|ED. NOTE: I don’t always write about perfume. In fact, once upon a time, I wrote mainly about history under the name “Pandora’s Box.” A few are already posted and hidden in the archives, but I’m in the process of transferring over a few more articles — namely, a two-part series about Princess Fawzia of Egypt which was published back in 2005 — so that everything in one place. I certainly don’t expect anyone to read them, especially as they’re quite academic, very long, for a totally different audience, and have some wonky formatting after the transfer from the old royalty website. So, if your main interest is perfume, feel free to skip them.|
[25 January 2005]
Cecil Beaton, the legendary photographer, once called Princess Fawzia “Venus.” Coming from such a connoisseur of beauty, the comparison is high praise indeed. But Princess Fawzia’s life shows that great beauty does not always ensure happiness, let alone inner peace, success or security. It can be compared to a wave which briefly peaks at a great height before crashing on the shore and leaving faint ripples. Last Thursday, the ripples seemed to die out altogether when Princess Fawzia reportedly “died” at the age of 84.
However, it appears that Princess Fawzia is, in fact, very much alive! It was King Farouk’s daughter, not his sister, who died and this fact has apparently been confirmed by the Egyptian Royal Family. Since Fawzia’s niece had the same name (or, by some accounts, a similar name) and the same title of “Princess,” the press must have accidentally assumed that it was the ex-Queen of Iran who had passed away.
The mystery and confusion surrounding her “death” is utterly representative of Fawzia’s life itself. Most people know nothing about her other than the fact that she was a great beauty who was the Shah’s first wife. Those who did know her in real life weren’t much better off; few people seem to have known what she really thought or felt. Her face and personality were as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa. Yet, there were cracks in the mask, for her haunting eyes clearly reflected great sadness and pain. So did the extreme choices she made in her life, for Fawzia’s life seemed to veer from one confused, chaotic situation to another. Or perhaps she was merely stuck in the vortex of Middle Eastern politics.
The Princess has, predictably, remained silent about her life and the situations she faced. However, some things about her life are well known and the rest can be deduced by the events or actions of those around her. This is the rest of the tale.
The Persian king, Reza Shah, announced his son’s engagement to Princess Fawzia in 1938. Almost immediately thereafter, he demanded that the Iranian parliament declare Fawzia a Persian so that her children would be considered to be pure Iranians. See, H.I.H. Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, Faces in a Mirror: Memoirs from Exile, (Prentice Hall, 1980), at 34.
Fawzia’s feelings on her upcoming arranged marriage are not well known. The 18-year old Princess seemed to have grown to like the Crown Prince. According to his sister, Princess Ashraf, and his biographer, William Shawcross, the feeling was reciprocated. William Shawcross, The Shah’s Last Ride: The Fate of an Ally, (Simon & Schuster 1988).
The wedding took place in 1939 and consisted of two different ceremonies. The first was in Cairo and was not attended by the Shah’s family. Following a honeymoon in Egypt, the newlyweds got married for a second time in Tehran at Reza Shah’s new Marble Palace. Id.
Princess Ashraf drove out to greet her new sister-in-law when she arrived in Iran after her honeymoon. According to Princess Ashraf, the couple looked “radiant” and “when they looked at each other, it was with eyes full of affection. Like [Princess Ashraf’s] own marriage, theirs was an arranged match… [but this] bride and groom actually liked each other.” Id. at 35. It helped that the young bride (whose nickname was “Wuzzy”) had an impish sense of fun and a passionate desire to live life, both of which greatly appealed to the young Crown Prince. Shawcross, supra, at 58.
Reza Shah had arranged the marriage with one main goal in mind: a male heir to continue on the succession. Two years after their marriage, in 1940, she finally gave birth to a child. To Reza Shah’s enormous frustration, it was not a boy. Fawzia and her husband named the girl Shahnaz and continued to try for a son. It was not to be.
Queen of Iran
Fawzia became Queen in 1941 after the wartime political situation and Allied invasion forced Reza Shah to abdicate. The new Shah was only 22 and his consort, 20. Although the press often call Fawzia (and the wives who followed her) “Empress,” the term is not technically accurate. It was only the Shah’s third and last wife, Farah Diba, who was an “Empress.” At the latter’s coronation in 1967, the old title of Queen was abolished and replaced with Empress, an elevation which corresponded to the Shah’s own change in title.
But going back to Queen Fawzia, the new Shah had reached a measure of understanding with his wife. He wasn’t in love with her and there was no passionate romance, but there was much affection, informal ease, and respect. Although Fawzia liked him back, she preferred her new position even more. Back in Cairo, she had been one of many princesses, albeit King Farouk’s favorite; in Iran, however, she was the Queen.
At the same time, Fawzia was deeply conflicted. For all that she enjoyed her new status, she resented the obligations and responsibilities that accompanied it, particularly the growing pressure to have a son. The issue of the succession had become even more pressing with her husband’s ascension to the Peacock Throne.
By some accounts, her brother, King Farouk, added to her problems. According to some, Farouk tried to take advantage of his position of brother-in-law to the new Shah to meddle in Persian politics. His particular goal was to get the Shah to join him against the British. Fawzia was reportedly placed in the middle of her brother and husband, and ended up resenting both.
