FROM FEAST to FAMINE is the saga of a wealthy landowning family that spans the period from the end of the First World War through the 1952 Revolution (an era of great plenty and opulence in Egypt) to the fifties and sixties ending with the death of Nasser in 1970 (a period of military dictatorship, socialism and deprivation).
Chapter 1 – The WAHBAS
Early one morning in the fall of 1920, Amin Wahba Pasha1 was closeted in the study of his house in Luxor for over an hour with Monsieur Salvago of the Sugar Refinery Company. They were going through the annual October ritual of studying the final accounts prior to his receiving the payments for the sugarcane crop that had been delivered to the Refinery late that spring. Once more he was disappointed; the price of sugarcane had gone down by another 8% this year. After the five boom years of the war, this was the third year in a row that the revenues of his sugarcane crop had fallen.
Wahba Pasha had always been proud of the fact that he managed single-handedly the cultivation of his estate and was not an absentee landowner like many of the pashas and beys who were living it up in Cairo and Alexandria. Often goaded and cajoled by his wife and daughters to lease his lands and move the family to their new Cairo residence, he now wondered whether this might not be a good time to follow their advice.
Wahba Pasha had spent his whole life cultivating his sugarcane plantations. He woke up every morning at 5:00 am. After devouring a breakfast of foul medamis2 with eight eggs and several pieces of chicken, he took his motorboat which was docked in front of his mansion in Luxor, to the Western shore of the River Nile where his lands were located. His foreman waited for him with two horses and they toured the lands where he personally supervised every phase of the sugarcane cultivation, harvesting, and transportation to the railway depot where the harvest was loaded into the trains going to the Sugar Refinery Company in Kom-Ombo.
In spite of his strong and dominating personality and strict discipline with the peasants, he treated them with fairness and kindness. He was one of the few landlords in the Said, as the Southern part of Egypt was called, who dared tour his lands unarmed or unaccompanied by any armed guards. Even though he was a self-taught man who barely had three or four years of schooling, he had always put a high value on education. He built a mosque, a church, a clinic and a school in each of the two villages where his lands were located: El-Dabiya and El-Gurna, and he encouraged and helped several students who showed an aptitude for learning, mostly children of poor peasants, to pursue their secondary education in Luxor. Soon these two villages could boast that several of their sons had become public functionaries in the city of Luxor.
He had started as a small sugarcane planter. When at the turn of the century the sugar industry had fallen on hard times following the collapse of a consortium of major sugar factories, he was able to take advantage of the situation. He bought the lands adjacent to his land at bargain prices, eventually becoming the biggest sugarcane planter in Egypt. When the Aswan Dam was completed in 1905 several hundred thousands feddans3 were cultivated causing a doubling in land values and the start of a new generation of sugar factories all over Upper Egypt.
In 1896 he married the daughter of the Consul of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Luxor who, though an Egyptian, had all the privileges accorded to foreign residents in Egypt under the Mixed Courts System. They had two daughters and a son.
A year before the beginning of the First World War his son, Farid, was removed from his primary school in Luxor and sent as a boarding pupil to the Victoria College in Alexandria. Aware of his own shortcomings in fine manners and adequate education, the Pasha was convinced that an education in a school like Victoria College was the best way to make a gentleman of his son.
The Victoria College was a private boys’ school created in 1906 by the British Occupation Authority to provide an English school education to the sons of upper class Egyptians (landed gentry, royalty and notables), and many other nationalities living in Egypt. Although there were good Jewish, Greek, Armenian and Italian schools in Cairo and Alexandria, many of the affluent parents preferred the Victoria College to their community schools. Victoria College reflected the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city of Alexandria. Apart from the Egyptian pupils, there were Europeans, Turks and Syro-Lebanese. Several rulers from countries under British domination in the region sent their boys to Victoria College to be educated and prepared for public life. There were Muslims, Jews, and Christians, Catholics, Protestants and Anglicans, as well as Copts and members of other Orthodox Churches. All these different nationalities and creeds coexisted peacefully inside the school.
