made him his imaginary best friend. King Fouad would not allow him any real ones.

When Farouk was a little older, Gerda went back to Sweden and was replaced by Ina Naylor, whom Farouk called Ninzy As in any aristocratic household, there was little love lost between Nazli and the nannies in charge of her children. Both vied for their affection and forced the children to choose between them. Many of Farouk's later traits may have stemmed from the desperate need to placate the various formidable females ruling over his life and find a way to please everybody all the time.

AN UNUSUAL EDUCATION: Farouk grew up surrounded by tutors who endeavoured to teach him what he would have normally learned at school. He was bored and a poor student, longing for companions his own age. Instead, he was often spirited into Nazli's apartments against Fouad's orders, and made to sit with her and her soothsayer over a boiling cauldron. "As superstitious as her husband, Nazli didn't merely dabble in the occult, she dwelled in it," writes Stadiem.

Nazli's bedroom, where the séances were held, must have given the future king a strange glimpse of the world of grownups: "On the wall above Nazli's gold-framed, silk-curtained queen-sized bed was a life-style very realistic erotic painting of a blond-tressed naked nymph lying seductively on her own queen-sized bed. Nazli's adjacent drawing room contained more life-sized nudes, provocative tableaux from some of the racier tales of the Arabian Nights, involving fornication, sodomy and bestiality in the name of high art." His father's chambers were as enlightening: there, Farouk enjoyed the spectacle of his chief Circassian serving girl sleeping on a mattress on a rare Chinese carpet at the foot of the royal bed every night. Five other Turkish beauties were right outside in the marble corridor to attend to the monarch's every whim. Stadiem ascribes much of the trouble in Farouk's later relationships with the opposite sex to his parents' early influence. His friend Antonio Pulli, an Italian mechanic, also regaled him with war and whore stories during his formative years. Whatever problems Farouk would encounter in his life, however, still lay in the future; as a young prince appearing publicly for the first time at the age of 12, he was adored by his people.

MONARCH IN WAITING: Farouk was about to be thrown out of the nest courtesy of the man who would be his nemesis: diplomat Miles Lampson, who had arrived in Egypt to fill the post of high commissioner. Lampson convinced Fouad that his son should be sent to Eton where he would receive an education worthy of a monarch-to-be. Farouk failed the entrance examination, a fact glossed over for a long time, since he had been described routinely as a brilliant student. The sad truth began to dawn on Fouad: apart from languages, Farouk had learned nothing. The idea of sending him to Fouad's old alma mater, the Turin Military Academy, was floated, but immediately vetoed by Lampson. A British institution had to instruct the heir to Egypt's throne in the subtler points of subservience to his country's colonisers.

The choice was eventually narrowed down to the Military Academy at Woolwich. Finally, in October 1935, Farouk and a 20-man blue-chip entourage sailed for England on the British cruiser Devonshire. Farouk was not directly admitted to Woolwich and as an extramural student he took occasional classes while preparing himself for being admitted by examination as a full-time cadet. Meanwhile, he enjoyed being looked after by his chief tutor, military tutor, professor of Arabic, fencing and combat tutor, squash tutor, private doctor, as well as a complement of cooks, valets and other servants. Sixteen years later, in his memoirs, Farouk related the events as if he had partaken in the hardships imposed on regular students at Woolwich. It is not clear if he was simply being disingenuous or, more pathetically, was describing the experience as he would have liked to have lived it.

Farouk's most devoted apologist was his tutor, Ahmed Hassanein, a dashing explorer the foreign press dubbed the Lawrence of Arabia of Egypt, and the object Nazli's desires. Hassanein was an Old Oxonian who could charm not only the queen but the British as well. Farouk's English tutor and fellow Oxonian Edward Ford recounted: "I sit next to him for most meals and his reminiscences of Oxford are a delight to me. He has a quick wit, great courtesy, an interest in all subjects and is a quite unusual type of Egyptian. Slim, sharply featured, with a sallow colour and grey hair brushed straight back from his high forehead, he has an unmistakable Bedouin look. There is said to be Scottish blood in his ancestry, and this makes him fairer than most Egyptians. He has keen penetrating eyes, never looks sleepy and has an air of refinement that the coarse looking Egyptian type entirely lacks. He has never had political inclinations, and, though he is a firm believer in Egypt's right to govern herself and a fervid Moslem, he is quite without that aggressive conceit which marks other ambitious men in this country. Although his culture and his intellect are occidental, his mentality and nature are from the east. He has an eastern courtesy, and, in conversation, an eastern way of leading you off the path you have selected by a sympathetic evasiveness."