I reject the theory because neither King Farouk’s personality nor the political situation of the time make such political scheming plausible. Farouk may have had some fleeting thought of being a political kingmaker or counselor to the new Shah, but he was too self-indulgent, undisciplined and extravagant to think seriously about anything other than his own pleasures. He certainly didn’t act on these purported political goals. In fact, the only thing he did act upon was his increasingly voracious appetite for sex, food and expensive luxuries. The situation had become so excessive that comparisons were being made to the libidinous, obese Henry VIII. Clearly, Farouk was a far cry from such cunning political strategists as Cardinal Richelieu, Bismarck or Metternich.
Furthermore, his purported political objective was simply unrealistic given the political situation of the time. After the Allied invasion in 1941 and their victory in WWII, Britain had replaced Germany as the dominant influence in Iran. The Tehran Conference of 1943 had resulted in special agreements of assistance to Iran, as well as reciprocal, unofficial deals for the British regarding oil rights. In these early years, the new Shah lacked the power of his father – both domestically and internationally – so he was unlikely to agree to Farouk’s plans. In fact, it would have been political suicide. The British had had no qualms in forcing his father to abdicate, and they would have done the same to him if he’d tried to oppose them.
Even without Farouk’s interference, there were more than enough things working against Fawzia’s marriage. Fawzia was under enormous pressure to produce a male heir, and it exacerbated her ongoing difficulty in adjusting to her new life. In fact, Fawzia never really adjusted at all. She missed her old home and its glittering, sophisticated environment. She was used to a life of intense luxury and pampering, especially from the doting Farouk. And she viewed Iran with contemptuous dislike.
She was also a significant outsider in the very unique environment of the royal court. The court was a very clique-ish place, dominated by insiders and with a poisonous air of backstabbing and intrigue. One expert describes it at its very zenith of extravagance as follows:
Though the aristocracy had been abolished by his father, Reza, the shah had reintroduced a court largely without titles. And those who joined it did very well by themselves. “The [shah’s] court,” a CIA report in the 1970s observed, was “a center of licentiousness and depravity, of corruption and influence peddling.” His half sister alone amassed a $500 million fortune. All of the royal family drew benefits from the more than $1 billion in assets of the Pahlavi Foundation. The shah’s personal physician became one of the largest landholders in Iran. The shah’s special butler ended up with a monopoly on the export of Iranian caviar as well as a real estate fortune. ‘There was an atmosphere of overwhelming nouveau-riche, meretricious chi-chi and sycophancy,’ a European visitor to the court remembered. ‘There was an overheated, overstuffed atmosphere in those super-deluxe mini palaces in the imperial compound which left one gasping for air.’
David Harris, The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah-1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam, (Little Brown, 2004), as excerpted at http://www.twbookmark.com/books/13/0316323942/chapter_excerpt19516.html
Again, it must be pointed out that Harris is describing the royal court years after Fawzia’s time, but it could be argued that the situation was not all that different in Fawzia’s time. The ostentatious extravagance and nouveau riche excesses didn’t exist to the same degree but it was hardly a peasant’s life. True, it was nothing like the sophisticated Egyptian royal court but pictures from the 1940s show magnificently bejeweled women in huge palaces richly decorated with gold, marble and antiques.
The key similarity, however, was the court’s atmosphere, which was as difficult and politically tricky in the 1940s as it was in the 1970s. The reasons stem from the political circumstances of the time, as well as the poisonous intrigues of Fawzia’s new in-laws. We’ll get to Fawzia’s new in-laws shortly but the political pitfalls can be explained by the situation created by WWII. The first part of the 1940s was marked by the war, Allied invasion and occupation, and the demand that Reza Shah abdicate; the second half was dominated by the young Shah’s attempts to fill his father’s shoes and prove himself.
It wasn’t easy. The 22-year old monarch lacked the power, authority, influence and intimidation factor of his father. To counter the power of the traditional aristocracy and ancien regime, he began to create a new elite around himself, one which he could trust and whose fealty was ensured by money and power. Fawzia was very much an outsider to this group and her obvious unease didn’t help. For their part, the new elite knew her marriage was arranged and that she was only a tolerated wife, not an adored favorite. In fact, most felt that her marriage wouldn’t last. As for theancien regime, they paid her little heed. She was merely a young bride of no significance, and a foreigner to boot.
In-Laws from Hell?
If the royal court was considered “poisonous” during the 1970s, it was only slightly less so during the early years of the Shah’s reign. In those days, the Queen Mother, Tadj ol-Molouk, was still a force to be reckoned with. She was a tiny, very feminine woman with a personality like a bulldozer. She was domineering, cold, bitter and demanding, and was often called a “tyrant.” In fact, she was the one person who wasn’t intimidated by her terrifying, brusque, forceful giant of a husband, Reza Shah. See, Afshin Afshari, “The Shah and the People: Part One: The Life,”The Iranian, (January 2, 2005) at http://www.iranian.com/History/2005/January/Shah/index.html. Tadj ol-Molouk did not hesitate to confront him if she had an issue with something, and she spoke her mind in a way that was extremely unusual for Middle Eastern women, let alone women of the time, and certainly for someone dealing with Reza Shah! Even more unusual was the fact that her otherwise ferocious, intimidating husband “literally hid” when he saw her coming. See, Princess Ashraf, supra, at 10.