During the first few months, Victoria College was an overwhelming experience for the twelve-year old boy who had rarely been out of Luxor. For the first time in his life he was surrounded by boys who came from the four corners of Egypt and the world. A whole new world was opened to him, football and cricket, literature and languages, and companionship. In spite of the spartan dormitory which he shared with thirty other boys, the cold showers every morning, the uniform of grey flannels and college blazer and the daily meals of boiled beef, cabbage and potatoes, Farid enjoyed life at Victoria College. He regretted the fact that he wasn’t allowed to enjoy the new colorful shirts, ties, and sweaters that his father had bought him to wear to school.
In January 1921 Amin Wahba Pasha decided to retire and lease his land to the Sugar Refinery Company. He was fifty years old and had made a fortune during the war. He moved to Cairo to the new mansion he had purchased in Fagallah, one of the more elegant suburbs of Cairo, with his wife and two daughters, Genevieve and Julia accompanied by their husbands and children.
Once settled in Cairo, Amin Pasha purchased a four-acre lot of land in Dokki facing the Western shore of the River Nile which at the time was sparsely populated farmland. He hired one of the leading English architectural firms in Egypt to design and build a stately mansion there.
Two years later, when the construction of the mansion was completed, he moved there with his retinue of secretaries, valets and servants leaving his wife and two daughters with their husbands and children at the Fagallah house. The new palace consisted of three floors, each floor approximately 600 square meters, with a four-car garage on the side street. There was a small guardhouse near the entrance gate of the house, where the bawab or guardian lived, and huge gardens surrounded the house. The cellar had the kitchen and the servants’ living quarters, the first floor composed the reception area and the second floor contained the family living quarters. Both floors had verandas facing the Nile. The third floor had the guests’ area, a separate laundry room and a large terrace. An elevator served the three floors. The mansion soon became known as “Sarayet Wahba Pasha” or “The Palace of Wahba Pasha.”
The Pasha retained the two bedroom/bathroom suites facing the Nile for his own use. He resided in one of these and the other one, which he called the “Pink Room”, was kept for the use of his inamorata of the moment. His private secretary resided in one of the third floor guest-rooms.
Once settled in his new mansion Amin Pasha started to lead a double life. To all appearances he was a philanthropist, a man respected by all, not only for his wealth and connections, but also for his upright character. He was a prominent member of the Coptic Church4 devoting time and money to charitable causes. Two or three times a week he played the role of the family man, he went to visit his wife and family at their Fagallah residence carrying toys and chocolates for his grandchildren. But there was a darker side to his life that few people were aware of. He led a secret life of debauchery which was facilitated by his private secretary, Ahmad Mansour, a seedy character who somehow managed to gain the Pasha’s confidence. Bolbol Effendi, as Mansour became known, procured young girls of different ages, sizes, colors, and national origins for the Pasha’s pleasure. He would parade several young girls in front of the Pasha; the one chosen would stay in the mansion living in the Pink Room until Amin Pasha tired of her.
During the summer months when the weather in Cairo became unbearably hot, the Pasha sent his wife and family to the summer house he owned facing the elegant Stanley Bay Beach in Alexandria and spent three months philandering in Europe. Early in the month of July he boarded one of the luxury liners that sailed from Alexandria to Marseilles accompanied by Bolbol Effendi, his valet and his chauffeur who drove them in the Pasha's Rolls Royce along the cities of the French and Italian Riviera.
