Remembering prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
A new book by English-Swiss author Diana Miserez remembers the multifaceted life of prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, writes Amal Owaida
The prince with his second wife Chatherine Sursoch-Khan
Despite the objections of his wife princess Catherine, the first book to appear 14 years after the death of prince Sadruddin Aga Khan has now been published in English and French. Entitled Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Humanitarian and Visionary (Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Humaniste et Visionnaire), the book has been written by English-Swiss author Diana Miserez.
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan lived in Islamic Cairo in a renovated Mameluke house next to that of famous Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi during much of his lifetime. His father had fallen in love with Aswan and was buried there, and Sadruddin Aga Khan himself moved between Aswan and Switzerland. His son now helps to save important Egyptian historical monuments through his work on Islamic architecture.
For many Egyptians, the famous Aga Khan family is associated with three places. The first is the island in Aswan where the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan — Mohamed Shah Aga Khan III (1877-1957), the 48th imam of the Nizari Ismaili community, is buried. His body was transferred from Switzerland according to his will in 1959, and in 2000 his beloved fourth wife Um Habiba was buried next to him.
The second place is Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, built by the Aga Khan Foundation for Islamic Architecture founded under the patronage of current imam prince Shah Karim Al-Husseini, Aga Khan IV, in 1967. At a cost of more than LE100 million over seven years, an abandoned area of the Islamic city was turned into a vast urban park, becoming one of the largest in Cairo and one of the most successful urban projects in the world.
The third place, which, however, has little to do with the Aga Khan family, is the street named after the second son of the imam, the “diplomatic prince” Sadruddin Aga Khan, in recognition of his efforts in Egypt, Africa and the Arab region in the 1960s and 1970s. The Arab Contractors Company built 15 towers in a now prestigious district of Cairo going from the end of Shubra Street to the Nile Corniche in the 1970s. The towers are within walking distance of the Nasser Medical Institute, and before they were built the area was partly agricultural land and partly an area full of dumped cars and deserted houses.
Today, Miserez (born in 1938) has completed her fifth book, the first to come out about the life of politician, diplomat and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. He was the holder of an Iranian passport, had Swiss citizenship and an Islamic affiliation, and was born in France in January 1933 and died in Boston, Massachusetts, in May 2003, accompanied by his second wife. The couple had no children.
When Miserez, who spent many years working with the prince, was asked about the reason for the delay in publishing the book, she pointed to the opposition of his widow princess Catherine despite her friendship with both the prince and his wife. Princess Catherine, born in Alexandria in 1938 and formerly the wife of Lebanese national Cyril Sursock, has also refused to read the book without explaining her reasons.
Prince Charles receives the “Golden Soul” from Aga Khan
The prince was born in Paris but became a refugee at an early age when the Nazis invaded France in 1940. He spent the war years travelling, settling in Switzerland where he received his early education in Lausanne. Several years later he attended Harvard University in the US to complete his seven-year university education that included three years of post-graduate research at the Harvard Centre for Middle Eastern Studies. At Harvard, he roomed with Paul Matisse, grandson of the French painter Henri Matisse, with future Paris Review magazine founder John Train, and with Stephen Joyce, grandson of the Irish writer James Joyce, and future United States senator Edward Kennedy.
While still at Harvard in 1953, with Train and George Plimpton prince Sadruddin became one of the founding editors of the Paris Review, which was established with the aim of bringing original creative work to the fore. Every year the Review now awards the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction (established by his father) for the best short story published in the past year. Later, the prince returned to live in Geneva, a city he loved and that inspired him to begin a lifelong career in international service.
Last April at the Geneva Book Fair, the first book on prince Sadruddin Aga Khan’s life was launched.
Among those who attended were Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, Edward Girardet, an editor, journalist, author and media consultant, Nicola Spafford Furey, vice president of the Earth Focus Foundation, and Philippe Roch, a former director of the Swiss section of the World Wide Fund for Nature and former director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment. A special greeting was sent from an old friend of the prince, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who conveyed his compliments on the English edition of the book.
A HUMANITARIAN CAREER: “If there is anything worse than being a refugee, it is being a refugee without a refuge.”
