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The tragic life of Nazli Sabri, Sultana and Queen of Egypt

The tragic life of Nazli Sabri, Sultana and Queen of Egypt

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Culture History

Monday 4 December 202304:22 pm
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مأساة نازلي صبري... أم الملك فاروق؛ سلطانة مصر وملكتها

The news of her passing barely made a ripple in Arab newspapers. 'Nazli Sabri, mother of King Farouk, and Egypt's once-revered Queen, died on May 29, 1978 in voluntary exile in the United States'. It was a brief note, a mere few lines, overshadowed by headlines of then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel and the imminent signing of the Camp David Agreement in September 1978.

The Queen died far from Egypt, the land she left on her own accord some three decades earlier, and was buried in a Christian cemetery after converting from Islam and adopting the name Mary Elizabeth.

Many Arab and foreign historians have not paid much attention to her story, which has often taken a backseat to that of her son, King Farouk, and his abdication during the Free Officers' Revolution in 1952. Yet, the real drama is found in the life of Queen Nazli, not King Farouk, who was spared by the Free Officers and faced a different fate to that of Iraq's King Faisal II, or the mass slaughter that claimed the lives of Nicholas II and his entire family during the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

Until the 2007 television series ‘King Farouk’ (‘El Malek Farouk’) aired, there was little regional and Arab interest in his mother, Queen Nazli. The series, directed by the late Syrian Hatem Ali and starring Syrian actor Taim Hasan as King Farouk and Egyptian actress Wafaa Amer as Queen consort Nazli Sabri, brought the Queen's story to light.

Queen Nazli died far away from Egypt, the land she left on her own accord some three decades earlier. Her final resting place is in a Christian cemetery, after she converted from Islam and adopted the name Mary Elizabeth

Leaving Egypt

The turning point in Nazli's life came in 1947, when she chose to seek treatment for her chronic kidney failure in Europe. After obtaining permission to travel from her son, King Farouk, Queen Nazli traveled to Switzerland and France accompanied by her personal physician and her daughters, Princess Fawzia, 20, and Fathia, 16.

It later became evident that she was determined this journey would be a one-way trip, as evidenced by her packing all of her jewelry, as much cash as possible, and the royal documents detailing the extensive properties and lands she had inherited from her Turkish grandfather, Sherif Pasha, who had served as the Foreign Minister under Muhammad Ali Pasha in the first half of the 19th century.

Her father, Abdul Rahim Sabri Pasha, was also a notable figure, and served as the Minister of Agriculture and Governor of Cairo during the royal era. There were many reasons behind her decision to finally leave Egypt, primarily the disdain she felt for the Egyptian royal family, which began in 1919 when she entered it as the young wife of Prince Fuad I.

Sultana Nazli, wife of Fuad I

When Nazli Sabri married Fuad I and became Queen of Egypt, people called it a fairy tale. Behind closed doors, it was a horror story. Fuad was not the man of her dreams; he was twenty-six years Nazli’s senior and lacked the cultural sophistication that she had gained from her French education at French private schools and the French Collège Notre Dame in Alexandria.

This marriage marked her second; Nazli had been briefly married to her Turkish cousin Khaled Sabri. Their union lasted 11 months. After that, she lived for a time in the home of the Egyptian leader Saad Zaghloul Pasha, the former Prime Minister of Egypt. It was here that she met his nephew through his wife Safiya Zaghloul, known as "the Mother of Egyptians". The young man proposed to her, and the engagement took place, but their relationship did not end in marriage, after he was exiled with his uncle during the revolution against the British.

Prince Fuad was also emerging from a failed marriage with Princess Shivakiar, the granddaughter of Ibrahim Pasha, and remained single for twenty years after their divorce. Despite the attention he received during this time from many women – foreigners, Turks, Arabs – Prince Fuad did not consider remarrying, until he laid eyes on Nazli for the first time at the Cairo Opera House. Captivated by Nazli, Prince Fuad decided to marry her and have a son, an heir to the throne of the Egyptian kingdom, since he had only one daughter from his first wife.

Upon marrying, Nazli moved into the Abbasid Palace, where she remained until the birth of Farouk, the crown prince, on February 11, 1920. After Fuad ascended the throne, succeeding Sultan Hussein Kamel in 1917, Nazli became Sultana of Egypt, and later, after Fuad became King Fuad I in 1922, she became Queen.

Queen Nazli considered herself far more cultured and intellectually superior to King Fuad. Whereas Queen Nazli had a French education and spoke multiple languages, King Fuad had a military upbringing, and knew little about culture or the arts.