Amin Wahba Pasha enjoyed spending his evenings at the Ezbekieh Gardens. The gardens had been designed by the landscape gardener who had planned the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. In the years after the war, it became a permanent center of the social life in Cairo. In the cool of the late afternoons, when Cairo’s siesta was over, the gardens became lively with the sound of bands playing Strauss waltzes and military music. The Cairo Opera House, where Aida was first performed in 1871 to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal, was located in the gardens. Peddlers, mountebanks, sorcerers, future-tellers, clowns and snake-charmers did good business amid the crowds who were subjected simultaneously to all the lures of the East and West. Natives came to gape, mingling with growing crowds of foreigners, tourists, courtesans and aristocratic ladies who were closely watched by their bodyguards. At midnight there was great merrymaking in the gardens and all sorts of shocking scenes took place.
The Pasha also loved the theatre. One evening he went to the Andalus Theatre with a few of his friends accompanied by Bolbol Effendi to see the comedienne Ismahane. Ismahane was the rage of Cairo at that moment. Her latest comedy, a sketch of a rich cotton merchant coming from his village to visit a Cairo nightclub, set the audiences rocking with laughter. She was a stunningly beautiful Karaite Jewess in her early thirties. Wahba Pasha was enthralled with her. He sent Bolbol Effendi to see her and let her know his feelings. The following evening Bolbol Effendi went to her changing room and waited to her to finish her performance. He presented her a large bouquet of flowers and a gold necklace. When he tried to arrange her visit to the Pasha’s mansion, she reacted vehemently:
“I refuse to go to the Pasha’s mansion and be treated like one of his whores. I want my independence. If he wants to see me, he will have to come and pay me a visit at my apartment.”
With great tact, Bolbol Effendi suggested an agreement. She was to have a car, a furnished apartment and a generous allowance. She asked for time to consider the offer, and finally relented. Her affair with Wahba Pasha lasted for a few months, he indulged her every whim, but she soon tired of him and became attached to a younger and more attractive admirer. She informed the Pasha, who turned pale but he was too generous to show resentment. He let her keep her gifts and paid all her bills. The Pasha was not overly brokenhearted by the departure of Ismahane; he soon found solace in the arms of a young aspiring singer and cinema actress who was starting to attract the attention of the public and newspaper critics.
In 1919 Farid Wahba, Wahba Pasha’s only son, was among a group of seven students from Victoria College who were sent to continue their education in Oxford University. These students were chosen by Mr. Reed, the headmaster of Victoria College, to be groomed to become the future generations of politicians who would be supportive of the British Occupation. After returning from Oxford they were to make careers in finance and politics, always in close collaboration with the British Authorities in Egypt, eventually to become the future rulers of Egypt.
Farid enjoyed Oxford life at Pembroke College which broadened his outlook considerably and encouraged his love of history. In 1923 he graduated with honors and returned to Egypt. For a while he lived with his mother and sisters at the Fagallah mansion but he couldn’t bear the commotion and noise created by his nephews and nieces and he did not get along with his brothers-in-law. He rented a dahabia5 which was moored on the banks of the Nile not far from his father’s mansion. The dahabia belonged to a prince of the royal family who was about to get married and had to relinquish it along with his houseboy and valet, Sobhi.
Aware of his father’s life of debauchery, Farid led a quiet life. Apart from a quick affair he had with a barmaid while at Oxford, he had few other experiences with women.
Amin Pasha was right. The years at Victoria College and Oxford had made a gentleman of Farid. His experience in England had introduced him to a different way of life, to a culture which he embraced wholeheartedly without rejecting his own background, traditions and beliefs. He came back a polished man comfortable to socialize with his European friends but refusing to emulate their customs and traditions as many upper-class Egyptians had a tendency to do. At the age of twenty-three he was a quiet and mild-mannered man, very different from his boisterous, arrogant and aggressive father. Even though he had the typical dark skin of the people of Upper Egypt, the saiidis as they were called, he was a handsome man who had inherited the looks and personality of his mother. He was a shy, thoughtful and sensitive person.
He worked for a little over two years at the prestigious law firm of El-Alfy which handled the Pasha’s affairs but the work bored him. He didn’t enjoy writing legal briefs and getting involved in the trivial quarrels of unimportant people. He wanted to do more with his life. He didn’t need the salary; his father gave him a generous allowance. He finally decided to quit his job after his involvement with the Cattoun Case.