If the Queen Mother had few qualms about facing down her husband, she had absolutely none in confronting her son or meddling in his affairs. Her repressive, controlling personality led to many blazing rows with the new Shah. See, Asadollah Alam, The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary ofIran’s Royal Court, 1969-1977, (trans. and ed. by Alinaghi Alikhani),(St. Martins Press, 1992). The young Shah was trying to assert himself in his own right and he deeply resented his mother’s attempts to control him. But he couldn’t ignore her either; as the Queen Mother (and wife to the now legendary Reza Shah), Tadj ol-Molouk had a lot of influence in the court.
Unfortunately for Fawzia, the Queen Mother had even more issues with her than she did with her son. In fact, she seems to have had complete contempt and loathing for her son’s teenage bride, and she did her best to push Fawzia to the sidelines or cut her down to size. Part of the problem was that Tadj ol-Molouk refused to have another Queen at the court which she’d dominated for so long. Another (even greater) problem was that Fawzia was unwilling to submit to her dictates or prostrate herself in abject submission. Fawzia was too aware of her own position as a princess from an old, established dynasty; too reserved; and too unenthusiastic about Iran. It antagonized the royal court, and none more so than the Queen Mother who retaliated by doing everything within her power to bring Fawzia to her knees.
The Queen Mother may have been a “tyrant” but many say that Princess Ashraf was an even bigger problem. In fact, it’s been said that she helped destroy Fawzia’s marriage by making her life unbearable. Princess Ashraf was an intense, strong-willed, incredibly intelligent, dominant person, much like her mother. Many people thought she would have made a better king than her brother, although that would have been blasphemy to Ashraf. The Princess worshipped her twin and their bond was closer even that normally shared by twins.
One reason was her childhood. By her own admission, Princess Ashraf’s formative years had been lonely, devoid of any parental attention, and a sense that she didn’t matter to anyone but her brother. Princess Ashraf, supra, at 10ff. The bond between the twins grew even stronger when they were sent off to the prestigious Le Rosey boarding school in Switzerland. In subsequent years, one of her numerous lovers would write that her brother
‘was the light of her life, the apple of her eye, the blood that flowed in her veins. She loved him with a passion that was both possessive and unsharing. [The shah] was one half of the symbiotic whole of which the Princess was the other.’ This was a truth Ashraf did not deny. ‘Always,’ she admitted, ‘the center of my existence was, and is, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.’
See, David Harris, The Crisis, supra.
It’s not surprising therefore that Ashraf – already possessive of the Shah’s attention and affections – was reportedly hostile to any woman who entered his life. And by many, many accounts, she made the lives of her rivals deeply miserable. The renowned journalist, William Shawcross, who wrote the Shah’s biography, confirms that assessment. He bluntly states that Fawzia’s “jealous sister-in-law and scheming mother-in-law [the Queen Mother] made her life intolerable.” Shawcross, The Shah’s Last Ride, supra, at 60.
I have no doubt that some of you are thinking, “Everyone has problems with their in-laws. So what? It doesn’t automatically lead to divorce.” It’s a valid point and one which is probably true for the majority of people. However, Fawzia and the Shah were not most people; and their circumstances were extremely unique. Even if we ignore the fact that theirs was a marriage of convenience, we can’t ignore the special position and character of Princess Ashraf who was probably the most powerful woman at court, if not in the nation.
Princess Ashraf was no ordinary woman. At a time when Iranian women were expected to be submissive, quiet breeding machines, she was negotiating political agreements with Stalin! It was the mid 1940s, and Princess Ashraf was only a very young woman, but her tough negotiating style forced Stalin to turn a 10 minute meeting into one lasting over two and a half hours. If that wasn’t incredible enough, she garnered his deep, unqualified and lasting respect. The brutal dictator later said that, if the Shah “had ten like [her], he would have no worries at all.” Princess Ashraf, supra, at 82-88.
Stalin might have admired her ruthlessness and steely character, but others were not so complimentary.
In Iran she was called “the Black Panther.” According to a 1976 CIA report, Princess Ashraf had “a near legendary reputation for financial corruption and for successfully pursuing young men.” The CIA also described her business practices as “often verging on if not completely illegal.” After the Revolution, the Iranian government would eventually sue her for $3 billion she allegedly stole from the country’s public coffers.
David Harris, The Crisis, supra.
Princess Ashraf’s power was absolutely enormous. She was so influential that the British or the Americans frequently turned to her when something important needed to be done. In some ways, Princess Ashraf was the real power behind the throne. As one observer explains, “In Iran it was widely thought -by people of all classes and political persuasions- that Ashraf was her brother’s backbone and that without her, he would be lost.” Id.