It was sentiments of this sort that caused prince Sadruddin Aga Khan to follow in the footsteps of his father, one of the founders and first president of the All-India Muslim League (AIML), which pushed for the creation of an independent Muslim nation in the northwest of India, at the time under British colonial rule, and later established the country of Pakistan in 1947. He was nominated to represent India at the League of Nations in 1932 and served as president of the League from 1937 to 1938. During World War II, the Aga Khan III withdrew from political life and spent his life between Switzerland and Aswan, leaving his grandson to succeed him.
Prior to the death of the father, prince Sadruddin started his humanitarian work by joining the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1958 and became the executive secretary of its International Safeguarding Campaign for the Nubia Monuments in 1961, bringing together archaeologists from Eastern Europe and the West at the height of the Cold War.
The construction of the Aswan High Dam was threatening ancient Egyptian treasures including Abu Simbel, the temples of Philae and Kalabsha, and the Christian churches of Nubia at the time. Prince Sadruddin would later describe their safeguarding as “one of UNESCO’s great achievements” because of the challenging historical context in which it took place and in particular because of the tensions in the Middle East during the Cold War.
Miserez and Owaida attending the book signing at the UN library
Soon the prince became a special envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1959 with a focus on World Refugee Year (1959-1960), which coincided with the International Year of Refugees. The initiative became known for its Stamp Plan, a philatelic programme that raised funds through UN member states, as well as the support of the Universal Postal Union. At the time, the UNHCR’s resources were primarily focused on supporting refugees crossing from Eastern Europe.
In January 1966, prince Sadruddin was appointed UN high commissioner for refugees after serving for three years as deputy high commissioner. At the age of 33 he became the youngest person ever to lead the UNHCR. For the next 12 years he directed the UN refugee agency through one of its most difficult periods, coordinating the international response to the 1971 Bangladesh crisis that uprooted 10 million people, the 1972 exodus of hundreds of thousands of Hutus from Burundi to Tanzania, and the Indochinese boat people tragedy of the mid-1970s. In 1972, prince Sadruddin played a key role in finding new homes for tens of thousands of South Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin.
Prince Sadruddin’s determination not to discriminate between European and Third World refugees helped prepare the UNHCR for changes in the landscape of internationally displaced persons in the decades that followed. By the 1970s, European refugee problems had been mostly solved, but they had been replaced by millions of displaced persons in the Third World.
Prince Sadruddin widened the UNHCR mandate well beyond its original focus on Eastern Europe, extending the organisation’s reach to refugees from Palestine, Vietnam, Angola, Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the suspicion of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. In recognition of his efforts, the prince received several awards, the most important being the United Nations Award for Human Rights (1978).
A 1949 family photo. Back row (l-r): Begum, Aga Khan’s wife; Amyon, Ali Khan’s younger son; Sadruddin, Aga Khan’s younger son and Ali’s half brother; Ali Khan; Karim, Ali Khan’s older son (presently the Ismaili Imam). Front row: Aga Khan III; actress Rita Hayworth, wife of Ali Khan
THE STORY OF THE BOOK: It took Miserez two years to finish writing her book, and she was plagued by doubts at not doing it in the best possible way. “I was not sure I could write what was right about the prince,” Miserez commented.
Her first attempt was in 2012 when she invited a group of people who had dealt with the prince personally and professionally to write their memories of him, but his widow stopped them from moving forward for a reason that was never clarified. Later on, she indicated that she would agree if the book was written by a professional author. Miserez, who thought of herself as being unqualified to write about the prince, communicated with professionals through publishers in the United States and the United Kingdom. But the publishers were reluctant to finance the work for the necessary time, not knowing if they would recover their expenses.
“I was encouraged by others to proceed with the book myself, using the material they provided, as well as what I had collected myself. There was also what family members told me about the prince, in addition to books including the biography of the current imam by professor Aziz, a Pakistan academic. I read articles written by the prince himself, as well as others,” she said.
“The initial version took several months to write in 2015, and was then submitted to a publisher in the UK. I translated it myself into French. The translated version was given to a professional editor, and when the reviews were completed I launched both versions in English and French this year. I hope my book not only inspires others to write about the prince, but is also inspiring for young people and for Ismaili followers. I hope it will inspire others to follow in the prince’s footprints in his work for humanity and for the weak, people who were always his concern.”