Moise Cattoun Pasha came from a family of Sephardic Jews who held a privileged position in Egypt. Banking, commerce, and real estate formed the basis of his fortune. Cattoun Pasha knew Wahba Pasha through his interests in the Kom-Ombo Sugar Refinery. His wife, Adele Cattoun, was an elegant and stunningly beautiful woman in her early forties. She and her husband were active members of Cairo’s social scene. They attended opera premieres and charity functions and the glittering balls at their mansion in Garden City often led to traffic congestion in the neighborhood.
According to a briefing that Maitre El-Alfy gave Farid Wahba, the case was a sordid affair. The eighteen-year old son of the Cattouns had been briefly involved with a gay man who was now blackmailing the parents. There were letters and pictures.
Farid Wahba showed up at the Cattoun Mansion one morning punctually at eleven. Cattoun Pasha received him in his large office. Their meeting lasted for nearly an hour. Farid listened to the details of the affair, asked questions and took notes.
“I think I have all the information I need for the time being,” he told Cattoun Pasha as he got up to leave.
“Why don’t you stay and have lunch with us? We’ll have a casual meal upstairs and you will meet my wife.”
Cattoun Pasha led Farid upstairs to the living room.
“Adele, this is Farid, Amin Wahba Pasha’s son. He works for Maitre El-Alfy and will be handling our case.”
“I am very happy to meet you Farid,” Adele Cattoun said as she extended her hand to Farid. “I’m glad that Moise had the inspiration to ask you to stay for lunch.”
Farid sat in the comfortable armchair next to hers. He glanced at her and noticed that she was looking at him. He blushed. She looked lovely in a long pale blue silk dress.
While the servants served cocktails. Adele Cattoun made every effort to make Farid feel at ease, she could see that Farid was shy and intimidated. She took a cigarette in her mouth and when Farid got up to light it she noticed that his hand was slightly shaking.
Cattoun Pasha dominated the conversation during lunch. He talked, among other things, about his friendship with Wahba Pasha and the visit to Luxor he and his wife had after the War as a guest at the Pasha’s house.
“Please serve yourself properly,” Adele told Farid as the suffragui6 was passing the plates. “Moise and I both eat like birds.”
The menu consisted of a fish plate, lamb cutlets with spinach and fruits for desert. As soon as Adele had been informed that Farid was staying for lunch, she quickly asked the cook to prepare a plate of rice for him.
After lunch they adjourned to the living room for coffee.
“Adele will be handling this case,” Cattoun Pasha said as he got up. “I have to return to the office.”
The Cattoun Case was quickly settled through another law firm that Maitre El-Alfy dealt with from time to time that specialized in these types of affairs. The man was contacted and threatened with police action; he was given a sum of money, much less than what he demanded. The pictures and letters were obtained.
Farid Wahba phoned the Cattoun residence and was put through to Adele Cattoun.
“Mme Cattoun, the affair is settled. Could you please send someone to the office to pick the letters and pictures we obtained from the man?”
“I’m playing bridge tomorrow at the Woman’s Club. It’s not too far from your office. I’ll come by myself. I’ll be there after six. I want to thank you personally for what you’ve done.”
The next day she arrived a little after six in the evening. Apart from Farid, the offices were empty. It was a Saturday afternoon and everyone had left early. They sat comfortably in Maitre Alfy’s spacious office and Farid offered her a glass of whisky. Farid felt good as he was sipping his whisky, he had an urgent desire to talk. He was not shy anymore. Inevitably they talked about the subject that preoccupied everyone in Egypt, the first elections that had been held since the British Occupation of Egypt.
