Princess Lulie Abul-Huda, who has died aged 93, was a pioneer of 20th-century feminism and female political activism. Of Syro-Kurdish origin, she was the last link between today’s Arab world and the former Ottoman Empire. Her grandfather was the chief religious adviser of Sultan Abdel-Hamid (reigned 1876-1909) in Istanbul; her husband was a grandson of Abdel-Hamid’s successor, Mehmed V (1909-1918); her father ran the Turkish affairs office of the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Abbas Helmi II (1892-1914), before moving to Jordan (then Transjordan) where he served as chief minister in the 1920s.
Yet these establishment connections never defined Lulie’s personality. One of the first Arab women to graduate from a Western university, she loved the avant-garde and became a prominent figure in the international art scene in London and Paris.
Born in Egypt on 26 January 1919 (officially 1921), Lulie Abul-Huda spent her first years in Cairo where her mother, Devlet, was a member of the well-known Abu Gabal family. Her parents’ house was a huge, haunted edifice that swarmed with relatives, servants and free-loaders until its demolition after the Egyptian revolution in 1952.
Those early years were much influenced by her father’s long-standing friendship with Emir Abdallah, later the first king of Jordan. They met as young men in Istanbul where Abdallah was a serving member of the Ottoman parliament. During World War I, Abdallah’s father, Sharif Hussein of Mecca, revolted against Ottoman Turkey and ordered his sons to fight alongside mainly British forces led by general Allenby and T E Lawrence. Having fought on the winning side, Abdallah emerged as the ruler of Transjordan, a new state created under a British mandate in part of the former Ottoman province of Greater Syria. Needing a trusted friend and assistant, Abdallah invited Lulie’s father to join him. Though he had opposed the Arab revolt, he accepted and brought his family to Amman.
Lulie liked Abdallah, but she never concealed her disapproval of his conservative views. Defying him and her father, she refused to veil and, when still a pupil at the Jerusalem Girls’ College, she organised the first women’s marches in the region supporting Palestinian rights. She made many British friends and became an anglophile after visiting London with her parents. After her father’s death in 1936, she pestered her mother for permission to complete her studies there. Her mother eventually surrendered.
At Oxford University in England, Lulie studied history and political science and met prominent Middle Eastern politicians and intellectuals including George Antonius, Auni Dajani and the brothers Cecil and Albert Hourani. Together they founded an Arab club where they spent long hours drinking coffee and discussing the future of the Middle East. Recalling those early days, her close friend the writer and traveller Freya Stark wrote in her book East is West that Lulie “enchanted the undergraduates: she used to appear, her pretty bronze hair dishevelled, her fingers covered with ink, with her books in sheaves carried by her devotees, to catch her lectures like cricket balls as they sped by.”
After the outbreak of World War II, Lulie returned to Cairo and helped Stark to form the Ikhwan Al-Hurriya (Brotherhood of Freedom), a pro-Arab British organisation designed to counter Nazi propaganda. Long hours writing speeches, planning meetings and translating news bulletins were interspersed with moments of fun, especially after the German retreat from Alamein and the recapture of Tobruk in November 1942. Sophisticated, witty and highly popular, she was often seen at the Auberge des Pyramides nightclub and other Cairo hotspots. In 1940, she attended the wedding of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V’s grand-daughter, Princess Mihrimah, to Emir Abdallah’s younger son, prince Naif. Five years later, Lulie’s sister Lima married Mehrimah’s brother Prince Mehmed Nazim Ziadeddin.
In the later war years, Lulie Abul-Huda became a leading role model for Arab girls seeking equal rights with men. Alongside the leading Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi, she urged Egyptian women to demand greater educational support. In 1944, she represented Transjordan at the conference of the Arab Feminist Union in Cairo. In the same year, she rallied support for the efforts of Princess Shevekiar and the Red Crescent Society to help female victims of the malaria epidemic.
Lulie was never anti-Jewish. Deploring anti-semitism and the rise of Hitler, she visited Sweden in 1939 specially to avoid representing the Young Women’s Association in Nazi Germany. However, she abhorred Zionist disregard for Palestinian rights. Deeply sensitive to cruelty and injustice, she made pro-Palestinian radio broadcasts and led demonstrations in Nablus. After the revolution in Egypt in 1952, she helped ex-King Farouk’s cousin and brother-in-law Bulent Rauf to establish the Beshara Trust to promote Sufi Islam and a better British understanding of the Palestinian predicament. In a moment of black humour, she produced a booklet entitled The Case for Israel containing only blank pages.
When the state of Israel was established in May 1948, Lulie moved to England. As a student at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Courtauld Institute, she frequented art galleries in London and Paris and became a devotee of the French impressionist painters. Camille Pissaro’s work became such an obsession that she began writing the artist’s biography with the encouragement of his grand-daughter. Though she never completed it, she worked on a catalogue of his paintings for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Her former teacher, Sir Anthony Blunt, former surveyor of the Queen’s art collection and a Soviet spy, became her mentor and introduced her to another fan of the impressionists, Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
In 1963, now in her 40s, Lulie married Prince Omer Fevzi, the brother of her sister’s husband. Though he was far more interested in painting than marriage, the arrangement is said to have helped both parties to cope with nationality and inheritance laws. For love and entertainment, she looked mainly to Sir John Foster, an outstanding parliamentarian, Queen’s Counsel and fellow of All Souls, Oxford. Foster was said in his obituary to have believed in “the maximisation of human pleasure” and he attracted many other admirers including Miriam de Rothschild and the writer Marcia Davenport, whose name was also linked with Jan Masaryk, son of the first president of Czechoslovakia. Notwithstanding, Lulie’s attachment to Foster remained firm until his death in 1982.
Lulie loved people and entertained constantly throughout her life. Famously absent-minded and eccentric, she inspired countless amusing anecdotes. On one occasion she appeared at a party wearing a cocktail-dress upside down with trailing sleeves; on another, dinner was delayed when, instead of a chicken, a roasted handbag emerged from her oven.
Though her formidable grandfather headed Islam’s Sufi Rifaai order and wielded immense influence throughout the Islamic world, Lulie remained agnostic to the end. But she was always a champion of good causes and throughout her life she gave help to all who asked her. Increasingly frail, she was fussed over by a regiment of carers commanded by Doug Patrick, her invaluable and trusted companion throughout her twilight years. Though she had a flat in Brighton, it was at her London home by the river Thames that Doug entertained her devotees as they competed for her attention with a gigantic television screen and photographs of her last hero — David Beckham.