Written by Nayera Yasser and featured in the October 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.
The great granddaughter of Queen Nazli, artist Amina El-Demirdash remembers Eqypt’s last royal family.
“Sitting in my workspace, I am surrounded by women I have only started to sketch over the past few years. I tie my hair up into a loose bun and stare at one lady, and then another. My thoughts wander as I look at my family members; heroes I have always wanted to meet. I set my canvas and brushes in place and start drawing the outlines of a new leading star. She comes to life at her own pace. I introduce myself to her. ‘Hello, new friend. I am an artist, the great-granddaughter of Egyptian Queen Nazli and granddaughter of Princess Faika.’
The months leading up to my first exhibition at Zamalek Art Gallery in Cairo quickly unfold. With every date that I cross off the calendar, my foremothers’ history becomes more vivid. I remember the day, in my late teens, when my parents sat me down along with my siblings to tell us about the monarchy that ruled Egypt. My great grandmother, Nazli Sabri (1894-1978), was King Fuad’s second wife and the first queen of Egypt, until King Faud’s death in 1936. Together, their authority stretched over Egypt, Sudan, the Sovereign of Nubia, Kordofan, and Darfur. She had five children: Prince Farouk (who would become king), Princess Fawzia (who became Queen of Iran and was the first wife of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), Princess Faiza, Princess Faika (my grandmother), and Princess Fathia. I recall taking a few moments to grasp the reality of the relation between myself and the family that existed in many pictures scattered throughout our home. Even though I awoke every day to images of Queen Nazli surrounded by her children, I never gave them much thought, until my friends started to enquire.
I grew up in a house that valued education and rejected dependence on family names and connections. Born years after my grandmother’s final days and decades after my great-grandmother’s time, I know very little about my family and the women who once dominated the front pages. As an artist, their collections of paintings and sculptures are the one thing I spend hours researching. Art is my instinctive way to meet them, learn their preferences, and even relive a historical moment with them. After the 1952 Egyptian revolution, my family was exiled and dispersed throughout many countries.
Accordingly, details about my grandmothers and their lives before the 1950s have always been something of a jigsaw puzzle.
My great-aunt Fawzia and grandmother Faika refused to leave Egypt. The sisters were allowed to each keep a house and use its belongings during their lifetimes. After their passing, both properties were obtained by the government. Inside my grandmother’s home were many Mahmoud Sa’id paintings, as he was Farida Zulficar’s uncle and she was King Farouk’s first wife. My great-aunt Fawzia had a portrait of a local lady drawn by Sa’id that always caught my eye during our visits.
Now, during my daily Vespa rides between the art gallery and my workspace, I can almost hear Fawzia’s soft and fragile voice narrating stories of her world before the 1950s. As the one ancestor whom I met, my memories of my time at her house in Alexandria comes back to me in waves. My grandmother passed away at the age of 54, without me having had the chance to talk with her even once. After years of conversing with her pictures, I took the leap and went to visit what used to be her home. My mother refused to walk through its doors without her in it, and so my father led me through the rooms. Although it was already a school for ballet and art, my father could still imagine each detail in his mind. With a wide smile, he pointed to one spot and told me that he proposed to my mother there as he recalled further memories of their early days as an engaged couple.
Every time my father helped me decipher a fragment of who my grandmother was, her pictures appeared to whisper to me once more and the three items of hers that were passed on to me began to feel more intimate. Hidden in my wardrobe is my grandmother’s brown fur coat featuring a discreet embroidery of the family coat of arms. It needs mending, but I do not have the heart to let anyone toy with it. Her favorite charm bracelet and the ring she designed for my mother are kept inside a jewelry box. My grandfather gave her this bracelet and she would add a charm to it from each country they visited together. It carries many – some that resemble the world’s greatest monuments, and a few local tokens such as miniatures of old passports. Scared that one charm will fall off, and a part of their history lost forever, I have worn it only four times. I do slip on the ring every now and then. It displays a portrait of King Fuad engraved on a coin that is surrounded by an art deco frame.
I have lost the fur coat’s matching hat. I was devastated and this led me to think of how my great-grandmother must have felt when she had to part with so many of her beloved jewels. Queen Nazli was already in California, living in a small apartment with my great-aunt Faitha, when the revolution occurred. At one point, the jewelry represented the mother and daughter’s only means of survival. They had to sell it before going to bankruptcy court.
Two years ago, an auction was held to resell some of her jewelry, and I took great interest in asking my family about the pieces. It was then that my uncle sent me a picture of her wearing the famous diamond Van Cleef & Arpels necklace in an official portrait. I could not see the details clearly; however, he told me that it was made for her daughter’s wedding. Instantly imagined the significance it held for her.”