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Birth of a princess
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 07 - 2006


Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (649)
Birth of a princess
Less than 10 months had passed since the marriage of the young man sitting on Egypt's throne, Farouk I, when news spread of the imminent arrival of the first of the new king's progeny. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk sees how the news was received
King Farouk had not yet turned 19, while his young wife, Queen Farida, was only slowly advancing towards the celebration of her 17th year of age when Al-Ahram informed its readers in its 11 November edition of the same year of their marriage (1938) of the expected arrival of their first newborn. And while everyone awaited the arrival of the "felicitous birth" that was regarded as auspicious, their hopes were pinned on the child being male for political more than emotional reasons.
From one perspective, the royal edict issued on 13 April 1922 regarding the "system of inheritance in the House of Mohamed Ali" regulated the transfer of the rule of the king "from the lord of the throne to his oldest son and then to the oldest son of that oldest son and so on, generation after generation. If the oldest son passes away before kingship is transferred to him, rule is handed to the oldest remaining son, if the deceased had brothers. In all cases, it is stipulated that the sons be borne by a legitimate wife. In the case of there being no sons, Article 3 provides for the throne to be ascended by the oldest son of the other brothers, if not by the oldest of those brothers according to their order among the siblings. Article 5 barred women, regardless of their standing in the ranks of siblings, from assuming monarchical rule.
In light of this, there is no doubt that the young king and the mother queen, Nazli, dreamed of a male newborn that would put an end to the ambitions of those striving to gain the throne, at the head of whom was Prince Mohamed Ali Tawfiq. His hopes of this were kindled by him being the oldest son in the Mohamed Ali family, in addition to his extensive wealth and good relations with the British embassy. He was also a member of the regency council following the death of King Fouad and until Farouk assumed his constitutional powers (from 8 May 1936 to 29 July 1937). Further fanning his hopes was his being declared the crown prince after the new king assumed his constitutional powers.
From another perspective, with the exception of one male child King Fouad bore with his first wife Princess Shweikar and that died as a small child, the late king produced a litter of girls -- Fawqia from his first wife, and then Fawzia, Fayza, Fayqa, and Fathiya, Farouk's sisters. There was no doubt fear in Abdin Palace, particularly for the queen mother, that it would be a case of like father, like son.
In rejoice over the newborn and hope that their wishes for it not be dashed, preparations began to welcome it into the world. Al-Ahram recorded lengthy and curious details on this: an endeavour to clothe impoverished elementary school students, a military parade in which two army battalions would march though the capital's main roads, and "at 6, the evening following the announcement of the good news, the Salaheddin Citadel tower will receive a word from the commander of the guard in the palace and the cannons will fire a salutation to the felicitous newborn. If it is a male, the cannons will be fired 101 times, and if it is a female, 41 times. Cannons from Al-Silsila citadel tower will also be fired at the same time." Egyptians waited for the day of the cannons in anticipation in order to count the number of shots they would fire.
The Alexandria municipality also decided, in celebration of this happy occasion, to distribute cloth to 7,000 impoverished individuals and to invite 10,000 poor people to breakfast in the city's popular restaurants, as well as to "set up electrical decorations at the municipality headquarters and the stock market, and to set off fireworks on the seventh day."
This was all in addition to other acts of goodwill. In the royal printing press, it was decided to bring back half of the workers dismissed during the riots of September. The press administration also decided to publish a special issue of the Egyptian Official Gazette and to distribute it among all government ministries and agencies in Cairo and the provinces "ornamented with a photograph of Their Royal Majesties."
Ahmed Shafiq Pasha, a long-time palace man, grasped the opportunity to present in Al-Ahram an expressive social portrait of what he called "birth celebrations in Egypt," especially of the ruling family.
He began with the celebrations held by ordinary families, in which midwives undertook the birth procedures for their women. "On the seventh day following the birth, the midwife bathes the mother and child, and the women of the family and the mother's female friends all come. Alexandrian candles are lit by children, and the mother is paraded with the midwife and newborn, circling the rooms of the home and burning incense. Then the midwife produces seven different kinds of seeds and chants spells over them, using incantations to protect the child against the evil eye. After that a mortar is beaten with a pestle and they tell the child 'listen to your mother and don't listen to your father.' Then hot cups of mughat and caraway are distributed among the female visitors and the celebration of the seventh day comes to an end."
Haj Ahmed Shafiq, as he called himself in his late life, then turned to a description of such celebrations in the royal family. He had spent a long life in Abdin Palace during the reign of Khedive Abbas II, but admitted that he possessed little information on the holding of celebrations during the reign of Khedive Ismail. According to him, the ministers and top officials would rush to the palace upon the news of a birth to offer their congratulations, and the Egyptian Official Gazette would publish a number of poems in its unofficial section.
He gave attention to the birth of Abbas, the son of Tawfiq, noting that sacrifices were slain, the Holy Quran was recited, and that Khedive Tawfiq received congratulations from his father, the disposed Khedive Ismail and the remaining members of the royal family. On the seventh day following his birth, tables were spread in the palace and his mother came out of her chamber for the first time since the childbirth to thank her female visitors.
The birth of Prince Abdel-Moneim, the crown prince to Abbas II, in Alexandria on 20 February 1899, was an occasion for a massive celebration. "The top men of the palace rushed to fulfil their duty of congratulations." There was a hospice and mosque at Montazah Palace, "and the Holy Quran was recited in them, sacrifices were slain and distributed among the poor, and all the princes' palaces were ornamented."
The scope of such celebrations was magnified the day Prince Farouk was born. The sultan's guard played music in Abdin Square and Fouad donated LE10,000 to be distributed among the poor in Cairo, Alexandria and the provinces. An order was issued to free all prisoners who had served three-quarters of their sentences.
Yet it is noteworthy in all of these occasions that such celebrations were held for first-born males, in consideration of their being the crown prince. None were held for females.
In any case, Egyptians anticipated the expected day, which arrived on Thursday, 17 November 1938. Residents of Cairo and Alexandria stood on the roads listening to the number of cannon shots to learn the details of the birth. One, two, three, four, until they reached 41 and stopped. Egyptians then knew that a girl, and not a boy, had been born, and that the male who would take the post of crown prince away from Prince Mohamed Ali Tawfiq had not yet arrived.
AL-AHRAM CONFIRMED THIS FACT the next day when it published on its front page a "noble royal edict announcing the birth of Princess Ferial". Its text read as follows:
"Your Excellency the Prime Minister, may God Almighty be praised for that with which He has graciously blessed us. He granted us, in the first minute of the fourth hour of the blessed evening of Thursday, 25 Ramadan, Islamic year 1357, correspondent to 8 in the evening on 17 November 1938, in the Montazah Palace, a newborn we have named Ferial."
"We have thus issued this edict to Your Excellency to announce to the body of our government this glad news, to assure that a special register is kept with the presidency of the council, to publicise it in all corners of the Kingdom, to announce it to the men of our army, to officially inform those you deem should be informed, and to do everything that must be done on this happy occasion."
Following an eloquent statement, as was part of the newspaper's character, Al-Ahram published commentary on the occasion. It began the following day with publishing news of the celebrations under the bold headline "God bless the arrival of the newborn and grant its family everlasting happiness." This news included Farouk travelling to Alexandria by plane, the firing of the cannons, the flocking of congratulatory delegations to Abdin and Ras Al-Tin palaces, and the firing of rockets.
The first thing people were preoccupied with was the name of the newborn, Ferial. While Farouk followed the policy of his father in selecting the letter "f" as the first in the names of the children in his family as he had found it auspicious, and despite Fouad's mother herself having been called Ferial, it was not a common name among Egyptians at that time. This led many Al-Ahram readers to search for the name's origins, and they took several approaches in this.
The very day following the announcement of the birth, Al-Ahram wrote that in addition to the name's meanings of hope, light, and good tidings, "by fortunate coincidence, it also has a charming meaning in French. The word 'ferial' is a derivative of 'ferie' meaning a feast holiday, when the ancient Romans took a break and offered sacrifices and held games."
Following that, successive interpretations of the matter were offered. Mustafa Aziz of the Ministry of Finance said it was a wholly Persian word and yet had another meaning according to the Treasure of Languages Dictionary. There it consisted of two parts, the first being "fer," meaning grace, dignity, noble, or adornment, and the second being "yal," meaning family. "The meaning of 'ferial' is the family of grace, nobility and splendour." Qadri Abdel-Azim wrote that it was a Turkish word corrupted from the word "finaz", meaning "light" according to modern Turkish dictionaries and used to denote lanterns. Mohamed Fawzi Bey from Heliopolis wrote that it was a Persian-Turkish word, its first half being Persian and meaning light and brightness, and its second half being Turkish and also meaning brightness and radiance. Mohamed Tawfiq from the Alexandria governorate traced the name to an Italian origin, writing, "It is a word pronounced by the residents of Trieste who call lampposts 'feral' and is listed in Italian dictionaries as meaning illumination and radiance."
