In September 1909, the Boston Globe got its hands on a scoop: “somewhere in a French music hall, probably in a café chantant in Paris, Princess Zahia Hanum, cousin of the Khedive of Egypt and daughter of the late [sic] Prince Hussein, is singing and dancing her way into the hearts of unsuspecting audiences under an assumed name.” This woman, by the description, must have been the daughter of Hussein Fouad (who was not dead – in fact, the British would soon make him the Sultan of Egypt).
Her story was compelling. After one failed marriage in Egypt, she had decided to travel through Europe on her family’s money. During a short stop in Trieste, an Englishman had introduced her to a charismatic Turkish general. They had immediately fallen in love and married in a hurry. It soon became apparent to the princess that this general was only after her money. So, she quickly put an end to the relationship and – as one reporter for the Detroit Free Press put it – “rid herself of her second husband in the Paris fashion, by way of the divorce courts”.
In the Egyptian royal family, she explained, the fact that a woman had divorced her husband was a grave scandal. They reacted very badly, disowning her completely and even erasing her name from their family tree. In revenge, Zahia ran away to Paris. There she took to the stage and began a career as a singer and a dancer, in part just to spite her family. Prince Hussein’s daughter had gone from divorcée to chorus girl.
For the next few years, articles about her career appeared sporadically in the American press. In 1912 a reporter at the Atlanta Constitution managed to track her down to the Hotel Metropole in Brighton, where she was staying under an assumed name. When he asked why she had run away she replied:
“I did it because I wanted my freedom and because I wanted to spite my family. To begin with I desired to lead a life that nature decreed for women to lead and not that ordained by men, particularly that decreed in the East, servile in every sense of the word; worse – sensual in the basest meaning.”
After this interview, I have not managed to find any other trace of her. In fact, she only seems to exist in the far reaches of the American press between the years of 1909 and 1912. Besides these sporadic examples in obscure newspapers, she is a ghost. I have found no record of Hussein (or any of the Khedivial family) having a daughter called Zahia – though, of course, she would reply that this is due to the “erasure of [her] name from the khedivial family list”.
The most likely explanation for this total lack of information is that “Zahia Hanum” was a character of this woman’s creation, designed to generate publicity and to appeal to American readers. This – probably fabricated – backstory gave her mystique, glamour, and allure.
Above all, it gave the press exactly what they want to hear. It combined two Western views whose possible contradictions readers managed to elide: an obsession with the sensuality of “the East” – helped by the belly dancing craze that had hit America in the late 19th and early 20th century – and an opinion that women in that same “East” were oppressed by lascivious men. In other words, people could gawk at her exotic show and feel sorry for her too.
One journalist in the St Louis Post compared her to Princess Louisa of Saxony, who had fled the noble household after her affair with her children’s French tutor was discovered. But he made sure to stress that Zahia’s case could never be the same as a Western woman’s:
There is a great difference between these two women of royal rank whose desires for the freedom of unsettled women led them to outrage custom in equally startling fashion. It is the difference between the occident and the orient, the difference between two poles
In the early 20th century, Egyptian nobility was hot property. If “Zahia” was the first woman to impersonate Egyptian nobility to boost her stage career, she was certainly not the last. In 1933 a young Egyptian journalist called Fathallah Antaki, editor of a magazine called ‘Umran, ran into a similar phenomenon in Bangalore, almost 5,000 miles from Paris.
While visiting a friend in the southern Indian city, Fathallah was taken to a night out in place called “The House of the Egyptian Royal Society for Dance”. There, they saw a comic theatrical troupe made up of three people, a man called Sulayman Ishaq and two women called “Miss Zakiyya Pasha” and “Miss Saida Pasha”. They both claimed to have fled their aristocratic Egyptian families to act and dance on stage without worrying about the censure or attacks of their relatives.
This trio performed a few comic sketches and then were were joined by more dancers, also claiming to be noble Egyptian women. They were accompanied by small band, made up of musicians who said that they had played for nobles and princes in Egypt and Turkey.
When the night came to an end, the writer says that he discovered their ruse. He found out (he does not say how) that these people were not, in fact, Egyptian nobility on the run; they were a troupe of ordinary Jews from Syria and Palestine who had been in India for years putting on Egyptian-style shows. Here, people would not have been so interested by their ‘Eastern-ness’ but by their nobility.
Being a member of royalty had always been a pretty assured route to wealth and fame. From America to France to India, a few people in the early twentieth century realised that there was also a good life to be made impersonating members of royalty.