The best example of Princess Ashraf’s power, significance, and character is an incident in 1953 involving the American government. The United States had realized that Ashraf was the most influential person in the country next to the Shah, so when a political crisis threatened to topple the Shah they turned to her. They sent in a CIA agent (who was President Roosevelt’s grandson) to convince her to buck up her brother before he lost his throne. In his award-winning book, All the Shah’s Men, Stephen Kinzer, a well-respected journalist with the New York Times, describes the situation and what it took to persuade Princess Ashraf:
Roosevelt’s first gambit was to send emissaries who might have special influence over the Shah. First he arranged for the Shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, who was as sharp and combative as the Shah was dull, to visit her brother and try to stiffen his backbone. Ashraf ‘s tongue-lashings of her brother were legendary, including one in the presence of foreign diplomats when she demanded that he prove he was a man or else be revealed to all as a mouse. She detested Mossadegh [the Prime Minister] because he was an enemy of royal power. Her attacks on his government became so bitter that the Shah had felt it best to send her out of the country. From her golden exile in Europe, she watched events in her homeland with undiminished passion.
Ashraf was enjoying life in French casinos and nightclubs when one of Roosevelt’s best Iranian agents, Asadollah Rashidian, paid her a call. He found her reluctant, so the next day a delegation of American and British agents came to pose the invitation in stronger terms. The leader of the delegation, a senior British operative named Norman Darbyshire, had the foresight to bring a mink coat and a packet of cash.
Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, (William, John & Sons, 2003) at 7.
This, then was the woman who resented Fawzia for taking her brother away. She was hardly an insignificant enemy and, certainly, no mere in-law. To paraphrase a friend of mine, “it’s one thing to have an in-law glaring at you over the Sunday roast, it’s another thing entirely when they have the power of several nations behind them.”
To be fair, Princess Ashraf vehemently denies any allegation of malicious interference with Fawzia, as well as the claims that she was “The Black Panther” behind the throne. In her memoirs, she states there was no rivalry with Fawzia. Princess Ashraf, Faces in the Mirror, supra, at 35. In fact, she claims the Princess was her “first really close woman friend” and that she “had an instant rapport” with her. Id.
Princess Ashraf also attempts to praise Fawzia but, ironically, her comments tell us quite a bit about the two women’s real relationship. According to Princess Ashraf’s memoirs, Fawzia, “like [the Shah’s] two later wives, … was fairly reserved, even a little cool at times, but kindhearted and generous.” Id. Princess Ashraf’s statement strikes me as a subtle back-handed insult because she qualifies her alleged admiration by commenting on Fawzia’s coolness and reserve. In essence, she’s calling Fawzia an aloof, cold fish – hardly the most enthusiastic endorsement. Still, Princess Ashraf insists that she did her best vis-à-vis Fawzia. She disputes the claims of backstabbing and hostility by claiming: “I knew she [Fawzia] would miss her family and the life she had enjoyed in Egypt, so I tried my best to make her feel comfortable.” Id.
Perhaps. More than a few commentators and historians have described Princess Ashraf’s memoirs as “self-serving” distortions of reality. But even if her feelings towards Fawzia were as she’s described them, the sentiment wasn’t reciprocated. According to some sources, Fawzia did not share that “instant rapport,” a fact which goes a long way to explain her “coolness.” In reality, Fawzia was more shy than cold, and she certainly wasn’t arrogant or haughty. If she kept her distance from Princess Ashraf, it was simply because she didn’t trust her sister-in-law. Ashraf gave her good reason for that distrust which, over time, grew into intense loathing.
Divorce and the Consequences
Even if the stories about Princess Ashraf and Queen Mother are untrue, the fact remains that Fawzia was deeply unhappy. For that, Fawzia herself must take some responsibility. It seems that Fawzia was plagued by abrupt shifts in her mood, all of which were tinged by a deep, underlying sadness. Maybe it was the youthfulness of the new Queen or maybe it was some sort of psychological issue.
Personally, I feel it was a little of both. Her incredible youth was clearly a big part of why she felt so hemmed in by her new role and why she couldn’t adjust to the abrupt changes in her life. After all, what teenager wouldn’t miss their previously carefree life in a glittering, fun, sophisticated city, especially when their new life was empty of love or real friendship? At the same time, Fawzia’s whole life – when considered from a macro-perspective – seems to consist of strange, extreme shifts. As you will see later, she went from Queen to recluse; from flittering sophisticate to suburban housewife; from fun, playful and radiant to sorrowful, reserved and withdrawn. Some of that has to do with the circumstances of her life, and the politics of which she was a victim. But other parts are not explained by external circumstances, leaving me to wonder if Fawzia had some emotional scars or demons she could not escape.
Whatever the cause, Fawzia had had enough of Iran. She began to take more and more trips back to Cairo. Strangely enough, once she was there, she missed Iran or, more precisely, her status in Iran and all the privileges accompanying it. She epitomized the old saying about the grass being greener on the other side. Sometimes, the grass seemed greenest in Europe where she was free from both royal and Muslim restrictions.
Her trips became longer and longer in duration. In 1947, she extended her trip to Cairo from weeks to months. Each time the Shah asked her to return, she found another excuse not to do so. According to Princess Ashraf, it was the beginning of the end:
Finally – and this must have been with Farouk’s encouragement in order to pave the way to end his own marriage – she asked my brother for a divorce. (Contrary to popular rumor, it was not the Shah who had initiated the divorce because Fawzia had failed to produce a male heir.)