Yet the strangest of such interpretations was published in the 15 December issue of Al-Ahram under the title "The word Ferial -- is it of Sudanese origin?" This was a short article in which its author wrote that a letter had been sent to him from someone who stated that they had worked for a long time in southern Sudan and that the Dinka tribes named their girls Ferial. However, he admitted that this did not reveal the origin of the name.
Among the most prominent items published by Al-Ahram in the following days were poems printed in nearly every issue. Let us select one written by the famous poet Ali El-Garim Bey. It occupied half of page three in Al-Ahram 's 23 November issue, and opened with the following verse:
Between awareness of wishes and dreams of fancies,
poetry soars in the heavens of beauty.
It flies, fluttering its wings,
over the shores of years past.
It notices time crawling out of the cradle
with braids of night.
History brushes the veil away from its eye,
and it dives into the generations.
He closed the poem with the following verse:
The cradle holds a magnificent pearl,
the pride of grandfathers and uncles.
Egypt, with all of its eyes and hearts,
draws on the light of Ferial.
Congratulations, Queen of the Nile,
What precious wishes you have brought to the Nile.
Congratulations, beloved King of Egypt,
You have obtained -- and I thank God -- the best.
May you and the princess live long, secure lives
so as to commit noble and good deeds.
This was also the first time there was a media celebration for such an occasion on the government radio station that had been opened four years earlier, shortly before the death of King Fouad. It held an appropriate celebration in the Opera House that was opened with Sheikh Mohamed Rifaat reciting the Qur'an. Afterwards, the royal music troupe played "The felicitous princess opening" composed by Medhet Assem. Um Kolthoum also took part in the concert, singing two songs "and was outstanding as she always is in her performance and her fine singing."
Mohamed Hussein Heikal, the minister of education, participated in the concert with a lengthy speech. In it, he said, "I am highly optimistic about Princess Ferial, and strongly hope that her birth, childhood, youth, and blessed life have the greatest effect on Egypt, thanks to her two illustrious parents and the noble family of Mohamed Ali." As though he wanted to lighten the fact that the newborn was female, he mentioned that the princesses of the Mohamed Ali family had left a positive and lasting influence on life in Egypt. "It is my good fortune to point out some of the influence they have had on Egypt's scientific life that the Ministry of Education continues, and always will, to take pride in. You will see that I draw my optimism from a tangible reality our youth witness when they graduate with advanced science degrees from our university, Fouad I University, which overcame its severest periods of wretchedness through the splendid gift granted to it by Princess Fatima Ismail."
The most curious aspect of the celebration was the decision of the Ministry of Religious Endowments to offer a financial award to every family that gave birth on that same day. The total number was 1,700 families, and the award was a full Egyptian pound, which they very happily accepted.
Another novel aspect was the participation of the Railway Authority in the occasion by reducing railway travel costs by 50 per cent to enable those wishing to celebrate "the seventh day following the birth of Her Royal Highness Princess Ferial to travel to Cairo and take part in the occasion."
A final amusing aspect to the celebrations was one that often takes place on such occasions -- grasping the opportunity to advertise sluggish stock. The shop of Emile Henrish and his partners did this when it invited Egyptians to participate in the manifestations of joy "by possessing one of the official medallions that bear the date of the felicitous royal wedding, 20 January 1938."
IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE for the occasion to have passed without acquiring a political flavour as a result of the conflict ongoing between the Wafd Party and the government led by Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha and supported personally by King Farouk. This can be surmised through reading between the lines of Al-Ahram.
Firstly, it can be concluded through the weak participation of the Wafdist press in the celebration of the occasion. The most significant newspaper that took interest was Al-Muqattam, which published a lengthy article titled "Greetings to the royal princess and welcome to her felicitous arrival". Al-Dostour, the mouthpiece of the Saadists, participated by stating that the nation, ever since these good tidings grew near, "has every day anticipated hearing them and has been longing for the hour in which they are announced." As for Al-Balagh, an old Wafdist newspaper that at that time had joined the palace ranks, it rejoiced by saying, "The star of Princess Ferial has risen, with her luminous face glimmering like the full moon, predicting a happy life."
