Nasser, Tahia (1923—)
Nasser, Tahia (1923—)
First lady of Egypt. Name variations: Tahia Kazem. Born Tahia Mahmoud Kazem in 1923 in Cairo, Egypt; daughter of a successful merchant; attended a French preparatory school in Cairo; married Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970, a military officer and later president of Egypt, from 1956 to 1970), in 1944; children: daughters Hoda Nasser (b. 1946) and Mona Nasser (b. 1947); sons Khaled Nasser (b. 1949), Abdel-Hamik Nasser (b. 1951), and Hakim Amer Nasser (b. 1953).
Tahia Nasser was born Tahia Mahmoud Kazem in 1923 into a prosperous family in Cairo, Egypt. After her parents died and one of her two sisters married, she went to live with her only brother, who owned a rug factory near the Abbassia military academy. She soon met Gamal Abdel Nasser, an instructor at the academy and a friend of her brother's who often visited the Kazem household. The somber and independent-minded soldier, who had lost his mother as a boy, was drawn both to Tahia's kindness and to her domestic abilities and soon asked her brother for her hand. Although he was rejected for quite some time, he continued to request her hand until finally his proposal was accepted. They were married through a Muslim marriage contract in 1944.
Egypt, which had been under British domination since the 19th century, had been made a British protectorate during the First World War, after which Egyptian resentment, riots and strikes had led in the early 1920s to the reestablishment of the monarchy. However, Britain continued to maintain a strong military presence in the country, the Egyptian government was riven with internecine strife, and nationalist movements gained strength, particularly after the Second World War. Tahia Nasser knew Gamal was a political man; he wore a scar from a 1935 anti-British demonstration in which he had been beaten and jailed. When she arrived one night in 1949 at a Cairo train station to pick him up, she watched as military police hauled him away to answer charges that he had been plotting against the government. By then they had three children, two girls and a boy, and she began living in constant fear for her husband and family.
By 1952, unknown to Tahia, Gamal was leading the secret Free Officers Committee, an organization operating within the Army which harbored deep resentment at British influence in Egypt. Over the previous ten years, the Free Officers had developed into an independence movement, its members infuriated by what they perceived to be the weakness and despotism of King Farouk and a corrupt military command. Although Gamal never discussed such things with her, Tahia had suspicions that he was involved in some sort of political intrigue. Finally, after finding a box of hand grenades under their bed and a pile of leaflets from the Free Officers Committee under a car seat, her suspicions were confirmed.
In the small hours of July 23, 1952, Tahia was awakened by gunfire. Not long after, she listened to Radio Cairo announce that the Free Officers had taken control of the city. By July 26, the bloodless coup headed by her husband had forced King Farouk into exile, and Tahia was moving her family into a military compound. Gamal subsequently declared Egypt a republic and moved up through various high-level ministerial positions. By 1956, he had squeezed out the active prime minister and taken the office of president himself. Tahia Nasser became the first lady of Egypt, and her anxieties and fears subsided some-what. She voted in elections regularly after Egyptian women were given the right to vote that year.
Gamal insisted on a rather simple home life for himself and his family—evidence of his contempt for the extravagances of the royal family which had preceded them. Their official residence, well-to-do but hardly ostentatious, seems to have suited her well. Tahia ran the household in the smooth, efficient, and routine manner that her husband required. In her spare time she played piano, did needlepoint, and watched films with her husband in their home theater; they shared a passion for motion pictures.
Unlike many other first ladies, Tahia seldom attended public functions, which her husband usually hosted or went to alone. She appeared in very few official photographs before the visit to Egypt in 1964 of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and his wife Nina Petrovna Khrushchev. (Although she had traveled in 1959 with Gamal and their children to Yugoslavia, where she met and was photographed with Josip Broz and his third wife Jovanka Broz Tito , those photographs did not appear in the Egyptian press.) It is unclear whether this arrangement was her desire or her husband's demand, but her virtual invisibility had benefits. She was said to be quite content with her obscurity, which gave her privacy and enabled her to continue her modest, family-oriented routine even after her husband took high office. She shopped in local stores, attended the opera, and sipped coffee in cafés without being recognized, enjoying a personal freedom known by few wives of national leaders in the 20th century.
Heavy Egyptian losses in the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War led Gamal to attempt to resign from the presidency in 1967. He was convinced to stay on, however, and died in office in 1970, after which Tahia continued living in their family home. One author described Tahia Nasser in 1967 as "happy because she is close to the man she married." Perhaps she wished for little more than to be free of the haunting anxiety that comes with being the wife of El Raís (the president), as she referred to him with people she did not know, in a troubled part of the world.
Commire, Anne, ed. Historic World Leaders. Vol. 1. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994.
Frederick, Pauline. Ten First Ladies of the World. NY: Meredith Press, 1967.
Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada