Memoirs of Egypt’s King Farouk reveal lonely boyhood
A clearer picture of the failed monarch's royal upbringing as a pampered and privileged crown prince can be seen
The latest iteration of this series examines the childhood and early life of Egypt’s King Farouk, who was overthrown in 1952. Through a copy of the monarch’s long-forgotten memoirs obtained by Al Arabiya News, a clearer picture of the failed monarch’s royal upbringing as a pampered and privileged crown prince can be seen.
Egypt’s King Farouk was the last reigning king of the Muhammad Ali dynasty, which traced its origins back to the Ottoman Empire, a pan-continental superpower which had ruled much of the civilized world for over 600 years.
At the time of Farouk’s birth in 1920, amid the rapidly accelerating decline of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Egypt was a British protectorate ruled nominally by his father Sultan Ahmed Fuad.
A popular uprising against British occupation a year before, in 1919, eventually resulted in London declaring Egypt as an independent nation in 1922.
Shortly afterwards, Fuad issued a decree changing his title from “Sultan of Egypt,” to “King of Egypt,” presumably to bring him in line with other emerging monarchies such as the Kingdoms of Hejaz (present-day western Saudi Arabia), Iraq, and Syria.
Fuad, who had spent much of his upbringing in Italy, spoke no Arabic and described Arabs as “ces crétins,”divorced his first wife, who had failed to deliver him a surviving heir, and married 24 year-old Nazli Sabri, who had previously been married to an Egyptian aristocrat.
As with most monarchies at the time, having a male heir gave a royal house legitimacy. When Farouk was born, just eight months after the royal wedding, Fuad was so overjoyed he ordered ten thousand pounds in gold to be distributed to the poor and another eight hundred for Cairo’s mosques.
Amid the heir’s celebrated birth, the royal household changed. The young, attractive, free-spirited Nazli was confined to an Ottoman-style harem, only allowed out for certain occasions such as operas and flower shows.
In this way, Fuad’s palaces became gilded cages, the inhabitants experiencing “very much a life with many layers around it to the outside world,” said Mahmoud Sabit, the son of Farouk’s second cousin, Adel Sabit.
“I think she [Nazli] resented the fact that she was secluded,” said Sabit. “Nazli came from a much more open and highly-educated household. It was a bit hard on her,” Sabit told Al Arabiya News.
Sabit, whose grandmother’s aristocratic roots enabled her to be one of the very few people Fuad “considered to be respectable” enough to visit cloistered Nazli, later met the former Egyptian queen in 1974 in California, four years before her death.
As a young boy, Farouk would follow a rigid schedule, with his daily life strictly regulated by his father. Fuad’s parenting style allowed Farouk a great deal of pampering and luxury, however, the young heir was mostly confined with palace walls, allowed only to see his mother for one hour a day.
Tragically - during these formative years – Fuad allowed his son very few friends. Thus, he spent nearly all of his time in the company of doting women. He was close with his Swedish nanny, Gerda, and was allowed to play with his four sisters – one of whom, Fawzia, would later go on to marry Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran.
Despite Fuad’s stern authoritarianism over both his family and Egypt, Farouk did not seem to resent his father’s parenting style.
“He [Fuad] was a stern and strict man, and would never allow me to forget that one day I would become the King of Egypt,” the ex-king recalled.
While Farouk was often known for his outgoing, party-loving personality, his early life and character suggested the dramatic opposite.
“He was horrifically shy with other people,” said Sabit. “When my father met him, he was taken by his grandmother to the big palace up in Alexandria, Montazah, and basically, they arrived and didn’t see the prince. All they keeping hearing was the roaring of a motorcar around the huge gardens, and then realized that that was actually Farouk driving around. My father realized that he was actually too shy to come and say hello.”
When Farouk finally caved in and met his cousin, Adel Sabit, the heir seemed lost for words.
“Look, have you seen this car?” said Farouk – who then proceeded to take his equally young relative around the gardens, according to Mahmoud Sabit.
Adel had thought the heir’s need to flash his possessions around stemmed from a lingering sense of insecurity, perhaps from being brought up almost completely around doting women.