Even Hassanein, who was to remain close to Farouk for a long time (as chief of the royal cabinet and later, it was rumoured, the secret husband of his mother) had to acknowledge in private that his charge spent all his time in Sussex sleeping or organising extravagant shopping trips to London.

At any rate, the point of Farouk's luxurious exile was superseded by events when he was informed of his father's sudden death on 29 April 1936. The new king of Egypt was requested to return immediately, only six moths after he had sailed off "to become a man" in England.

BECOMING A MAN: He was not present at his father's burial, which took place on the day of Fouad's death as Muslim burial rituals require, but docked in Alexandria on 6 May, where his delirious subjects lined the tracks, waving flags to see the royal train taking him to Cairo. As soon as he arrived, the young king was taken through the streets of Cairo teeming with cheering onlookers to Al-Rifa'i Mosque, where his father was buried in an alabaster tomb. He emerged from the mosque to witness the elation of a people who unbeknownst to him were celebrating his ascent to power and the demise of the hated Fouad at one and the same time.

A three-man Regency council was established to guide Farouk until he reached the age of 18 according to the lunar calendar. Representing the dynasty (and the British) was Prince Mohamed Ali, now second in line for the throne, the grandson of Khedive Ismail and the son of Khedive Tewfik, a pro-British world class horse breeder and art collector. He collected some of the greatest treasures of the Ottoman Empire, which he housed in his Manial Palace. The garden, shaded by rare imported trees, bore testimony to his interest in complex landscaping. The Francophile Cherif Sabry, Nazli's brother and then the undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, was the second member of the council devoted to look after his sister's interests; while the third, Abdel-Aziz Izzet, a charming monocled diplomat married to Fouad's niece, was determined to honour Fouad's dying wishes and prevent his cousin Prince Mohamed Ali from usurping the throne.

With the 1936 Treaty giving the British a momentary respite from the difficulties they were facing in the country, Miles Lampson devoted his time to transforming the unruly young man who was to reign over it into a puppet as easily manipulated as his father had been. The king resisted being Anglicised, a prerequisite for his acceptance of being "advised" by the high commissioner on policy matters. His inclination was to listen to the Italians who had remained at the palace after his father's death, and Pulli's importance began to grow regardless of Lampson's efforts to draw Farouk in another direction. By the time he ascended the throne on 20 July 1937, the main influences in Farouk's life were his mother and his best friend Pulli.

AN ELOQUENT KING: The celebrations that accompanied King Farouk's coronation outdid those of King George VI. More importantly, Farouk's first speech stunned Miles Lampson. It is not clear if he suspected the hand of the poetic Hassanein but refused to believe that "a boy who never opened a book, whose Egyptian tutors gave him all the answers, who was a bluffer not a scholar," could be as eloquent as he appeared on that day. "And if it is Allah's will to lay on my shoulders at such an early age the responsibility of kingship, I on my part appreciate the duties that will be mine, and I am prepared for all sacrifices in the cause of my duty... My noble people, I am proud of you and your loyalty and am confident in the future as I am in Allah. Let us work together. We shall succeed and be happy. Long live the fatherland!" the king told his people, who adored every word. The British saw the speech as a public relations coup, which it was; they were far from pleased.

Farouk was not given the time to enjoy his victory in the popularity contest. His mother had decided to increase her power over him by choosing his future wife. She selected a 15- year-old whose father was a judge of Turkish descent and whose mother was one of her own ladies-in-waiting. Safinaz (renamed Farida) was "a woman in her own image, a petite, beautiful brunette upper bourgeoise who spoke perfect French and had perfect manners and yet was not of royal blood. She looked patrician even though she wasn't and to Nazli, this was her greatest asset," comments Stadiem. "It there were going to be two queens in the family, Nazli wanted to be the first and she certainly didn't want the second to be a princess as well. " Having been a commoner and married up, she did not want her daughter-in-law to boast bluer blood than her own. Uninterested by the fairer sex at this point, Farouk complied and did what his mother expected of her obedient son.

TO TAKE A WIFE: Adorned with a beautiful queen, Farouk's popularity rose even higher. He was well equipped to outdo Lampson's designs and establish himself as his country's liberator. Why he lost his grip on things and took the road of no return is still a mystery. Within 16 short years, Farouk had managed to fail his queen and his people. Attempts to regain his popularity came to naught, and it is a defeated man accompanied by a bewildered, grief-stricken queen and a useless heir who took the road to exile on 23 July 1952 -- one followed by many of Egypt's monarchs before him.

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