Princess Ashraf, supra, at 74.
The Shah resisted, but when he realized that Fawzia was adamant about staying in Cairo, he agreed to her request. The divorce became final in 1948, and it shocked the Middle East. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first time a modern Middle Eastern monarch had divorced. Fawzia was stripped of her title as Queen of Iran, although she retained her Egyptian title as a princess of the blood.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that their daughter, Princess Shahnaz, paid the deepest price for Fawzia’s decision. Part of the deal, either explicitly or implicitly, was that her daughter, Princess Shahnaz, would stay with her father in Iran. After all, she was considered to be a full Iranian, thanks to the parliamentary provision which Reza Shah had demanded. Shahnaz was only six years old when her mother left and the Shah, still a relatively young man, was busy trying to find a new wife to obtain his desperately needed heir. It wasn’t surprising that he had no time for a small child, particularly once he fell in love with and married Soraya, the love of his life (at least up to that point in his life).
According to the Shah’s Court Minister and closest confidante, Asadollah Alam, Princess Shahnaz grew up virtually neglected by her father, at least emotionally since she certainly lacked for nothing financially. See, Alam, The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran’s Royal Court, 1969-1977,supra. In all the ways that really matter, Shahnaz was brushed aside or considered invisible, a situation that didn’t improve when the Shah eventually had his family with Empress Farah. In fact, Alam repeatedly had to remind the Shah that Shahnaz was as much his flesh and blood as the rest. See e.g, Alam, at 74.
As for her mother, Shahnaz rarely saw her after one or two meetings in Switzerland. Fawzia obviously would not be welcome back in Iran, so she had limited access to her daughter, if any. Eventually, all serious contact between the two ceased. Perhaps it was a deliberate decision by one of parties, a question of Fawzia’s finances, or even a matter of politics but, whatever the reason, Shahnaz grew up feeling almost nothing for her mother, at least nothing positive.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t all that close to her father either. She loved him but she deeply resented his inattention and dismissiveness. In later years, she became a rebel, rather like the Princess Stephanie of her time. Id. at 42, 73-75, 81-83, 94, 105. The Shah was always exasperated and at the end of his wits as to how to handle her. He responded initially by marrying her off in a politically expedient union, only for her to get divorced a few years later. She subsequently became a hippie, had a serious and heavy drug problem, and was involved with a man whom the Shah deemed totally inappropriate. Her lifestyle spun out of control and became so outrageous that the Shah repeatedly came close to disowning her. Id. Each time, he only reluctantly agreed not to do so after pleas by his friend, the Court Minister Alam, who had a soft spot for the unhappy princess.
Shahnaz had barely escaped disinheritance but that didn’t stop her from confronting her father or taunting him about her lifestyle. She also deliberately continued to see the “hippie” whose “loose, immoral ways” drove the Shah to a state of uncontrollable fury. Shahnaz not only ignored her father but flaunted her lover. One night, after a fight with the man, she took an unknown dose of sleeping pills. The panicked Court Minister – who waited out the long hours until she “began to improve” – strongly implies that she had tried to commit suicide. Id. at 93.
The Shah soon had enough of Shahnaz’s emotional dramas, rebellion and “hippified ways.” He essentially gave her three choices: change her lifestyle; leave the country immediately, get married quietly in Switzerland, stay there out of sight and don’t return to Iran unless given permission; or be disowned. She chose the second option. Id. at 94. The Shah refused to even attend his daughter’s wedding.
Did Princess Shahnaz turn out as she did because Fawzia abandoned her? Possibly. One might argue that Fawzia chose divorce and Egypt, over Shahnaz and Iran. While people are responsible for their own choices – and Princess Shahnaz bears some blame for her subsequent decisions as an adult – she was only 6 years old when her mother left. Fawzia must have known that the Shah wouldn’t be deeply involved in Shahnaz’s care, particularly given his need to remarry and obtain an heir. Her decision to leave anyway can therefore be seen as one of the most damning things against her.
On the other hand, one could argue that Fawzia had few – if any – real choices available to her. There is no evidence that the marriage would have worked even if Fawzia had stuck it out. According to Empress Farah, everyone expected the marriage to fail, sooner rather than later and, given the Shah’s obsession with a son, she is probably correct. Furthermore, there is almost no way that the Shah would have permitted his first born to leave the country and live far away. Egypt could not have asserted any rights to the child on Fawzia’s behalf because the parliamentary provision had made her fully Iranian, not half Egyptian-half Iranian. Finally, it’s highly unlikely that Fawzia would have been welcomed back in Iran to see her daughter once the divorce went through. Thus, if divorce was inevitable (for reasons unrelated to Fawzia’s unhappiness) and if she could never take her child with her, then what choice did she have but to leave Shahnaz behind?
