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Obituary from Al-Ahram Weekly: In the name of the rose-2000-07-01

Saturday, 2000, July 1
Al-Ahram Weekly
Fatemah Farag

The Agha Khan Mausoleum in Aswan has been re-opened, and sealed off again, for the last time. The Begum Sultan Mohamed Shah Agha Khan, popularly known as Umm Habiba, died in Le Cannet, France, last Saturday and was laid to rest at sunset on Tuesday in Aswan. Her funeral was simple and quiet -- an understatement that fell short of the mystique inspired by her life.

The story of the Agha Khan couple, who now lie buried next to each other in a marble mausoleum inspired by the Fatimid Giushi Mosque and built under the supervision of the Begum herself, had all the elements of storybook romance.

The late Agha Khan III rose to his position as the 48th hereditary Imam of the Shi'a Imami Ismaili Muslims in 1885 at the age of eight. For 72 years, he headed a community of an estimated 15 million followers from 25 countries, mainly in Central and South Asia, East Africa and the Middle East. Agha Khan III was believed to be one of the richest people in the world. His grandson, Prince Karim -- heir apparent to the Agha Khan title -- presides over the Agha Khan Development Network, which controls assets in excess of $750 million.

The late Agha Khan, a delegate to the Round Table Conferences in London in the 1930s, is remembered for playing a central role in the evolution of the Indian sub-continent. He also held the post of president of the League of Nations. He was famously weighed by his followers and compensated with equivalent measures of gold, diamonds and platinum.

The Begum was born Yvette Blanche Labrousse in 1906 in the town of Sete in southern France to a seamstress and tramway worker. She won the title of Miss Riviera in 1930 and is said to have caught the eye of the Agha Khan, 29 years her senior, at a party in Cairo while dancing the tango. That was in 1938. A year later the Second World War broke out, and it was not until 1944 in Switzerland that the couple finally married, and Labrousse became his fourth and last wife.

So is this the story of a poor, young girl who married an older, ultra-rich religious leader? Maybe not so simple. The devotion shown by the late Begum to her husband, not only during his life but in the years since his death, approaches the status of legend. In April 1992, the Begum granted Al-Ahram Weekly an exclusive interview in which she spoke at length about her feelings toward her late husband. "He was such a lover of life. He told me, 'Do not leave me alone in the desert; come to see me very often'," she recalled.

They were words she would heed both in life and death. After the death of the Agha Khan, the Begum spent a large part of the year in Aswan. Every day she would walk the path from her house to the mausoleum and place a red rose on his grave. When away, she entrusted a worker with the ritual. Explaining the gesture, the Begum told the Weekly, "My husband was a great reader. He was always reading and near him was always an ordinary glass with one rose. Every so often he would take the rose in his hand, smell it and say 'Ahhh ... wonderful, wonderful.' You know in Iran, 'la rose' has no name, it is called 'the flower'."

The couple's connection to Aswan goes way back. "We used to come for two months and stay at the Cataract Hotel and have lovely promenades along the Nile. During these visits to the hotel, one day my husband said, 'I'd like to be buried in Aswan'," the Begum told the Weekly. In 1954, they bought a government convalescence home for high officials -- a sale that was made possible by then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser -- and converted it into their Aswan residence, now known as Nour Al-Salam. "This is me," the Begum told the Weekly. "Nour is light and Nour Al-Salam is a wonderful light. It is what this house is for me."

Shortly afterwards, the Agha Khan fell ill. He only lived in the house for three weeks in 1955 and in 1956 he was too ill to travel to Egypt. He died in Europe the following year.

Before his death, he had entrusted the task of building a mausoleum to his wife, a task she took very seriously. The Begum buried her husband temporarily in the courtyard of their Aswan home for the 16 months it took to build the grand hilltop structure that is his mausoleum, with the help of architect Farid El-Shafie and contractor Hassan Dorra. She insisted that she be buried beside him, inscribing her name next to his and leaving only an empty spot on which the date of her death was etched this week.

Begum Umm Habiba posing beside a picture of her late husband
photos: Al-Ahram archives

The days the Begum spent in Aswan were obviously happy ones. She had a favourite spot on the Nile, where she used to paint what she described as "perfectly formed sand dunes." In the local people, she found sources of inspiration for her sculptures. As for the sense of loss, she noted, "He [Agha Khan] is always with me. I am thinking of him all the time. As long as you live and you are thinking of someone, he is alive."

One way of expressing her appreciation for Aswan is the Umm Habiba Foundation, a non-profit organisation that has contributed to a number of health and educational facilities in the governorate.

"She set up the kidney dialysis centre at the city hospital and also several schools," explained rayes Hassan, a Nubian boatman. The boatmen who gathered on the Nile to watch the funeral procession, from which the public and press were excluded, said they knew the Begum first-hand. "She would come every year; the last time she was here was two years ago. She was very old by then and, while being transported, she would lie down," said Hassan. "We were told she did not come after that because of her health. May God have mercy upon her, she was a good woman."

Everyone seemed to cherish her memory. "She always had two dogs on gold chains with her," recalled one passer-by. Another added: "She would always wave to you when passing in a boat. She was really very friendly."

The funeral procession, a small group of people headed by a sheikh reciting the Qur'an and followed by the coffin draped in white, wound its way up the hill under the scorching afternoon sun in 43C heat toward the mausoleum.

According to Amyn Ahmed, Prince Karim's secretary, the event was attended by family members headed by the prince himself and including his brother, Prince Amyn, who directs the Agha Khan Fund for Economic Development, and his uncle, Prince Sadruddin, who once served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Also present were 25 representatives of the Ismaili sect, several Aswan civic officials, and the Aswan governor, representing President Hosni Mubarak.

"Umm Habiba was very precise about how she wanted the funeral. She wanted the intimacy of the family, she wanted to be buried here and she wanted it within strict Muslim tradition," Ahmed said.

Ahmed said that even though the Begum was 95, her death came as a "shock" to the family. "She was so full of life, warmth and affection," he said. The Begum had no children of her own, but was very close to the family of her husband.

Following the burial, the procession wound back down the hill and the black-dressed security men who dotted the desertscape began to leave. Caterers could be seen on the veranda of the house preparing refreshments, while reporters and photographers sped away in their boats to file their stories and pictures. Some tourists could be seen wandering in the botanical gardens and a little boy was splashing away near the river bank. It was a hot and lazy summer afternoon and everything on this quiet side of the Nile is pretty much as it has always been; one cannot help but think: just as Umm Habiba would have liked it.

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