Le Temps Des Fleurs: Remembering Dalida

Yolanda Christina Gigliotti was born into an Italian family in Cairo on 17th January 1933. As the first violinist at the Cairo Opera House, her father Pietro Gigliotti instilled her and her two brothers with a appreciation for music from an early age. After attending an Italian Catholic school in the Egyptian capital, and Yolanda dreamt of becoming a model, an ambition that would be easily realised on account of her breathtaking Mediterranean beauty.

Winning the title of Miss Ondine at a beauty pageant in 1950, Yolanda was again triumphant when she competed for the crown of Miss Egypt four years later. Her new found status brought her to the attention of the French painter and film director, Marc de Gastyne, who promised to help her pursue a film career and she moved to Paris in December 1954. Changing her name to the more French sounding Dalila, she later decided upon its variant Dalida. In Homage to the continent of her birth, it was of African-Swahili and Arabic origin, from the former, her new moniker translated as ‘gentle,’ and from the latter, ‘to tease.’

Isolated and far away from her family and friends, Dalida found solace in music and took singing lessons. Not only did she have natural talent, she also had a powerful stage presence and was hired to perform her own cabaret act at a the Olympia, a music hall in the 9th arrondissement with her signature tune being Étrangèr au Paradis, a hit from the 1953 musical Kismet. Dalida also appeared in several films including the Egyptian motion picture Sigarah wa kas (1955) and Marc de Gastyne’s Le masque de Toutankhamon (1955), but it was whilst working at the Olympia, that she met Lucien Morisse, a produce at Europe n° 1, the biggest radio station in France at that time, and the record producer Eddie Barclay. Instantly captivated by her, Morisse proposed despite already being married. Morisse later divorced and they would eventually wed on 8th April 1961, although the marriage dissolved in matter of weeks following Dalida’s affair with the French actor Jean Sobieski.  Continue reading

Lily Of The Nile: The Dynasties Of Princess Fawzia

When she died on 2nd July 2013, few could have appreciated the vast and extraordinary changes Princess Fawzia had witnessed during her 91 years. ‘Twice in my life, I lost the crown,’ she acknowledged, recalling her time as an important figure across the Islamic world. Her wealth of experience had taught the Egyptian Princess that the power behind great crowns could be both ephemeral and illusory, and so for her, their loss did not ‘matter.’

The eldest daughter of King Fuad of Egypt, and his second wife Nazli Sabri, Fawzia was born at the Ras el-Tin Palace in Alexandria, on 5th November 1921. Rarely leaving the confines of the palace, and brought up by her English nanny, Fawzia’s childhood was both sheltered and rarefied, leading the Egyptian writer Adel Sabit to comment, that she grew up a ‘supremely naive, over-protected, cellophane-wrapped, gift-packaged little girl.’

In April 1936, following King Fuad’s death, Fawzia’s older brother Farouk ascended to the throne, and the new King’s advisors were eager to strengthen Cairo’s relations with Tehran. With Egypt keen to assert its status in the region, particularly following the signing of the Treaty of Saadabad with Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan in July 1937, a match was suggested between Fawzia, and the son of the Shah of Iran. The prospect of Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s marriage was welcomed by his father, a soldier who had assumed power by overthrowing the Qajar dynasty in 1925. The Shah was minded to cement his own royal legitimacy and a union with the regal and established Muhammad Ali Dynasty of Egypt seemed ideal. Despite the Egyptian Prime Minister’s warning that a marriage between the Sunni Princess and Shia Prince was a ‘recipe for disaster,’ secular diplomacy won out over tradition, and their engagement was officially announced in May 1938. The couple married in March 1939 enjoying the splendour of two royal weddings, a Shi’ite ceremony in Fawzia’s new home of Tehran, following a Sunni union in Cairo with her Prince, the heir to the Peacock Throne.

Above: The Royal Wedding in Cairo (1939)

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God Of The Witches: The Cult Of Margaret Murray

Denounced in 1938 by the witch hunting and trials expert, C. L’Estrange Ewen, as nothing more than ‘vapid balderdash,’ the work of the Egyptologist and anthropologist, Professor Margaret Murray, has been subjected to even fiercer criticism since her death in 1963. Propagating the theory that in early Christian Europe until the Renaissance, there existed an organised and widespread Pagan cult, which grew around the worship of what she termed The Horned God,’ Murray became known as a leading authority on the subject of European witchcraft, with her controversial books earning her a substantial readership and many of her ideas capturing the public’s imagination. There were even ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims that Murray herself practised the dark arts about which she wrote, and would cast spells to sabotage academic appointments she disapproved. In reality, she was by all accounts a pragmatic and rational thinker, who had little time for superstition in her own life.

Born in Calcutta in 1863, Murray studied linguistics and anthropology at University College London, where her interest in Egyptology brought her to the attention of the renowned Egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie, whom she accompanied on several excavations and who appointed her as a Junior Lecturer in 1898. As a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Murray fought to improve the status of women and for greater recognition of their academic achievements, and in 1908, made history by becoming the first woman to unwrap a mummy in public during a series of lectures she gave at the Manchester Museum. Continue reading

A Man Of Dust: The Battles Of Keith Douglas

The Second World War is seldom feted for its poetry, despite producing poets whose talents rivalled those of the 1914-1918 conflict. Though he remained relatively unknown until the reissue of his work in 1964, of all the later conflict’s poets, the most striking was Captain Keith Douglas, with poems such as The Knife, and How to Kill hinting at the great promise that had barely begun to surface before his death on 9th June, 1944. In Desert Flowers, written in 1943, Douglas freely admits, ‘Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying’ and he made no secret of how he looked to the earlier soldier poets, such as Isaac Rosenberg for inspiration, claiming their poetry was enacted ‘everyday on the battlefields’ and admiring how they communicated their personal experiences of battle.

Born on 24th January 1920 in Tunbridge Wells, Douglas’s childhood was marred by the illnesses of both his parents, which led to financial hardship for the family and the breakdown of their marriage by 1929. Douglas’s father later remarried and subsequently distanced himself from his young son, who was sent to a boarding school near Guildford. Douglas later recalled how his father’s rejection led him to retreat into his own imaginary world, which was ‘so powerful as to persuade me that the things I imagined would come true.’ In 1931, with his mother no longer able to afford his school fees, Douglas was sent to Christ’s Hospital near Horsham, where assistance funds covered the costs of his education.

Douglas left Christ’s Hospital in 1938, to read History and English at Merton College, Oxford. At Oxford he encountered the war poet, Edmund Blunden, who was his tutor and a profound influence upon the young man.  It was at Oxford that Douglas’s love of poetry was fostered, he also met the only woman with whom he would fall deeply in love, a Chinese student named Yingcheng, who turned down his proposal of marriage, a rejection that, like that of his father, he would never quite get over. Though he would go on to have other lovers, he would tell Yingcheng, you, however cheaply you behave…will always be the only person I love completely – you’ll become almost a goddess or a mania if you go away… If you ever can decide that things could be all right… please have the courage and confidence in me to come back.’ Continue reading