“He was a somewhat lonely little boy, who knew he had to play this exalted role. When that role eventually came, he had not been properly rehearsed,” Sabit added.
The heir’s education had been lacking, a fact Fuad later realized. Nonetheless, Farouk was intelligent. He learnt fluent French, Italian, English and Arabic. Ironically, learning Arabic – the language of the country Farouk would soon rule – was a first for an Egyptian king. Fuad mostly spoke Italian.
Despite his largely unguided talents, The heir sorely lacked the astuteness or eye for political cunning that his father possessed, said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo.
One of the characteristics that Farouk did acquire was his father’s love of practical jokes. Fuad would sometimes humor himself by placing a gold coin in a bucket of clear acid and watching unsuspecting servants scream in agony from the resulting acid burns after trying to retrieve its contents, according to Roger Owen, a Middle East history professor at Harvard University.
Farouk, however, indulged in more pedestrian hijinks, such as knocking the fezzes off the heads of “obsequious” high ranking court officials with “well-aimed” tomatoes and cucumbers after a large palace lunch, according to Adel Sabit’s book on the ex-king, entitled “A King Betrayed: The Ill-fated Reign of Farouk of Egypt.”
While Farouk had begun to receive lessons in statecraft, they were uncompleted when the heir, aged just 16, was sent to London for training at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He shortly became known by locals as “Prince Freddy.”
Farouk fondly recalled the male-dominated, rigorous army life around Woolwich, no doubt peppered with cautious camaraderie and the heir’s skillful avoidance of the 20-man entourage sent with him.
While there, Farouk showed a keen interest in boxing – as he said, it was a way to get respect and acceptance among his peers.
Before he had left, Farouk recalled Nazli’s maternal instincts flaring up – she did not want him to get involved in Western practices, such as drinking alcohol. Fuad then silenced the issue with the theory that the heir’s “inherited commonsense” [sic] would serve him well.
Although he confessed to stubbing out the odd “furtive cigarette” when authority was nearby, alcohol did and would always remain off-limits. “Drink has never been a temptation to me,” he wrote, not only turning it down on religious grounds, but because he had a strong desire to be in control of his senses.
“My schooldays in Woolwich were the outstanding occasion in my life when I was able to mix on equal terms with other boys, and I found it extremely enjoyable,” Farouk wrote.
The fact that a royal prince was in the country was not lost on Britain’s King George V.
Farouk recalls being invited to lunch by the king and meeting Edward, soon to be Edward VIII. While Edward was far older than he, they immediately took “an immense liking to each other,” according to Farouk.
The irony of meeting another fellow crown prince who would one day abdicate was not lost on Farouk.
“We have not yet met as two abdicated monarchs, but when we do I am sure that he will have a typically pungent comment,” he wrote.
However, some accounts paint a different story of Farouk’s time in Woolwich.
Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, (who we will hear more on later) would say privately that the prince would spend a lot of his time sleeping or on shopping trips in London.
“In the notes of his English tutor in 1936, he was already lying a lot as a young man,” said Philip Mansel, a historian and author of “Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean.”
“For example, [he would lie about] the number of ducks he shot on a shoot and getting up very late in the day. So he was also quite lazy,” Mansel added.
The heir’s carefree days at Woolwich, away from the restraints of parents and palace life, were to come to an abrupt halt.
In April 1936, King Fuad I died at the age of 68. Farouk was quickly recalled to Egypt.
No longer confined to the sidelines of power, the 16-year-old crown prince suddenly became his nation’s leading figure.
To read the fourth part of the series, entitled: “Egypt’s King Farouk: philanderer or family man?” please click here.
To view the entire seven-part series, visit the King Farouk: The Forgotten Memoirs homepage.
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- Al Arabiya to examine King Farouk’s forgotten memoirs
- King Farouk’s fabulous wealth
- Egypt’s King Farouk: philanderer or family man?
- Gone, but not forgotten: King Farouk’s lasting legacy
- ‘Nasty, painful, depressing:’ King Farouk’s tragic royal romance