The Return to Egypt
Fawzia returned to Egypt and her former life but she wasn’t happy. Although she’d been the one to ask for a divorce, when it was given to her, she was once again conflicted. She kept up appearances but, on the inside, she reportedly swung between acceptance, resentfulness and despondency. Apparently, she hadn’t thought far ahead to realize that her “freedom” would make her nothing more than a mere princess. The Egyptian Royal Family was huge, numbering approximately 370 members, including ten princes, twenty-seven princesses, and forty-eight members of the nobility. Fawzia was now just another royal princess. But there was something even more alarming than the loss of her position as first lady of the land: she was now under her brother’s thumb. For all that she loved her brother, her “freedom” was now, once again, subject to any politically-motivated marital alliance which he might arrange for her.
Fawzia preempted the possibility of another arranged marriage by quickly marrying Colonel Ismail Husain Shirin Bey, the onetime Minister of War. Perhaps it was the fear of being bartered again, or perhaps it was real love. I’d like to believe it was the latter. Their marriage took place on March 28, 1949 and was very different from her huge State wedding ten years earlier.
Fawzia’s married life was also strikingly different. The woman who had yearned for the European culture and lifestyle, who had missed the glittering, cosmopolitan sophistication of the Egyptian court, and who had never been happy anywhere was surprisingly content to live an ordinary life. Rather than reside in one of the royal palaces, the ex-Queen opted for tranquil existence in Maadi, a suburban enclave of Cairo. There was “no fanfare, no security detail and no motorcades! Simply a stunningly beautiful lady relocating in an unpretentious townhouse, dedicating her free time to a variety of humane charities.” Samir Raafat, “How to massacre a town landmark,” (March 23, 2000) The Cairo Times, at http://www.egy.com/landmarks/00-03-23.shtml.
A year after her marriage, Fawzia gave birth to a girl, Nadia, but any joy or peace which she might have felt was short-lived. Farouk’s extravagant lifestyle, corrupt government, and dissolute behavior caught up with him. In 1952, two years after her new marriage, he was toppled from the throne by the Free Officers Movement. The group consisted of military officers led, in part, by Nasser, the future President whose pan-Arabic, nationalistic actions vis-à-vis the Suez Canal contributed to Cold War tensions and toppled Britain’s Prime Minister, Anthony Eden.
The Free Officers Movement cleverly planned the monarchy’s overthrow in stages because they didn’t wish to alarm the British and trigger any political interference. First, they first deposed Farouk in favour of his infant son. Then, they put the former King on his yacht and sent him to Italy. The minute he set foot on the yacht, he lost all of Egypt. (In fact, the yacht itself remained his only until he disembarked and then that too was taken away!) In the meantime, Farouk’s tiny son (Fuad II) remained King, at least in name. A short while later, after Britain had gotten used to Farouk’s overthrow, even the nominal vestiges of a monarchy was tossed aside, and Egypt became a republic.
Fawzia’s Life after 1952
The King’s favorite sister was not immune from the revolutionary changes. Fawzia was stripped of her title of “Princess” and one of her two modest homes nationalized under the flimsiest of legal excuses. In the space of eleven years, Fawzia went from being: an adored princess of Egypt with endless money at her disposal and a carefree, glamorous life; to being the Queen of Iran; to a princess of Egypt who lived a suburban life with her husband and children; to a commoner who struggled for money in a tiny house. All her other assets were stripped from her. For example, her legendary Van Cleef & Arpels diamond set was taken by the new government which locked them up in a museum along with the rest of the Egyptian crown jewels.
Fawzia and her husband suffered deeply after the revolution. They had little income and a growing family. In 1955, Fawzia gave birth to a son whom they called Muhammed Shirin. See, Christopher Buyers, “Egypt: The Mohammed Ali Dynasty Genealogy,” at http://www.4dw.net/royalark/Egypt/egypt13.htm. If it had not been for the Iranian Royal Family, their plight might have been even more desperate. The Pahlavis not only helped her financially but also arranged for her to make a few visits to see her daughter, Princess Shahnaz, in Switzerland. See, Princess Ashraf, Faces in the Mirror, supra, at 74.
Fawzia’s situation might have improved in 1958 when the young King of Iraq, Faisal, proposed to Princess Shahnaz. Her daughter refused his proposal, yet another unprecedented event in Middle Eastern royal history. It was probably just as well. On July 14, 1958, the 23-year-old Iraqi King was assassinated – along with all of the members of his family and the Prime Minister – during a military coup.
Fawzia’s reaction to her own family’s overthrow is unknown, but King Farouk’s is not. He is well-known for the wry quip, “The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left–the King of England, the King of Spades, The King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds.” Depression may have tinged his pessimistic observation, but it didn’t stop him from continuing in his extravagant lifestyle. His daily meal (at the bare minimum, in the worst of times): involved 10 courses. “His workout: two or three dancers from the chorus.” Lance Morrow, “A Pox on Moderation,” Time Magazine, (July 19, 1999).
King Farouk died in 1965, at the age of 45. Ironically (or perhaps, not so ironically), he keeled over after a particularly gluttonous meal which consisted of, among other things: numerous tablespoons of caviar, dozens of oysters, slabs of roast lamb, beans, lobster thermidor, a cubic meter or so of English trifle, a pound of chocolate, cake, fruit, a magnum of champagne and coffee. Id. See also, “The Royal Yacht, El Emir Farouk,” at http://mypage.direct.ca/l/lowery/farouk.htm; and Stadiem, supra, Too Rich: The High Life and Tragic Death of King Farouk. It should therefore come as no surprise that Farouk died as “one of the fattest kings in history.” Denys Johnson-Davies, supra, at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2001/538/bo2.htm. He weighed over 300 lbs. and, due to his tiny height, resembled an immense, saturnine party balloon with huge curving moustaches. (Those incredible moustaches were, in fact, the inspiration for David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famed Belgian detective.)
