Book review: Wife from the west

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 28 Aug 2011

Salah Eissa recounts the notorious murder of Prince Fahmi, bringing a whole era of early 20th Century Egyptian history to light


Ma'sat Madam Fahmi (Mrs Fahmi's Tragedy), by Salah Eissa, Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk, 2011. pp. 289

The well-documented shooting of Prince Ali Kamel Fahmi at the Savoy Hotel in London at 2 am on Tuesday 10 July, 1923, was no ordinary crime, but one that rattled the Egyptian elite, especially its aristocratic wing. Its echoes rang through London and Paris, rubbing salt into already open wounds in East-West relations, specifically the British occupation of Egypt. The killer, a lady named Margaret, was French, while the victim was an aristocrat distantly related to the monarchy ruling Egypt. The scene was the capital of the empire of which Egypt was a reluctant part.

This book is the fifth in the series Salah Eissa started in 1983,Stories from the nation's notebook. It has included the story of the Ottoman invasion of Egypt as well the love story of Princess Fathiya and Riad Ghali. Eissa follows the same pattern in all the books, recreating the events in dramatic detail. He goes minute by minute through the crime, the investigations, the judicial proceedings, the motives of the offender and the deeper impulses of the victim. Most importantly, however, he reconstructs the political and social stage of events, both on the local and international levels. The crime and its incidents are already known, not so much the life that surrounds it. What Eissa tries to do, which he did in his masterly account of the sister killers Rayya and Sekina, is to give a comprehensive picture of the context.

Murder thus turns into a source of information about history, not so important in itself, but only as a means to uncover and analyse the social and political facts of the era. The victim, Prince Fahmi, is a typical model of the third generation of an Egyptian elite born into money and status; his family is believed to have been corrupt and, in the last two decades of the 19th century, particularly dependent on foreign powers.

This young man spent voraciously in bars and brothels and on gambling – nocturnal networks that had spread from Europe into Egypt, attracting not only the young but also rich landowners from the provinces, who would head to Cairo (often, as the theatre portrayed them, to be victims of fraud) as soon as they sold their crop.

But the murderer too is typical of the times: born into a poor family in a village in the south of France, she had ended up as the paid consort of the rich, marrying a number of times and having many lovers, including Prince Edward, heir of the throne of England, son of King George V.

From Paris, Margaret moved to Cairo after a call from Mr Albert Mousiry, a mere friend, soon to be introduced to the man she would later kill. Prince Ali chased her everywhere with gifts and invitations, until she finally accepted his marriage proposal and married him a year later. The gap between bride and groom was not limited to culture and upbringing, either: Margaret was at least 10 years his senior.

Salah Eissa uses many obscure resources, though he does not include a bibliography. Yet through them he is able to connect the story of this couple the reality of life for the offspring of the aristocracy and the transformations of Cairo – he documents the fortunes of a major brothel and developments within the armies of empire with equal ease. At the same time, he sheds light on the political scene, recording the return of the leader Saad Zhaghloul after two years in exile, and his reception in Alexandria by Hoda Shaarawy, who removed her veil on the occasion, marking the beginning of women’s liberation.

This is at bottom a literary work, and it includes an analysis of the personality of Fahmi, his homo- and other sexual obsessions, whose interest in Margaret had more to do with ownership and display than love.

They both knew it, too: he knew all about her past, and had lived with her for six month before marriage. But she saw him as a rare opportunity for a quick fortune, bearing all the public insults and beatings and even imprisonment at home. Their scandals were food for gossip, with their daily quarrels discussed by everyone. Finally they ended up in London, where three bullets were fired by mistake from the pistol Margaret was carrying to defend herself. Fahmi death closed the final of a terrible tragedy.

The court ruling to release Margaret as not guilty stirred much emotion and intensified the public impact of the case. It is interesting to note that Margaret also contracted a lawyer in Cairo in order to receive her share of her husband's fortune, which took a number of years.

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