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On the centenary of her birth… Learn about the story of a movie that threatened to break the engagement of Princess Fawzia

On November 5, the centenary of the birth of Princess Fawzia, daughter of King Fouad I and Queen Nazli, and sister of King Farouk. She was born in 1921 in Ras El-Tin Palace in Alexandria. She was nicknamed “the most beautiful woman on earth”. She is an Egyptian princess descended from the Muhammad Ali dynasty, and later became the Empress of Iran after she married the Crown Prince of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who became the Shah in 1941.

Princess Fawzia and Muhammad Reza Pahlavi got engaged in May 1938, and they married in a legendary wedding that lasted three consecutive days at Abdeen Palace in Cairo on March 15, 1939. Before the marriage was completed, the crown prince nearly broke off his engagement to Princess Fawzia because of an Egyptian movie called “Laila, the Girl of the Desert.” What is the story of the movie? Why did it cause a political crisis between Egypt and Iran?

The crisis occurred when the movie “Laila, the Girl of the Desert”, written by Mahmoud Hamdi, directed by Mario Volpi and starring Bahija Hafez, Hussein Riad, Zaki Rostom, Abbas Fares, and Raqia Ibrahim, was shown on January 28, 1937. A year after its first launch, the Iranian government sent an official protest against the film’s incidents, as it insulted the history of the ancient Persian king “Kusra Anushirwan”. Where the events of the film revolve around the war between the Persians and the Arabs, and tells the story of “Laila” who was captured by the King of the Persians and confided in her about herself. When she refused, he tortured her, so she sang a poem in which she said: “They beat me on the abode of chastity,” which is the sentence that caused the crisis.

The Iranian ambassador to Egypt, “Mohammed Ali Jam”, contacted the Egyptian royal palace to ban the film. King Farouk personally issued an order to stop and confiscate the film, and to investigate the film’s heroine and producer, Bahija Hafez. A decision that caused the bankruptcy of Bahija, whose tried to use her connections to re-show the film, but the Ministry of Interior refused, and Bahja was subjected to bargaining, as the Ministry of Interior stipulated that some modifications be made to the film and the deletion of all scenes that offend the Persian king, in exchange for agreeing to show it again.

Bahija Hafez rejected the amendments and justified her refusal by saying that the Egyptian censors had approved the film before and after it was filmed. She resorted to the courts, insisting on her right to show the film, and filed a compensation suit against the government, demanding 20,000 pounds in compensation. The case remained before the courts for 6 years. Until some changes occurred in the political arena, as relations between Egypt and Iran became tense after Queen Fawzia left Iran and returned to Cairo in May 1945, and she refused to travel again to Iran, and asked her brother King Farouk to separate from her husband, to obtain a divorce from the King of Iran Muhammad Reza Balhawi. On November 17, 1948.

At that time, Bahja Hafez had succumbed to the orders of the authority and agreed to show the film after making some modifications to it and deleting the offensive scenes, and she also changed the name of the movie to “Laila Al-Badawi”. The film was rerun on March 12, 1944, and failed miserably. Although it won a gold award at the “Berlin International” Festival and the film was praised by art critics and on the pages of newspapers and magazines, the intervention of the authorities led to the collapse of the film. The authority tried to compensate Bahija Hafez for her loss, and gave her the sum of 3,000 pounds, while her losses reached 45,000 pounds.

With regard to Princess Fawzia, she regained her privilidges as an Egyptian princess after her return to Egypt. On March 28, 1949, she married Colonel Ismail Shireen, who was the last minister of war and navy in Egypt before the July 23, 1955 revolution. After the revolution, Princess Fawzia’s money was confiscated and her royal titles were stripped, and she remained residing in Alexandria, until she died on July 2, 2013 at the age of 91, and was buried in Cairo next to her husband, who died in 1994.

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