In the beginning of 1919 a group of Egyptian politicians, headed by Saad Zaghloul Pasha, formed a delegation to meet the British High Commissioner. They requested permission to attend the Peace Conference to present Egypt’s case for independence. The British government refused the request of the delegation and, frustrated, these politicians formed the Wafd Party (wafd means ‘delegation’ in Arabic) to pursue the fight to end the British Occupation of Egypt.
There were major riots in 1919 and the disturbances lasted until 1922. Zaghloul Pasha was arrested and deported to Malta with two of his companions. In 1922 the British unilaterally proclaimed Egypt “an independent sovereign state” with Fouad as King of Egypt. Zaghloul Pasha and his companions returned in triumph from their exile. Nevertheless, the British maintained an army of occupation to protect the communications of the British Empire.
“On the evening of the elections, I was walking home near Sawiris Square when it was announced on the radio that the Wafd Party had won in a landslide,” Farid said. “People started dancing and chanting in the streets. I am not usually an emotional person but I had tears in my eyes. This is a memorable moment in the history of the country. Egypt is in the process of changing.”
Farid Wahba was now all excited. Nothing could stop him from talking now. He told her about his aspirations of joining the Wafd Party and becoming actively involved in politics. Nearly an hour went by. Adele looked at her watch and got up to leave. Farid got up and handed her the envelope that contained the letters and pictures. He stood next to her to bid her goodbye.
“I have to go. I enjoyed our little conversation. Thank you for resolving our little problem.”
As she pronounced these words she turned around to face him. Intoxicated by the smell of her perfume, Farid lost his head. He put his arms around her waist and kissed her passionately in the lips. Never had a woman been so surprised. She enjoyed his kiss even though she knew it was crazy. She wasn’t sure whether to be angry or simply laugh it off.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted as he released her.
A bizarre feeling invaded her. She was not sure whether she was excited or disgusted. She found his sudden transformation from a timid man to a daring seducer irresistible. She put her two hands on his cheeks and kissed him on the lips. Her lips were very soft. They lingered on his. He led her slowly towards the couch and started to undress her. She offered no resistance.
Afterwards as she was dressing up and straightening her hair, she told him:
“And I thought you were shy.”
Farid insisted on walking her to her car. He told her as she was getting into her car:
“When can I see you again?”
“Do you really want to?”
“Of course I do.”
She reflected for a few seconds. She was not going to prolong this ridiculous adventure. She had no intentions of seeing him again.
“I’ll call you one of these days when I have time.”
Once settled in the back of her chauffeur-driven Bentley, she started to laugh.
“My God! What a fool I’ve been. Seduced, at my age and by the son of a Pasha. He treated me like a little shop girl and I enjoyed it.”
She had always been a reserved woman with great self-possession and she would never have imagined that she would ever surrender to such passion. She had lost her head completely.
As soon as she arrived home, Adele went up to her bedroom. Eva, her maid, knocked at the door and came in.
“Where have you been Madame Cattoun? You didn’t come to rest before dinner.”
Adele undressed and took a quick shower. Naked, she went to her bed and covered herself.
“Are you feeling alright?” Eva asked.
“It’s been a long time since I felt so good.”
Early one afternoon, a week later, Adele was sitting in her private living room smoking a cigarette and reading when Eva knocked at the door.
“There is a Mr. Wahba on the telephone. Do you want to talk to him?”
She took the telephone and immediately recognized his voice.
“You promised to call me,” he said.
“I have been extremely busy these days.”
“When can I see you?”
“As soon as I can find a free moment.”
She hesitated for a moment and then decided it was time to make him understand, nicely but firmly, that what had happened the other day was not going to happen again.
“Farid, I want to make it clear to you that this silly affair is over. I cannot see you anymore, at least not for a while,” she told him. “I have always been a faithful wife and a good mother. We have to forget it ever happened.”
She started to talk to him about her twenty year old son who was going to Cambridge next year. She wanted to make Farid understand that she was old enough to be his mother.
Nearly a year later Farid attended a ball at the Cairo Opera House to celebrate the opening of the Italian opera season. He was sipping a glass of champagne and chatting with an acquaintance while watching the guests entering the reception hall. Opera divas, a few princesses from the royal family and the cream of the Cairo society were slowly making their appearances. Farid noticed Cattoun Pasha and his wife coming towards him. Adele looked alluring in a long evening dress.
“Hello Farid.” She couldn’t help herself from blushing like a young schoolgirl.
Later in the evening Adele found Farid Wahba standing alone, she went over to him and told him:
“Farid, I need to consult you on a delicate matter. Could you come to see me tomorrow morning?”
“I don’t practice law anymore.”
“I know. Maitre El-Alfy told us. I still need your advice. Moise and I were impressed with the way you handled our case.”
Around ten the next morning, Eva came in Adel Cattoun’s private living room with a card from Farid Wahba.
“Please have him come in and bring us some coffee.”
Farid came in and greeted Adele, he was followed by Eva who came with the tray of coffee which she placed on the table near the divan. As Eva was leaving, Adele told her:
“Eva, Mr. Wahba and I have some important business to discuss. Please make sure we are not disturbed. I will ring the bell if I need anything.”
“Very well Madame.”
Eva left the room and as soon as the door was closed Farid and Adele were in each other’s arms kissing passionately. She sent him away a little before noon, before her husband came home for lunch.
Farid Wahba started to write a weekly column under the title “From the Depths” in the “Ahram”, one of the leading daily newspapers in Egypt. The beauty of his style and his ability to construct a solid argument quickly attracted the attention of many of the prestigious political and intellectual personalities of the country. His articles covered social and philosophical themes and occasionally touched politics whenever important political events took place. Judging from the mail he received from readers, he had quite a following. Every week the editor would send his chauffeur to Wahba’s dahabia to pick up his articles.
Many of the issues he covered were controversial. An article about the necessity to rupture the social system that was dominated by religious institutions, which caused quite a stir, was followed by another article about the injustices of the British Occupation. Even though Farid had learnt to admire the English people, their fair play, their stiff upper lip, and their politeness, he had no hesitation in criticizing them. In one of his articles he lamented the fact that local textile industries were being strangled especially after the state imposed an excise duty of 8% on the production of all textiles in the country. Meanwhile raw cotton bales were shipped to Manchester and returned as finished textile products.
Farid Wahba Bey was still unmarried at the age of twenty-eight. He could have selected a bride from any of the best families of the high society of Cairo. He had everything a young man could dream of, wealth, good looks, and the certainty of obtaining any position he wanted. Gossip had often linked his name with daughters of several notable Coptic families.
In 1922 Hoda Shaarawi Hanem, the daughter of a rich landowning Muslim Pasha and the wife of a prime minister, was returning from Paris with a delegation of twelve women where they attended an international conference. They were met at the Bab El-Hedid Railway Station in Cairo by reporters from all the local Arabic, English, French, and Greek newspapers.
Hoda Shaarawi, in a gesture of defiance, removed her veil (it covered her hair only); her companions quickly joined her and removed theirs. The pictures of this daring act were published in all the newspapers and magazines of Egypt the next morning. This courageous act had a profound influence on many of the daughters of the Egyptians bourgeoisie, both Muslim and Coptic. Melba Makar, the younger daughter of Samy Makar Bey, was one of those women.7
Makar Bey was a landowner who owned nearly 1200 feddans of cotton plantations near the town of Mansoura in the fertile Damietta branch of the River Nile Delta nearly 120 Kilometers northwest of Cairo. Ezba8 Makar was located at the outskirts of the village of Sandub. The main mansion had two floors and was surrounded by a three-acre wooded garden. Mango trees grew on both sides of the road leading to the main entrance gate.
Makar Bey was a tall, heavy man, about sixty. He thought much about his personal appearance. He considered himself handsome and was especially proud of his aristocratic bearing. His wife was an elegant woman in her late forties who still retained her beauty. A quiet and mild-mannered woman, she often managed, in her own sweet way, to influence many of the important family decisions.
The two Makar daughters went to school at the American College in Mansoura. Salwa, the older daughter was attractive but with cold good looks that were not alluring. She was married to a country doctor from one of the neighboring villages. Melba was the more stubborn of the girls and certainly had the sharpest tongue. She was always a rebel; she wanted to prove her independence and protest against the traditional social conventions. At the age of eighteen she informed her parents that she had no intention of sitting at home waiting for suitors to come. She was going to find herself the man she wanted to marry. Still a virgin as she was nearing the critical age of thirty, she was now desperately eager to find a husband. She was often admired and boasted among her friends of the offers which she rejected. Her friends, behind her back, were apt to talk of her many failures.
Melba began life with very high aspirations believing in her own beauty, her mother’s elegance, and her father’s wealth. She regarded herself as one of the beauties of Cairo. When she was eighteen she dreamt of marrying a bey or the son of a pasha but these were scarce and the few available ones tended to be married through their family connections. Although she was highly born, she was not very lovely, not very pleasant, and she had no fortune. As the years slowly went by, she made up her mind that she would do without a bey but she must get someone of the proper class. He must be a man with a place in the country and sufficient means to bring her annually to Cairo. He must be a gentlemen and, probably, in parliament. And above all he must be of the right sort. She would rather keep on struggling rather than have a family arranged marriage to a country doctor like her sister had done. But the right sort never. She had been trying hard to find a husband for herself for nearly six years. She became aware that she had fixed her price a little too high but she was still determined that she was not going to be poor, that she would not be banished from the Cairo social scene, and that she was not going to become an old maid.
One morning in early September 1928, the Makars were leaving early the next morning to take the 8:15 am train from the Mansoura Railway Station to Cairo where they were spending the winter season. The servants were busy making the final arrangements to close the mansion. Makar Bey wished he could cancel the trip and save the expenses of this annual migration; the evening gowns, the dull Cairo dinner-parties and the dinner reception which his wife had to give; but he didn’t dare to do it. His wife and his daughter Melba were eagerly looking forward to the numerous balls, the charity galas and the opera season.
The Makars had lived for three generations in their townhouse in the Fagallah suburb of Cairo. It was a large house with little charm. It had few of the luxuries which were installed to newer Cairo residences by the tradesmen who had made fortunes during the war. The house was gloomy and inconvenient with large salons, uncomfortable bedrooms, and little accommodation for the servants. When his wife, instigated by some of her snobbish friends, had once suggested changes, Makar Bey at once snubbed her. If the Fagallah house wasn’t good enough for her and the girls, then they should remain in the ezba.
Once settled in Cairo Melba was delighted to receive an invitation to Laila Suleiman’s annual ball this year. She had known Laila Suleiman intimately when she was still Laila Asfour; Laila had been without fortune, but she was very pretty. She was Melba’s junior in age and was lower than her in social position. In the early days of their friendship Melba had often domineered over Laila and had been entreated by Laila to be invited to her parties and balls. Then the great Suleiman marriage happened suddenly three years ago and exalted Laila very high just as Melba was allowing her aspirations to descend. Adel Suleiman Bey was a man of great wealth and a member of parliament. Laila made the most of her new position. She became a prominent hostess. Invitations to their social functions were sought after by many.
The Suleimans loved to dazzle and they did dazzle that evening. The large house in Garden City was ablaze by nine o’clock. The large verandas had been covered with boards. The ball took place in the ground floor and first floor. Several tall Nubian suffraguis greeted the guests.The three salons of the first floor had been prepared for dancing and one of Adel’s nephews was assigned the task of master of ceremonies giving instructions to the band. To make sure the event was prominently displayed in the society columns of the newspapers and magazines, several reporters were invited to attend the ball.