However, palace life did not enchant her, nor did the titles bestowed upon her. Nazli felt like a prisoner in the Qubba Palace, and nothing connected her to her husband except his desire for a male heir. She complained of his neglect and at times harsh and excessive treatment, including physical and emotional abuse. Queen Nazli considered herself far more cultured and intellectually superior to King Fuad. Whereas Queen Nazli had a French education and spoke multiple languages, King Fuad had a military upbringing, and knew little about culture or the arts.

The King prevented his wife from engaging in any royal duties, and restricted her activities to women-only receptions within palace walls. Yet, she aspired to a broader societal role akin to the queens of Europe. This restriction may have stemmed from Fuad's jealousy of his wife and the admiration she received from foreigners for her eloquence, especially after their joint trip to France in 1927 where Nazli stole the attention of Parisian newspapers, making headlines instead of the king.

The Queen Mother

It is said that Queen Nazli did not shed a single tear when King Fuad passed away on April 28, 1936, leaving her son Farouk to ascend the throne of Egypt. Nazli was forty-two years old when she became a widow, and her title became 'The Queen Mother'.

Her relationship with Farouk was no better than that with his father, characterized by strain and estrangement. King Farouk was embarrassed by his mother's actions, due to her flirtations and love affairs, and particularly by her rumored relationship with Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, Chief of the Royal Court. He subsequently attempted to prevent her from appearing in public. The Queen Mother’s rumored love affair was tabloid fodder, and the talk of Cairo society, as she was pit against the Syrian singer Asmahan, who had also been romantically involved with Hassanein Pasha.

The Queen Mother’s relationship with her son was no better than that with his father. King Farouk was embarrassed by his her flirtations, particularly her rumored relationship with Chief of Royal Court Ahmed Pasha, a story that became the talk of Cairo society

On February 19, 1946, Hassanein Pasha was killed in a car accident on the Qasr El Nil Bridge while returning to his home in al-Duqqi neighborhood. Rumors circulated that it was a staged accident orchestrated by King Farouk. This tragedy marked the final straw in the already strained relationship between Nazli and her son. Just a few months later, she traveled to Europe for medical treatment and severed communication with her son.

After she underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic in the United States, King Farouk attempted to contact his mother but she did not respond. But after King Farouk was dethroned in 1952, Nazli tried reaching out to him in a phone call, but he hung up on her. Farouk believed that Nazli's actions contributed to public resentment towards him and his rule, especially after hearing protesters chant: “Oh Farouk, you old relic... Go get your mother from America.” He was also saddened by statements his mother made in an interview with The New York Times after the July 1952 revolution, in which she attributed the coup in Egypt to the actions and transgressions of the ruling family.

From Beverly Hills to living on charity

Despite everything that had transpired, Nazli’s heart was broken upon learning of her son’s death on March 18, 1965. Despite her serious illness and old age, Nazli traveled from her residence in Los Angeles to Rome, to attend his funeral. By that time, Nazli lived in Beverly Hills, among Hollywood’s glitterati, in a villa she purchased for herself, for $63,000.

Queen Nazli's fortune dissipated after her son-in-law Riad Ghali squandered it away. His marriage to her daughter Princess Fathia ended in divorce, before Ghali killed the princess with 6 gunshots to the head, leaving the Queen lonely, grieving, and in despair

By the 1970s, Queen Nazli’s once considerable fortune had largely dissipated. Riad Ghali, husband of her youngest daughter Princess Fathia, had gained complete control over his mother-in-law’s fortune in her later years. He mismanaged and wasted her money and assets, leading to her bankruptcy in 1974. She was forced to sell her homes in Beverly Hills and Hawaii, as well as her collection of precious jewelry in auction at Sotheby's, marking the end of an era.

She held Ghali responsible for her financial woes, and in 1973, his marriage to Princess Fathia ended in court and divorce due to his wreckless management of the family’s wealth. In December 1976, Ghali killed Princess Fathia with six gunshots to the head. In an already tragic life, Nazli was left bankrupt and in despair, alone and grieving for her murdered daughter.

Nazli moved from Beverly Hills to a modest studio apartment in the impoverished Westwood neighborhood, and relied on government food stamps to eat, drink, and survive. All regal titles fell away, and she only heard the words "Your Majesty" from some Egyptians who sympathized with her and offered occasional support.

In the words of writer Rawiya Rashed, the author of 'Nazli, Malika Fi El Manfa' (Nazli, A Queen in Exile), "The texture of the silk she used to sleep on as the Queen of Egypt became rough linen. The outfits specially brought to her from renowned international fashion houses were replaced by a simple cotton robe. The once radiant candles that used to light up her surroundings and path wherever she went were extinguished, leaving only darkness where she sat alone, awaiting the inevitable embrace of death."

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