Taste, Tact and Racism

Ian Hamilton

  • Assassination of a Princess by Ahmad Ata
    Dar Al-Huda, 75 pp, £5.00, September 1997, ISBN 977 5340 23 3
  • Diana: A Princess Killed by Love by Ilham Sharshar
    Privately published, 125 pp, £10.00, September 1998, ISBN 977 5190 95 9
  • Who Killed Diana? by Muhammad Ragab
    Privately published, 127 pp, £5.00, September 1998, ISBN 977 08 0675 7
  • Harrods: A Place in Knightsbridge by Tim Dale
    Harrods, 224 pp, £35.00, November 1995, ISBN 1 900055 01 5

The Di Castro Travel Agency in mid-town Alexandria has an eerily compelling window display: a shrine to the memory of Dodi al-Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales. The shrine has as its centrepiece the front cover of the magazine al-Musawwar depicting Di and Dodi on their wedding day that never was. The couple are shown hand in hand: she in a white bridal gown, clutching a bouquet; he in a dark morning-suit with a carnation in his buttonhole. They both seem very happy – or, shall we say, they don’t in the least seem to mind having their heads mounted on some other couple’s torsos. Di might not have been too thrilled with the mass-market-looking dress that she’s been made to wear, but Dodi looks straightforwardly elated. What neither of them knows is that, printed in bold red letters across the bottom left-hand corner of their wedding pic, a headline asks: ‘Who killed Diana?’

On either side of the centrepiece are cuttings from the condolence columns of Egypt’s leading daily, al-Ahram: messages of sympathy from Egyptian associates and friends of the al-Fayeds. And directly below the wedding photograph there is a copy of the Koran, open at a verse which reads:

Wealth and sons are the ornaments
Of the life of this world
But the things that endure,
Good Deeds, are best
In the sight of the Lord.

The montage is touching and grotesque: the simple pieties of the Koran in jarring contrast with the crude mock-up of the dead couple in their wedding finery. Who could have dreamed up such a folly? The Di Castro Travel Agency, according to an engraved announcement on the shop-front, is ‘A Fayed Brothers Company’ – owned, in other words, by Dodi’s father and his two uncles, Ali and Salah.

I visited Alexandria four weeks after the Paris car crash in which Di and Dodi were killed. After two weeks of British Dianamania, the Di Castro window could scarcely have failed to stop me in my tracks. For most Egyptians, though, the shrine, and what it seemed to say, were unremarkable. Far from being thought of as spooky or sensational, the Di Castro display merely summarised a general, and wholly settled, conviction in the Middle East: that accident was no accident.

Within days of the event, the columnist Anis Mansour was writing in al-Ahram: ‘British intelligence assassinated Diana to save the throne, just as Marilyn Monroe was assassinated by American intelligence. Never before, not even during the days of Crom-well, did any one person manage single-handedly to shake the foundations of the royal family.’ Once the Windsors were convinced that Diana ‘would marry a Muslim who would give her a son named Mohamed or a girl called Fatma, and the son becomes the brother of the King of England, Head of the Church, there had to be a solution,’ Mansour continued. ‘The solution was to dispose of the princess and her groom. In that way, the royal family’s nightmare would be at an end.’

It’s true there had been mentions of Arab conspiracy theories in the British press but here they were instantly dismissed as ‘lunatic’ or as Islamic propaganda, a line greatly assisted by Colonel Gaddafi’s intervention. Gaddafi told journalists in Sirte that Diana ‘was clearly hunted by the royal family, which wanted to get rid of her. It is very clear that they did not want the brother of a British prince to be an Arab Muslim.’ In an earlier statement, he accused Britain of ‘executing an Arab citizen and a British citizen simply because the Arab wished to marry a British princess. British and French intelligence planned this together. It is an act of racial and religious discrimination.’ Gaddafi, everyone knows, is barking mad: ditto, therefore, the theories he espouses. And in any case, people said, where did he get the idea that MI5 would have been clever enough to pull off such a chancy execution? The whole idea was nonsense.