When Melba was introduced to Farid Wahba by Adel Bey, she quickly realized that, at last, she had found the man she had always dreamt of. He was handsome and elegantly attired, he was a bey and he was rich, he lived in Cairo and was part of the elite social scene, and he was single.
The ball was opened by a waltz in which Laila Suleiman danced with her husband. Standing next to Melba, Farid asked her to dance. Late in the evening Melba Makar was still dancing with Farid Wahba. They were spinning round and round throughout a long waltz, thoroughly enjoying the excitement of the music and the dance. Farid was a good dancer and Melba was happy. She loved dancing with all her heart. After the waltz, they danced a tango.
“How nicely you dance,” he said as soon as he had breath for speaking.
It is not difficult to understand why Melba Makar decided to seduce Farid. He was her dream man and she had no intentions of letting him fly away.
When by midnight he hadn’t made an effort to arrange a date, she decided to go on the assault. Encouraged by the five glasses of champagne she had drunk, she asked him:
“Where do you live Farid?”
“In a dahabiah on the Dokki side of the Nile.”
“How exciting! I’ve never been to a dahabiah.” She said. “Why don’t we go there for a little while and have a nightcap?”
She quickly sent a message to her mother’s chauffeur to return home and tell her parents the next day that she was staying with a girlfriend. They spent the night together.
It took Farid almost a week to feel suffocated by her constant attentions. He found her frigid, overbearing and boring. She came to his dahabia every morning and stayed there the whole day. It became a major endeavor to make her leave late in the evening. During that week, Farid was unable to work on his newspaper articles or see any of his friends. He decided that he had to terminate this liaison to keep his sanity. One morning he wrote her a short blunt letter and escaped to Alexandria for two weeks.
By the beginning of 1929, the affair between Farid Wahba and Adele Cattoun had not cooled down. They didn’t see each other as often as they used to; Adele had been elected the previous year president of the Women’s Club of Cairo and, between her busy social life and her club duties, she found it hard to find the time to spend the habitual long afternoons at Farid’s dahabia. However, their relationship remained as passionate as ever and a deep friendship had developed between them. Hardly a day passed without Adele phoning him.
Once a month, Farid was invited to dinner at his father’s mansion. One evening the Pasha was smiling as he received his son.
“I want to have a word with you before you go.”
Such a proposition was unusual.
“We can talk after dinner,” the Pasha continued as he led his son to the salon.
After dinner the two were sitting in the Pasha’s office.
“I don’t suppose there is much in it,” began the Pasha, “but people are talking about you and Madame Cattoun.”
“People do love to gossip;” Farid said as he thought of the fact that for many years people had talked about the Pasha and his many women. He was relieved to see that his father had not heard about his episode with Melba Makar.
“I’m sorry about that. Not that I mean to interfere with your life. You have to acknowledge that I have not often done that.”
“No, you have not,” said Farid. “These are slanderous rumors that I would prefer to disregard.”
“You may but I am not able to. The Cattouns are friends of mine. These rumors make it difficult for me to socialize with them. I want you to stop seeing them for a while. I don’t want to interfere with your life. You think I’m asking too much of you but you have to remember that I give much and have asked nothing from you. I expect you to oblige me in this matter.”
Farid was not happy with his father’s request but he knew that he couldn’t simply ignore it. He owed a lot to his father. His work, both at the law firm and the “Ahram” newspaper, had been obtained through his father’s influence, and he received a liberal allowance which his father could stop anytime. He continued to meet secretly with Adele Cattoun but he tried to curtail, as much as possible, his social engagements with the Cattouns. He never mentioned anything about the conversation with his father to Adele Cattoun.
Amin Pasha decided that it was high time his son got married. Like many self-made men, he wanted to find a bride from one of the old aristocratic Coptic families. He had long deliberations with several of his friends and acquaintances and with the leaders of the Coptic Church. They all agreed that the oldest daughter of Yousef Wassif Pasha would make an ideal match.