The first queen of Egypt in modern times, Nazli Sabri, was by all accounts an exceptional character with an exceptional destiny. If one looks at her life’s story, it is impossible to not experience a mix of feelings: admiration, appreciation, disagreement, wonder… Queen Nazli was a complex figure and a tragic character, a woman who was in love with power and still searching for the freedom from power’s responsibilities and limitations. A living contradiction never settling for only one side of the story.
It is worth mentioning that Nazli’s great-grandfather was Joseph Sáve, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s military commanders and one of the authors of the historic “Description de l’Égypte (Description of Egypt), the first voluminous reference on the country. She was born in 1894 into an aristocratic family of Turkish and French origin, and her father was Minister of Agriculture and Governor of Cairo. Despite her family’s relations with the Egyptian royal family, nothing predicted the fact that Nazli would become Queen one day.
Following the death of her mother, she was sent to France to a boarding school and upon return, was forced to marry her Turkish cousin, Khalil Sabri. However, this marriage ended in divorce only after eleven months. She got engaged to the nephew of the famous Egyptian public personality, Saeed Zaghloul, but that was not to last also. Nazli seemed to have no luck with relationships.
Rumour had it that the Sultan of Egypt, Fouad saw Nazli for the first time at an opera performance in Cairo. He proposed to her in 1919, although he was 25 years her senior. They married at al Bustan Palace, and this was the second marriage for both of them (Fouad had been previously married to an Egyptian princess from the house of Muhammad Ali Pasha). Nazli was under intense pressure to produce an heir to the throne, and she was allowed to move in the same palace as her husband only after the birth of their son, Crown Prince Farouk. In the next years, the royal couple had four daughters: Fawzia, Faiza, Faika, and Fathiya.
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. The new Queen was highly educated and modern for those times and had very strong ideas about women’s place in society. Her frustration with the restrictions imposed by her husband and the royal court was understandable. It was alleged that King Fouad was physically abusing her, and she attempted suicide.
Following the death of King Fouad in 1936, her son Farouk became the new King of Egypt, and she became the Queen Mother. That was her moment of glory and what she considered to be the end of her restrictions and seclusion. But that was not to last. Gradually the new King became annoyed with her constant interference into the state affairs and her controlling nature.
Nazli’s alleged affair with the King’s advisor, Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, didn’t make things easier between mother and son. She was increasingly frustrated with her lack of freedom as a member of the royal family and with the fact that she was unable to marry the man she loved while Farouk was disappointed with her mother’s desire to re-marry, which he saw as the betrayal of the memory of his father. Everything ended when Ahmed Hassanein Pasha was killed in a car accident years later.
Heartbroken, Nazli left Egypt in 1946 and moved to California because of health problems, according to the official records. In 1950, King Farouk stripped his mother of her rights and titles after his sister, Princess Fathia, went against the King’s wishes and married Riyad Ghali Effendi, a Coptic Christian, despite the fact that the latter had converted to Islam.
King Farouk was forced to abdicate in 1952, and the royal family went into exile in Italy. Nazli never returned to Egypt. She died in 1978, in California, after years of struggling with severe financial difficulties and depression. A sad end for the woman who once was the first Egyptian Queen of modern times.