In 2006 Aida Takla and I embarked on a journey that seemed perfectly innocent at the time but quickly became an adventure of discovery quite beyond what either of us could have imagined.
Aida is originally from Egypt. When we started this project, she was just retiring from her position as President of Trinity College of Graduate Studies in Fullerton. She had already enjoyed a distinguished career in the University of California system as a professor and Dean and had for many years been a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
I was at the time, a gardener with a background in Music and Art history. Starting in High School in the early 70’s, or perhaps earlier (who can remember that far back?), I found myself increasingly drawn to lost cultural causes like Early Music, Performance Art and Landscape Gardening.
We met and become friends through our shared interest in film and our peripheral positions relative to ‘The Industry’. I had moved to Los Angeles in 2001 from Martha’s Vineyard, intending to carry on my career in Landscape Design.
Aida moved here from Egypt in the early ’50’s to attend UCLA as an undergrad. Once here an amazing thing happened. There was at that time a relatively small Egyptian community in Los Angeles that was growing steadily in consequence of the 1952 coup d’etat that overthrew King Farouk and the monarchy in Egypt.
For completely unrelated reasons a branch of the Egyptian Royal Family had already settled here in 1950. At the head of this significant branch of the family was Nazli, Queen Mother of Egypt, being the mother of King Farouk, who had before that been Sultana and Queen of Egypt in her own right since 1918. With her was her daughter, King Farouk’s youngest sister, Princess Fathiya. The Princess had just married a Coptic commoner, Riad Ghali, and they were settling into their lives as newlyweds in a comfortable Beverly Hills mansion.
The substance of their story will come later, the point here is that through this small community of Egyptian emigrants Aida came to know the Royal Family and they became close, intimate friends. As Aida graduated and married, the families merged seamlessly. As children were born, each respectively stood as Godparents and the children were raised together and their lives and personal histories became intertwined.
So it was only natural when Aida or her daughter, Dominique, would have dinner parties or family gatherings Rayed Ghali, Princess Fathiya’s second son, would be in attendance. At these gatherings Aida and Rayed would share with me stories from their past, sensational stuff that had me hanging on every word and pressing for ever more details.
I was aghast! How was it that none of this rich material was known, and what were they going to do with it? Who was Queen Nazli, referred to affectionately as simply, ‘Nana’? Who was this Princess Faiza, Fathiya’s older sister, who was so glamorous and mysterious? How did Princess Shams, the younger sister of the Shah of Iran, figure into all this?
My mind was racing trying to piece it all together. The personal recollections of Aida and Rayed were all event-based, scenes from their lives, beyond that they really couldn’t reconstruct all the context. I was constantly getting confused by all the unfamiliar names and dates and wasn’t getting the whole picture. So it came to a point where I had to stop and say, “ok, if you guys aren’t going to write this, I will.” Ha! …more innocent words were never spoke!
The three of us embarked on a process of trying to map out the timelines and relationships of the main characters. We started collecting any and every book ever published on the family and talking with anyone having any relationship to or knowledge of the subject. Since the Los Angeles branch of the royal family was just the tip of the iceberg and so recently arrived, the bulk of the story was back in Egypt. So we went to Egypt and, with the help of Aida’s family there, met with scholars and government ministers and visited the places where our protagonists had lived and ruled.
It was on this, our first trip to Egypt, that I discovered the answer to my first question; why didn’t anyone know anything about this family and their story? The answer was painfully clear everywhere you went, anywhere you looked or asked questions or even talked about the family.
The government that took power after King Farouk went into exile in Italy in 1952 had systematically and quite literally, chipped the cartouche of Farouk’s family, the Mohamed Ali Dynasty, off the history of the country.
There was no past for Queen Nazli or her kin. There was a wary longing and nostalgia for those times, but any factual knowledge was absent or so closely guarded it would be shared only in whispered tones and furtive looks.
As an American, I found this unimaginable. Once I started to piece the whole picture together, it was much easier for me to understand the poverty, the congestion and the general mayhem that prevailed in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. This was a country cast adrift, tethered only to a tenuous connection to an ancient, disassociated, far distant past. The analogy that kept coming to mind was that of ‘Mother Nature hates a vacuum’. It was like a fertile field, when stripped of its ordered rows of crops and left neglected, becomes host to noxious weeds, pestilence and chaos.
It was becoming clear from these early investigations into the Dynasty that had ruled Egypt from around 1800 until its end in 1952, that this was not a family of saints. There was much, in their behavior and modes of governing, that was truly bizarre and indefensible. Yet, through it all they had taken Egypt from what was little more than an outpost of the Ottoman Empire to its position as the dominant cultural and industrial center of Africa and the Middle East. To just erase this period of growth and ‘formation’, despite its flaws, to me, was just inconceivable.
The point was driven home to me when I was having a conversation with a couple of privileged, high school aged kids in Alexandria. We were talking about my fascination with the history of the Royal Family and they admitted to knowing very little about it. They were convinced that King Farouk was a drunk and a womanizer, and that his regime was just totally corrupt and repressive. I was shocked. Everything I had read, though much of it did describe him thus, was leading me to draw a completely different profile of the man and ruler. Their mother was present and asserted that she had been taught the same things when she was in school in the ’60’& ’70’s, and still, to some extent, believed this. That would be two generations of Egyptians who had been deprived of the facts about the history of their nation. This led to their talking more generally about their dissatisfaction with conditions in Egypt and the dangerous atmosphere of intolerance towards Christians and foreigners, so I asked, well, how did they imagine Egypt’s future, how would they change things if they could? This query was met with a blank stare. “What do you mean?” they asked. They had known nothing but the Mubarak regime and this pervasive sense of hopelessness, where things would never change, it would just always be like this.
Wow, I couldn’t imagine a bright, young person like this not having some vision of a future that might be better if certain conditions were to change, some aspiration to prosper, a state of grace, the pursuit of happiness….
All obvious external comparisons aside, for indeed, the birth of the United States is only about forty years older than the formation of the modern Egyptian state, the internal growth of this new nation had held great promise for Egypt. Where the United States had been, to some extent, cut from whole cloth, Egypt was born out of reform of already existing systems of law and governance.
I couldn’t help but see a connection between this young person’s lack of hope for a better future and the absence of a national history. It was like a kind of collective amnesia; if you don’t know where you’ve been how can you know what is possible in the future?
This, then, became a mission. Where we had started with the objective of telling the story of Nazli and Fathiya, which is still a compelling and sensational drama, now presented itself as the necessity of producing a documentary on the Dynasty and the emergence of a modern industrialized state.
(continued in ELD – Part 2)