Review looks at Tahia Abdel Nasser’s account of her husband

Nasser’s bygone era

Publish in The Jerusalem Post Magazine 12/26/2013 13:33   By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

On May 28, 1967, Israeli forces clashed with the Syrian army. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt turned to his wife and said, “The Israelis will attack Egypt,” she recalled several years later. “He indicated the exact day – the following Monday.

“His prediction came true. Israel attacked on June 5, 1967, in the morning.”

This is one of several revelations in Tahia Abdel Nasser’s account of her husband’s life, which has just been published in English. It is made all the more astounding by the unanswered question: If Nasser knew the Israelis would attack, why was his air force sitting on the ground when the strike came? Nasser: My Husband was originally compiled by Tahia in 1973. Starting when Nasser was off in Syria in 1959 dealing with the United Arab Republic, the political union of Syria and Egypt, she began writing: “I spent nearly three years constantly writing.” But then she threw everything away She attempted to write again in 1972, but it was not until 1973 that she was able to begin this volume.

Tahia claims it was the Egyptian people who encouraged her. “When I go out, I see the looks of the people around me, some wave their hands in greeting, others look at me in sadness.” But the work that she put into the memoir never saw the light of day during her lifetime. As Hoda Gamal Abdel Nasser, her daughter, explains in a foreword, the political climate under Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, prevented the book from being published. “An organized campaign of character assassination began after 1973.”

It was not until the upheaval of 2011 that the memoir came out in Arabic and was then translated to English. The book contains over 40 beautiful pictures, some in color, depicting Nasser’s life.

Nasser was president of Egypt for 18 years, and one of the most powerful leaders in the Middle East at the time; a champion of Arab nationalism and socialism, he was extremely hostile to Israel. Unfortunately, Tahia’s life story is weak on almost every detail that a historian would like to know about politics in this period. It doesn’t inform us about her family history; her father’s origins were actually in Iran. According to her, her family and the Nassers were friendly before the marriage.

Tahia married Nasser in 1944, but before that lived a very sheltered life. Her father died at a young age and her brother, Abdel Hamid Kazem, was her guardian. “He was strict at home and extremely conservative, but outside he had his own private life.” Even after they were engaged, she could not see Nasser without a chaperone. Nasser was more liberal, it seems, taking her to the theater on a date.

Once they were married Tahia remained sequestered in the house, and although Nasser was not outwardly a conservative or deeply religious man, she lived the life of a conservative Muslim woman. She wore no veil in photos, an element of the modernizing influence of Nasser, but she rarely met her husband’s male friends: “Gamal did not favor mixed social interaction with friends.” When a man would visit Nasser, usually one of his military buddies, the wife would be sent to the salon to be entertained by Tahia, while the men sat alone in another room.

Tahia seems to have rarely left the house. Nasser had an orderly as a staff officer, called a murasil, who worked as a sort of butler at the house and seems to have done the shopping. When he obtained power, his wife had a driver. When her husband was not at war and before he became president, “we would go out together once a week, mostly to the cinema.”

The conspiracies in which Nasser was involved before the 1952 coup made the house a center of secret meetings. By 1946, guns were being secreted in the cupboards; banned books appeared as well. Tahia describes various weapons, “the large machine guns were too big to be put in the cupboard, so I kept them in a corner in the dining room.” Anti-regime pamphlets also appeared, which she secreted away as she could. One day Nasser appeared with a shoulder holster. His wife thought to herself, “He can only be carrying a gun for two reasons: either he believes someone intends to shoot him, or he intends to shoot someone.”

Given Nasser’s international reputation after the coup, one would think there might be fascinating insights into the various leaders with whom they spent time. However, her descriptions are bare bones at best. She mentions going to Yugoslavia in 1958, during which time the Iraqi regime was overthrown and Nasser was whisked away on a secret flight to Moscow. Tahia stayed behind. Later she was seated with Indian leader Jawarharlal Nehru, who she recalls was a lively conversationalist. What they spoke about isn’t mentioned.

She saw her husband off to numerous wars, beginning in 1948. She describes receiving short letters from him while he was fighting the birth of Israel, and also recounts learning of his being under siege at the Battle of Fallujah. Later, when the British bombed Suez, she describes the events in the simplest of detail. The reality was she just didn’t talk politics with her husband or others. “I would never broach a political subject with him unless he initiated the conversation, which he rarely did.”

Nasser doesn’t appear to have been particularly religious, although his wife gave him a Koran to carry from time to time. She recalls that he “would ask me to pray for victory in my daily prayers, and would tell me to ‘curse the Israelis.’” But for a woman living through momentous events, she doesn’t express much of an opinion on the Israelis, the British or anyone else.

Tahia can’t be blamed for writing an honest memoir, primarily concerned with her children and her life around the house. She wasn’t interested in public life; yet she remained devoted to her husband and his memory after his death. Most of her children studied at university and became professionals, and she wasn’t an entirely uneducated women, having learned French and English.

But if Tahia had strong views on anything in Egypt, it is unfortunately not to be found in this volume. If this was the worldview of the wife of one of the most powerful men in the Middle East for 18 years, what does this say about the views of ordinary Egyptian women, in the narrow world some of them live in due to conservative traditions?

Tahia recounts once going through Alexandria and seeing the city’s poor. “These are the people I work for,” Nasser told her. “They look better than before,” she replied. But he wasn’t satisfied: “I want each and every one of those children to have the same education, health benefits and general appearance as Khaled, my son.”

Those children are now in their 50s. Unfortunately, Nasser’s dream never came true – as his country remains mired in turmoil, and the people’s education levels do not seem to have improved greatly.

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