The funeral of Aga Khan III in Aswan led by Sadurdin and Karim, 1959
“He was a true friend and a humble person in his dealings with others,” Miserez said in describing the prince. “When we first met, I was just an employee, but he was kind enough to say that he would like to visit England again because I lived there. One of the chapters in the book contains copies of letters between us. The first letter I wrote and received a response to was in 1966, and we began exchanging letters on different occasions, including his congratulations on the publication of my book on the tragedy of the refugees.”
Although prince Sadruddin was raised in Europe by his French mother, his father, who was the 48th hereditary imam of the Nizari Ismaili Muslims, had a strong influence on him. He recalled that his father insisted that he learn the Quran and encouraged him to understand the traditions and beliefs of Islam but without imposing any particular views. He was an overwhelming personality but open-minded and liberal, the prince is on record as saying. He travelled with his father at an early age to most of the Arab and Islamic countries, and in 1970s he was keen to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein during one of his missions in Iraq with the United Nations. He was an example to other and a loving person who accepted every creed and religion, Miserez remarks.
He was fluent in French, English, German and Italian, while he also spoke some Persian, Arabic and Urdu. He wrote a number of works in his native language, English, and published hundreds of articles rejecting the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the protection of threatened species.
Prince Sadruddin was also concerned about and warned of the impact of insensitive tourist development and deforestation of the European Alps. In 1977, together with a few friends he established a Geneva-based think-tank, the Groupe de Bellerive, and a non-profit organisation, the Bellerive Foundation, which collaborated with international institutions, British and Scandinavian bilateral aid organisations, and other NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). It became a leading grassroots action group promoting environmental protection, natural resource conservation and the safeguarding of life in all its forms. Bellerive was also amongst the first organisations to warn of the potential human health hazards of modern intensive farming.
He was nominated, but passed over, twice for the post of UN secretary-general. Although he won the 1981 vote, the former Soviet Union considered him to be too western in outlook and vetoed his election. When he was nominated again in 1991, the United States and Britain expressed their disagreement with his opposition to the war in Iraq and the former US Bush administration’s proposal to overthrow the then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
The activities of the Bellerive Foundation were later merged into the Aga Khan Foundation to form the Prince Sedkan Aga Khan Fund for the Environment.
INTEREST IN THE ARTS: The final chapters of Miserez’s book are devoted to the prince’s collection of art, as during his lifetime he assembled one of the finest private collections of Islamic art in the world.
He became a knowledgeable and respected collector, accumulating a priceless collection of paintings, drawings, manuscripts and miniatures over 50 years. He also gathered a collection of African art which he sold sometime prior to 1985. Prince Sadruddin’s interest in Islamic art was sparked in his youth by his paternal grandmother’s library of Persian books, mystical texts and astrological treatises. The collection is vast and diverse, and includes Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Indian pieces dating from the 10th century onwards.
One example is a page from a copy of the Quran of North African origin written in gold lettering in the kufic script that is more than 1,000 years old. His Persian roots are well represented in calligraphic as well as pictorial specimens reflecting a range of periods and dynastic patrons. Also included are several examples of Ottoman calligraphy, manuscripts and paintings. The prince also built a unique collection of kites from Japan and other countries.
Prince Sadruddin’s father used to take him to art centres in Europe and the Islamic world, especially in Cairo, where he lived for a time in a restored Mameluke house in Islamic Cairo next door to the architect Hassan Fathi’s house in Darb Al-Ahmar. The prince was always keen to collect Fathi’s books and drawings, and after his death these were handed over to the Aga Khan Foundation.
In addition to art, the prince loved all that is beautiful. He bought an Aston Martin DB5 similar to the famous “James Bond car” in 1986, which he renovated and drove before selling it in 1998. It was later purchased by an institution specialising in classic cars.
At the end of my interview to talk about her new book on prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, I saluted Lady Diana, as I called her, almost a woman from a different age. One could feel the diplomacy of her performance, the elegance of her expressions, the tastefulness of her dress and her good spirits. She is similar to her friend, the late prince, in being humble and simple in manner. Diana assured me that she does not plan further projects after completing her book about her friend “the Prince”.
She now lives in a house in Freiburg, Switzerland, where she has chosen to spend her retirement years with her Canadian husband after the marriage of their only daughter Claudia.
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