As for Fawzia, very little is known about her life or circumstances over the past few decades. Her daughter, Nadia, gave her two grandchildren (one of whom was a girl called Fawzia in her honour), and three great-grandchildren. In later years, the Princess apparently became a recluse but it’s unclear when this began. It might well have been in 1994 when her second husband died. Their marriage had lasted for 45 years, a fact which adds to my hopeful wish that she’d married for love.
While Fawzia’s fate is (quite typically) a mystery, that of her first husband and the Pahlavis is well-known due to the Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis. The Shah was overthrown in 1979 and died in exile in Egypt in 1980. His mother and sisters all outlived him, though the Queen Mother died only a year later. Princess Ashraf is still alive, as is the Shah’s daughter by Princess Fawzia. Princess Shahnaz lives in Switzerland with her second husband and children. She became extremely religious and, at one point, supposedly went so far as to follow the dictates of some minor ayatollah.
How one interprets Princess Fawzia’s life ultimately depends on one’s personal perspective. Her choice to leave Iran, ask for a divorce and give up her child is a testament either to the degree of her unhappiness and lack of choices, or to her selfishness.
In my opinion, the Fawzia who became Queen of Iran was a deeply confused child, who was insecure, somewhat flighty, frivolous and immature. Like many teenagers, she didn’t know what she wanted, only that she couldn’t take a life of obligation and duty in a foreign country. In that way, she was completely unsuited to be Queen but then, what teenager would be? Perhaps if she’d remained Crown Princess for a longer period of time, things might have been different and she’d have eventually grown into the role of Queen. Or perhaps she’d have managed to adapt if Iran had been more like home or if she hadn’t been sabotaged by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law.
It’s impossible to speculate on what might have been, but one thing is certain: the Fawzia who stayed in Egypt after 1952 – in spite of the loss of her status, title, money and security – was a very different woman from the teenager who married the Persian Crown Prince. Gone was the mercurial, tempestuous socialite who didn’t know what she wanted, swung from mood to mood, loved childish games, or danced the night away. In her place was a serious mother of two who rejected the opportunity to join her brother in his jet set, luxurious European exile; who lived a quiet life in a small suburb with few resources or luxuries; who tried to help others through the Red Crescent Society (the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross); and who remained by the side of her husband through 45 years of marriage. The child was no more and in her place was a true lady who accepted what fate, politics and circumstances had dealt her with equanimity and grace. She shunned the spotlight, made no waves, and asked for nothing. It was as though she’d never been the daughter, sister and wife of three different kings.
Botticelli would have been proud. “Venus” had truly risen from the storm and the shell of her life…
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What a fascinating read! Thank you so much for sharing this. I learned about an amazing and amazingliy beautiful woman, and also some history from a part of the world I am not that familiar with. Thank you again!
Awww, your kind words really touch me, Baconbiscuit. I’m so glad you could see some of the mystery and tragedy that I always feel when I think of Princess Fawzia. A Princess, an Empress, then a plain Fawzia, Mrs. Shirin — a remarkable life. I usually focused on writing about the Japanese Imperial Family (particularly the travails of Crown Princess Masako) and sometimes about royal food, but Fawzia always held an enormous fascination for me. I think she was the most beautiful (and tragic) princess who ever lived in modern times. Her beauty was truly haunting, as was the endless sadness in her eyes.
She was absolutely beautiful And her biography is fascinating. Thank you again for the introduction and for sharing her history with us.
Lovely article(s)! Very interesting, and something I knew nothing about so – kudos to you!
Fascinating story of a stunningly beautiful woman.
I don’t blame her for the divorce- I’m betting the Shah would have initiated one in the near future, after ten years with no son. I do blame him for Shahnaz’s unhappy childhood- he could have let her spend more time with her mother, especially after he remarried.
I hope her second marriage was happy.
I really hope so too, Aurora. I also hope that — one day — we will find out what her life was really like and what she herself thought throughout all of those constant ups-and-downs.
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As always a very interesting read Kafka. The Middle East must be the one historic subject I haven´t looked a lot for in general. I didn´t even knew Iran had a monarchy up until now ( I guess they can´t really afford having one now) I only knew about Jordan having a monarchy. Also, the fact that I prefer ancient history overall (18th century and older) doesn´t help for my ignorance about the subject you just covered, and as for Egypt I know a lot about the time of the pharaohs but that is ancient history. The life of this young woman seems very interesting and truly different in many aspects, the time of her as a queen of Iran sounds like a soap opera or like reading about the intrigues of an ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamia kingdom, or even something that would occur in ancient Greece or medieval Europe, it really doesn´t sound like the early 20th century. The life of this lady is impressive since it went from excessive luxury to apparent poverty and what is astonishing to me is that she refused the opportunity to live life in Europe next to the relative luxury her brother could offer her. I really wonder what she thought and if she was ever truly happy in the end or if she ultimately regretted her decisions. Great article 😀 .
