Fatma Neslishah Sultan, or Princess Neslishah Osmanoglu, was born on February 4, 1921, just as the Ottoman Empire was taking its last breath. She was granddaughter of the last Ottoman Sultan, on her mother’s side, and the last Muslim Caliph, on her father’s side, and was the last member of the more than 400 year old Ottoman dynasty to hold an imperial title. Neslishah: The Last Ottoman Princess by Turkish journalist Murat Bardakci, published by the American University in Cairo Press, is based on Bardakci’s extensive interviews with Neslishah, as well as first person accounts and unpublished memoirs from other members of her family.
The biography focuses on the first half of Neslishah’s long life. The Ottoman princess died at the age of ninety-one in 2012. She and her family married into Muslim royal households throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and thus her life, and the book, are more intricately tied to the post-colonial Middle East than post-imperial Turkey.
Neslishah’s story begins with the second chapter, with the first focusing on her maternal grandfather, the last Ottoman Sultan, Sultan Vahideddin, and his ascension to the throne at the tail end of World War I. Neslishah was three when the newly formed Turkish parliament dissolved the Caliphate in 1924, and sent her and her family into exile. Much of the family initially settled in and around Nice, France where they struggled to maintain the lifestyle they were used to and live within their shrinking means. As a result of these financial pressures, the education of Neslishah, her two sisters, younger aunts, and female cousins was cut short.
The heart of Neslishah’s story, as told in this biography, revolves around her time as a member of the deposed royal family of Egypt. Neslishah and her family moved to Egypt in the 1930s as it became increasingly clear that Europe would soon find itself in another massive war. In 1940, the princess married Prince Abdel Moneim, son of the last Ottoman viceroy of Egypt and heir to the throne until his father was overthrown by the British in 1914.
Together with her husband and sisters, who also married members of the Egyptian royal family, Neslishah was subject to almost continuous financial and personal threats, as Egypt went from from one political crisis to another, during the course of the twentieth century. She endured World War II, the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, the abolishment of the Egyptian monarchy in 1953, arrest, and finally a second round of exile, this time from Egypt.
The circumstances surrounding the arrest, trial and eventual exile of Neslishah and her husband are eerily familiar for anyone following current events in Turkey. In the fall of 1957, they were placed under house arrest for conspiracy against the government of President Gamal Abd al-Nasser. The conspiracy was supposedly far reaching, involving members of the royal family, religious scholars, and even British intelligence services. Eventually, Neslishah and her husband were put on trial in military court. As Neslishah recounted to Bardakci year later, “they had no proof, no clues, nothing at all. Some people had apparently conspired against Abd al-Nasser, and my husband I were supposed to have known about this conspiracy and had not informed the authorities. They wanted my signed deposition admitting the crime of not reporting to the government what we knew. I did not sign!”(251). After a six month long trial, both Neslishah and her husband were eventually acquitted. In 1959, a twice-exiled Neslishah returned to her native Istanbul, where she lived out the rest of her long life.
Much of the biography is in fact memoir and contains quotes from Neslishah, as well as other members of her family, that go on for three or more pages at a time. Often times, the surrounding explanatory and contextual text is merely a summary of the proceeding or preceding quote. This has the effect of dragging the story on a bit, and makes one wonder why Bardakci did not simply publish his interviews as Neslishah’s edited memoirs.
It is unclear whether this is a feature of the original manuscript, which was published in Turkish in 2011, or a result of inelegant translation, but the prose are often choppy and simplistic. Parts of the book are also far from accessible to a general reader. For example, chapter one quickly dives into the historical and political context of Vahideddin’s life and reign. The deluge of names and places and subtleties of internal family politics are overwhelming. Even those more familiar with late Ottoman history would do well to read, and extensively refer to, the helpful family tree and “who’s who” at front of the book, while engaging with this chapter
One of the best features of the book may be the extensive number of photos, depicting Neslishah’s public and private life and her extended family, including her parent’s wedding, her birth and death in Istanbul, and all the places she lived in between.
Neslishah: The Last Ottoman Princess is not for the average reader, but it provides an unusual opportunity for English speakers to read an intimate account of some of the most formative moments in both Turkish and Egyptian history.