Secondly, it can be concluded that the Wafd Party did not want, officially at least, to fall behind in participating in the "royal rejoicing" after it had been remiss over celebrating Farouk's marriage. This participation took the form of a telegram sent to the chief master of ceremonies, asking him to offer "sincere congratulations to Their Illustrious Royal Majesties for the felicitous birth of Her Royal Highness Princess Ferial, with whom God has pleased the eyes of her most honourable parents, making her felicitous birth an auspicious sign of good fortune and blessings upon the noble Egyptian nation and the venerable royal family."
The royal response was extremely short, and in fact insulting, for it was only a sentence long: "I sincerely thank you for your congratulations on the occasion of the birth of my daughter, Ferial." It stood in strong contrast to the royal response to a similar telegram sent by Prime Minister Mohamed Mahmoud that read, "We gladly welcomed your eloquent telegram on the occasion of the birth of my daughter Ferial, and I extend my warm thanks and best wishes to you and your colleagues. I pray that God makes this blessed birth a sign of good fortune for the accomplishment of all the wishes of prosperity and greatness I hold for my beloved people."
On the other hand, the British authorities were keen to participate in the occasion to affirm that they were dedicated to carrying out the spirit of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Following consultations between the ministries of foreign affairs and war with the ambassador's headquarters in the Egyptian capital, it was decided that the English forces would participate in the military parade that would take place in celebration of the occasion. Neither King Farouk nor the government of Mohamed Mahmoud could object to this request from Sir Miles Lampson.
This participation turned out to be a show of force by the allied state, as can be concluded by the descriptions in Al-Ahram 's 19 November issue. Orders "were issued to the British forces to move. There was a camp on Al-Sheikh Rihan Street composed of 45 light tanks, a battery of large field cannons pulled by private vehicles and motorcycles, followed by divisions of engineers and the signal-corps, then a battalion of infantrymen armed with rifles and bayonets."
The Egyptian government attempted to compensate for the British participation in the parade with all of its insulting connotations by increasing the participation of the Egyptian forces whose turn came after that of the allied forces. They began with a line of defensive arms composed of 87 cannons of various sizes and forms, some pulled by tractors and others tied to or carried on cars rather than pulled by mules. "The strict order with which these arms were displayed caught the attention of the ministers and English officers, and praise for their commander was unanimous."
Al-Ahram added that this was followed by the arms of the royal engineering corps, which consisted of seven vehicles and lorries, and the border camel corps, which consisted of 64 camels and 28 cannons carried on cars. This was followed by the students of the war college led by their musicians, six battalions of rifle-bearing infantrymen, consisting of 807 soldiers and officers, and three battalions of cannon infantrymen composed of 795 soldiers and officers and seven stallions.
The participation of the Egyptian army was not limited to the capital, for it extended to Alexandria where the men of Al-Dakhila camp celebrated. It even extended to remote regions of the Western Desert where army forces in Marsa Matrouh held a large military parade. It was as though the palace men wanted to declare to its foes that the king continued to depend on the armed forces in his capacity as their chief commander, dampening the popular strength of the Wafd Party as represented in its student groups, no matter how large they grew.
Yet even students were not spared from attempts by palace circles to polarise them. The Ministry of Education tried to get them to participate in the "felicitous royal occasion" by encouraging the holding of celebrations in educational institutions known for their active role in the nationalist movement. In Fouad I University, student union members went to Abdin Palace to register their names in the ceremonial registers under instructions from the administration. The principle of Saidiya School, Gaafar El-Nafrawi, held a party in the evening attended by the minister of religious endowments. The students of Al-Qubba High School held a "splendid and joyous celebration" on the occasion, as Al-Ahram put it. The Khedive Ismail School "held a celebration attended by the minister of religious endowments and the superintendent of high school education. Its students conducted an open-air parade in military training wear that impressed the attendees."
All of these celebrations, irrespective of their attempts to procure political gains through the occasion, did not prevent the spread of dissatisfaction within the palace over the wishes for a son being dashed. Most of the historians who have studied the private life of the king attribute the beginning of discord between Farouk and Farida and the subsequent deviations of the young man to that event. This is shored up by the string of princesses this unlucky queen bore. And yet there is not full agreement with them on this point, for the deviations of Farouk I were the result of many causes, of which this may be only one. It is certain, however, that the optimism Farouk held over the selection of the letter "f" as the first in the names of his daughters, following his father's precedent concerning optimism in the first letter of his mother's name, did not actualise its goal.


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