She’s such a complete mystery, to me and to others, especially when it comes to the end of her life. Like you, I’d love to know how she saw different parts of her life and what, if anything, she regretted. As for Iran, they had one of the oldest, most long-standing monarchies in the world. Over 2,500 years! Obviously, the revolution changed all that in 1979 and brought about a sharp swerve from Persia’s famed history and often pioneering contributions to science, math, engineering, literature, poetry, etc. It’s a whole other world now but, at one point in the 20th Century, Tehran under the Shah was like the Paris of the Middle East.
I found your blog after the news of the death of Princess Fawzia where sent out by her nephew, King Fuad II. It was fascinating to read more about her life and learning so much more on the Kingdom of Egypt and the Iranian Empire. Thank you very much for the efforts you put into your two articles. Excellent job!
Thank you so much for stopping by. 🙂 I’m very glad you liked the articles. I hope Her Highness is finally at peace now.
I too came to your blog after reading today of the death of Princess Fawzia. Thank you very much for an interesting read.
Welcome, Margaret, and thank you for stopping by. I’m glad you liked the article. I’ve completely stopped writing about history these days (though I still need to transfer over one or two of my articles from the old site), so it’s lovely to have someone actually *read* the old stuff. 🙂 Princess Fawzia was a fascinating woman, wasn’t she? And so exquisite, too!
As you say, Kafkaesque. Princess Fawzia’s life was fascinating indeed. A beautiful enigma. Thank you again for enlightening me about it.
thanx for the beautiful post
Can u pls tell me yr source for the story of Shanaz , I tried to find other sources abut i did not, also I wonder if princess Fawzia visited egypt several times after her marriage or it was only once
I don’t know to which part of Princess Shahnaz’s life you are referring in specific when you ask about her “story,” but I obtained a lot of information from this book mentioned in the article: Asadollah Alam, “The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran’s Royal Court, 1969-1977,” (trans. and ed. by Alinaghi Alikhani),(St. Martins Press, 1992). I hope that helps.
I appretiate yr quick response to my inquiry, Iam Egyptian and Iam very interested in the beautifu princess Fawzia
as for my question on Princess shahnaz, I meant yr info 1…..that she was hippie,dated a lover , tried to commit suicide,her father gave her the 3 choices , so I wonder where did u get all of that from
2…..also is this book u mentioned , available online ?
3…..did shah of iran wrote memories on princess Fawzia ?
and is it available online or do u know what he said on her?
4…..why did the shah insist that Fawzia leave her daughter in iran and not to accompany her to egypt?
5….do u believe the romers that king Farouk get some news that Fawzia have a lover , as stated in the book of karim thabet, divorce of an impress
6….i like to know from u
the real reasons of her divorce from the shah
did her mother accompany her during her honey moon in tahran
is it true princess fawzia returned to egypt several times after marriage or it was only once
9….how was the life in tehran different for her that lead to such feeling, i read yr post but are there any photos showing that clear difference
10….did queen nazli visit her daughter and forind her in a bad condition ?
11 Most important question < is it true that the shah dated other women while married to princess fawzia and
did her really love her?
i know i have many questions but i hope u can answer them
thanx a lot for yr work
The information comes from the Alam book. I do not know if you can still find it or if it is available for purchase online. To the best of my knowledge, the Shah did not write memoirs or talk about Princess Fawzia.
As for your other questions, several of the answers are in the Alam book as well as the other sources that I have listed. I have not reread them in more than a decade, and do not remember the finer points of small details like things about Queen Nazli, how many times Fawzia went back to Egypt during her marriage, etc. It’s been more than a decade since I wrote about history of any kind, particularly Princess Fawzia, so I do not feel comfortable answering your questions and based on distant memory. This site is primarily about perfume, I’m afraid. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help. Hopefully, you can find the books and sources that I have cited, and you will obtain the answers that you seek.
thnx again for yr quick response
can u guide me to a link of memories of shah sister Ashraf ?
u stated the difference between iran and egypt < is there any reference i can look at this info in details ?
As I stated earlier, I can only point you to the books, links, references, or sites given in the post. It has been more than 10 years since I wrote the post. This was all too long ago in the past for me, and I can’t even look up further sources in my books because they are all in storage. Even when I was involved with historical stuff, my primary area of focus was on Nazi history or the Japanese, not Egyptian or Persian royal history. I am not a specialist in this area and, again, I only write about perfume now. I am sorry, I have no further information for you. I really wish I could be of more help, but I can’t. Best of luck in your search and endeavors.
Thank you for such a fantastic and compassionate read. I liked how you humanise the Princess. I hope she had a happy ending with her family and it is a shame that her first born was so neglected. But I feel from the way you described, staying with her first husband would have meant being constantly bullied by her inlaws – which would have been terrible for her daughter to witness. So maybe it was better for all of them to separate that way or they probably would have tried to turn the daughter against the mother which would have made the sacrifice all for nothing
I hope they all found their peace and happiness in the end.