[inset_left]Nasser, My Husband
By Tahia Gamal Abdel Nasser
Published by the American University of Cairo Press
Cairo, 2013[/inset_left]When the Arabic version of Nasser, My Husband came out in early 2011, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s family would have hardly imagined that in two months’ time, pictures of the “just dictator” would be raised by Egyptians demanding the fall of the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
Two and a half years into the January 25 revolution, a sense of inflated nostalgia for Nasser can be more strongly felt in the Egyptian society, with the public becoming desperate to have a leader as charismatic as Nasser.
Many of the country’s Nasserites believed the days of the nationalist legend were back when the chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, announced the removal of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi on July 3, 2013.Comparisons were drawn between Sisi and Nasser, who both hail from the country’s military institution, with some viewing the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood as tantamount to the abolition of the monarchy by Nasser on July 23, 1952.
Mursi came to power through the ballot box. Could it be that the Egyptians were looking for a leader who forcefully seized power after all? In other words, would they prefer a Nasser-like military figure to a democratically elected civilian president?
That Nasser still appeals to Arabs, young and old, is not in question. What is in question, is why Nasser still enjoys a legendary status out of all of those who have ruled the various Arab countries since their independence. There is probably no account of Nasser’s life that could answer these questions more fully than the one written by his wife.
In Nasser, My Husband, Tahia Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s first lady for almost 14 years, offers an interesting account of the private life of the man whose influence on Arab politics has been unrivalled for 50 years.
The book is 224 pages long, of which 110 are occupied with black-and-white and colour photographs chronicling Nasser’s life, from childhood to his final moments.
Tahia’s detailed report veers from the political to the personal, documenting key episodes in Nasser’s political career as well as offering penetrating insights into his character as a husband, teacher, freedom fighter, father and, most importantly, president.
Tahia admits that it was not at all easy to write about her life with Nasser and that only after the third attempt could she muster the courage and power needed to embark on such a project.
In fact, early in the book she makes it clear that what made her take the decision to write the memoirs is her youngest son Abdel Hakim, who encouraged her and insisted that he wanted to know everything about his father’s life. Due to his young age when his father died, Abdel Hakim did not have the chance to listen to all of his father’s speeches, many of which were delivered before he was born.
In the foreword, Nasser’s daughter, Hoda Gamal Abdel Nasser, highlights that “because the prevailing political mood was hostile to Nasser in Egypt under the Sadat regime and to a lesser extent during Mubarak’s rule,” the publication of the book was delayed until only two months before the January 25 Revolution.
On the political aspect, the book generously provides inside information about almost 26 years of Nasser’s life—from the time he spent volunteering in Palestine, to the hours he spent planning and discussing the 1952 revolution with his comrades, and the smuggling of weapons used against the British in the Suez, down to the very last moments building up to the 1952 revolution that overthrew the monarchy.
On the personal side, Tahia manages to paint a vivid picture of her husband’s character, never holding back the tiniest of details. After reading the book, we know that, for example, white cheese was Nasser’s favorite food, Naguib El-Rihani his favorite actor and Umm Kalthoum his favorite singer.
Contrary to the legendary status her husband enjoys in public culture, Tahia successfully presents a new image of Nasser—namely, that of the young lover who came to ask for Tahia’s hand from her older brother, Abdul Hamid Kazim.
The book also covers the life of the newlywed couple in their flat in Cairo and how they used to live off the small salary Nasser earned from his job as a teacher at the military academy.
She dedicates a large section of the book to exploring the presidential duties and the visits she accompanied her husband on, such as their trips to Yugoslavia, Georgia and Russia. In fact, Tahia admits that she did not accompany her husband on his travels very often, because he considered such trips a luxury and thus preferred that she stay at home.
Gamal, so Tahia tells us, was careful not to spoil their children, insisting they have a meal without meat at least once a week, considered a delicacy at the time in Egypt.
“Once a week, we had a meal without meat or poultry. The president believed that one day our children would have a life of their own and would not be able to afford to buy meat.”
Equally important, the book offers us the opportunity to know about the first Egyptian first lady, who was not as socially active as her successors, Jehan Sadat or Suzanne Mubarak.
Tahia says she never broached a political topic with her husband, nor understood politics, preferring to be the wife keen to provide her beloved husband with the love and care he needed.
Tahia admits that she was in the dark regarding the meetings taking place in her house, not really aware of her husband’s intentions to topple the monarchy. She writes: “The atmosphere at home was secretive and worrying, but I did not understand the objective. I only knew I should be careful and reserved.”
She only learned of her husband’s activities when she heard the news of the military coup on the radio. Nasser left home on the night of the 1952 revolution, telling his wife he would be staying late to correct students’ papers at the military academy.
However, when the attack at the king’s palace took place and she heard the exchange of fire, she was afraid that her husband was involved. She says: “‘Those shots . . . they are from the palace! Gamal is surely one of those attacking the palace!’ And I cried. The shots continued for around ten minutes, and then there was silence . . . and then the shots started again, and I was in tears.”
Tahia was confused that night, not really believing her husband was among the attackers until she was assured by her brothers-in-law that Nasser’s endeavors had come to a successful end. She writes: “And then, in the midst of my tears, I understood that it was a military coup.”
The book is written from a purely female perspective, in the sense that three women of Nasser’s family contributed to its making: his wife, Tahia, his daughter, Hoda, and his granddaughter, Tahia Khaled Gamal Abdel Nasser, who translated Hoda’s foreword.
Surprisingly, Tahia completely omits some key episodes from her husband’s life, such as the removal of Mohamed Naguib, the primary leader of the 1952 revolution, and the North Yemen Civil War (1962–1968) in which Nasser mobilized approximately 70,000 Egyptian troops in support of Abdullah Assallal, who was fighting the royalists.
Despite these obvious shortcomings, the book remains a valuable resource, shedding light on the life of a figure that continues to be deeply admired by Arabs of all generations. At this juncture of Egyptian and Arab history, the life of the man who shaped the consciousness of past Arab generations and generations yet to come, cannot be more worth visiting.