Portrait of an Egyptian princess who lived her life through a lens

A student and a librarian have pulled together a collection of documents to tell the intriguing story of Egypt’s Princess Fawzia Fuad for a new exhibition in Cairo

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It was a moment of personal delight for Eman Morgan when she discovered the birth announcement of Princess Fawzia Fuad of Egypt. Typed out in the country's Al Ahram daily newspaper, with the ink slightly smudged by water damage, the Arabic script declares the birth of a baby girl in the family of King Fuad, the ruling monarch of Egypt and Sudan at the time – the date was November 5, 1921. The discovery was crucial because Morgan, assistant director for special projects at the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at The American University in Cairo (AUC), was in the process of researching the life of the former princess. This birth announcement now takes pride of place at the university's current exhibition.

Having opened at the AUC on Wednesday, July 3 – the sixth anniversary of the princess's death – Princess Fawzia: The Duality of Egyptian Womanhood through Western and Egyptian Eyes is a comprehensive show of archival material that focuses on the portrayal of the Egyptian princess, who was later crowned Queen of Iran, as depicted in magazines and newspapers from Egypt and around the world. It covers the period between 1939, the year the princess married Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Iranian crown prince (who was later to become Shah), to the 1952 revolution when her brother, Egypt's King Farouk, was overthrown in a military coup. 

The exhibition is based on research conducted by Egyptian-American student Jana Amin, who is studying at the Milton Academy in Massachusetts in the US. Amin, who is 16, has a passion for international relations and the Middle East, with a special interest in gender studies and Islam. She chose the subject of Princess Fawzia as a research project last summer and her work has taken her to the UK to search The National Archives in Kew, London, and to the AUC Rare Books and Special Collections Library in Cairo, where she found a diverse range of Egyptian magazines and newspapers.

"What was really interesting to me throughout my research was that I never heard her voice," says Amin. "There were articles about her in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as several Arabic publications, but she was never quoted directly. It was all journalists talking about her."

Amin was particularly struck by the coverage of the princess's two imperial weddings – one in Cairo and one in Tehran. "It was clearly a political union and that was no secret," she says. "But in the western publications, there was this implication that she was a political pawn with no autonomy and held almost as a prisoner in the Shah's palace. Whereas in the Egyptian press, she was lauded as an ambassadorial figure from whom others took inspiration."

Princess Fawzia on the cover of Al Musawwar magazine's May 7, 1948 issue.

In reality, Princess Fawzia was highly educated and she used her position for humanitarian purposes. Despite being trapped in what was reportedly a loveless marriage, the only highlight of which was the birth of her daughter, Shahnaz, in 1940, she made it a priority to help others as much as possible. In the exhibition, which is divided into four sections focusing on her early life in Egypt, her marriage in Iran, her later life and her humanitarian work, there is an image from Al Ethnain Wa al Donia (Monday and the World) magazine in 1944 of the monarch offering her condolences to those who lost relatives in an earthquake that struck north-eastern Iran.

Princess Fawzia was also strikingly pretty – several publications called her one of the most beautiful women in the world. Her image graced the cover of many magazines and her Hollywood-­esque looks were captured in 1942 by photographer Cecil Beaton for Life magazine. She returned to Egypt in 1945 after obtaining a divorce (which was not officially recognised in Iran until 1948) and headed up a charity, Mubarret Muhammed Ali, which focused on educating and empowering women. After the Nakba of 1948 in Palestine, and the conflict that ensued, Princess Fawzia volunteered with nurses to help the wounded and encouraged other women to step forward to take leading roles in the community. "This was personally the most important discovery for me," says Amin. "She was so famous around the world and known for her beauty, but it was the things she was doing within society that made her story so powerful to me."

Morgan was equally impressed by this aspect of the princess's character, saying that it is a key part of her work at the AUC to turn the vast wealth of information and documents in the library into digestible knowledge that brings new attention to the history of Egypt.

She was so famous around the world and known for her beauty, but it was the things she was doing within society that made her story so powerful to me.

 "This is the first time we have presented research specifically upon the monarchy with a focus on their role in Egyptian community," explains Morgan, who has worked in the library at AUC since 1997. "This period has only been shown before in jewellery, architecture or economics, but not the personal side of the royal family."

The two worked together to present the exhibition to the public, with Morgan using her knowledge and expertise to guide Amin through the process. They also purchased new documents and artefacts through local booksellers and from antique dealers, and these are now a permanent part of the university's collection.  
The exhibition closes with the later part of Princess Fawzia's life, with her remarriage in 1949 to Ismail Cherine-Bey, an official in the Egyptian army and a good friend and advisor to her brother, King Farouk. They had two children and because of this union she was one of the few royal family members allowed to stay in Egypt after the 1952 revolution. They lived between Alexandria and Cairo, but since then, she refused to speak to the media, choosing instead to live a life in relative obscurity. She died in Cairo in 2013 at the age of 91.

"I am very proud of Jana, she is a very serious and dedicated researcher," says Morgan. "This exhibition has been a success and I feel proud that our efforts have paid off."

Princess Fawzia: The Duality of Egyptian Womanhood through Western and Egyptian Eyes runs until October 31 at the American University in Cairo