The fact remained that in Egypt – and probably throughout the Arab world – few people were ready to accept that the lovers died by chance. On an Alexandrian newsstand I picked up three books on the subject: Assassination of a Princess by Ahmad Ata, Diana: A Princess Killed by Love by Ilham Sharshar and Who Killed Diana? by Muhammad Ragab. The last was subtitled: ‘By Order of the Palace – the Execution of Imad al-Fayed’. When I asked the newsvendor whether he believed all this, his answer was: ‘All of Egypt believes it.’ He seemed almost apologetic, as if he didn’t want to be the one who broke the news. I got a similar response from the head waiter in a Cairo restaurant: ‘The whole world knows it.’ He, too, seemed to feel sorry for me: a dim Briton gulled by his homicidal rulers.

During the four days I spent in Egypt, the assassination theory was on everybody’s lips – except that it was not a theory. There was confident talk of Diana being pregnant. She pointed at her stomach, did she not, when that French doctor came to her assistance in the tunnel – or was it another doctor, later on, after they had got her to the hospital? There was talk, too, of Diana having converted to Islam, in preparation for her Muslim wedding. I read stories of MI5 agents staying at the Paris Ritz on the night of the crash, of Dodi having received phone-calls over dinner, calls warning him that something was a foot. One call had made him ‘extremely tense’. Soon afterwards, he ‘decided to leave the hotel’. This story, reported in al-Ahram, seems to have originated in a French magazine called Nouveau Détective.

On one of the two evenings I spent in Cairo, I went to a dinner at which several Egyptian journalists and editors were present, including Anis Mansour, the columnist who had first floated the assassination theory. By the time I met him he had, he said, published a further seven columns on the subject. I half-expected Mansour to be viewed with condescension by his colleagues. A couple of days earlier, I had read in an English-language weekly that he was ‘well-known for his fondness for discovering design where others only see accident’. In fact he was the evening’s star turn. Most of the other guests seemed to approach him with great reverence, hanging on his words, nervously glancing at him when they spoke. And when the Di/Dodi liaison came up for discussion, nobody made any serious attempt to quarrel with the Mansour line. I asked the journalists about Mohamed al-Fayed, but they said little that I had not heard before: he had come from Alexandria, from nowhere, and had been out of Egypt for some thirty years.

His son Emad – ‘Dodi’ was a nickname – proved to be a subject of much keener interest. For them, he had clearly been a figure of high glamour – his Ferraris, yachts and jets, his Hollywood starlets, his successful courtship of Diana. I asked about Dodi’s relationship with his father but was soon made to feel that this was not a question that should properly be asked, not now, not during this period of mourning. I formed the impression while I was in Egypt that Dodi may have been a little backward – ‘simple’ was a word I heard quite often used – and that he conformed to some familiar image of the feckless first-born son of a rich father. Mohamed would always have bankrolled him, people said, if only in order to safeguard his own status as a loving parent.

The journalists were more forthcoming about Dodi’s mother, Samira Khashoggi. After the break-up of her marriage to Mohamed in 1957 (the divorce came through in 1958), she had founded a magazine called al-Sharqiyya. She had written romantic novels, married again (twice), and in 1986 she had committed suicide – though it was more often said that she died of cancer, or a heart attack. During the early days of her separation from Mohamed, when Dodi (b.1955) was two or three years old, there had been an unpleasant custody dispute. Mohamed kept little Dodi ‘under guard’ in Alexandria because, he said, Adnan Khashoggi, Samira’s brother, planned to kidnap the child. Eventually there was a court order forbidding Khashoggi to make any approaches to his nephew.

Journalists are, of course, terrific gossips, and this was an informal evening. On the following day, I interviewed an Egyptian diplomat who had spent several years in London and had close dealings with the al-Fayeds. Did he buy the assassination theory? Did al-Fayed himself buy it? Mohamed, said the diplomat, would accept the French judicial findings; he believes in French justice, and of course he hopes that the car crash will turn out to have been an accident. But what about the Di Castro window display: did this not indicate that the al-Fayeds inclined somewhat towards the idea of a conspiracy? ‘This was possibly the work of an over-zealous manager,’ he said. He had not himself seen the faked wedding picture, but he did not seem particularly shocked when I described it to him.

The ‘Who Killed Diana?’ issue of al-Musawwar is dated 5 September, six days after the crash. On the same day the Queen, somewhat reluctantly addressing her subjects, paid tribute to her former daughter-in-law as an ‘exceptional and gifted human being’, but made no mention of the princess’s final lover and co-victim.

Before he died, most of what was written about Dodi had been prurient and disapproving. Some regarded it as racist. Edward Said, for instance, spoke of ‘an orgy of racist fantasy and sexual peeping tom-ism’. ‘It was as if every threadbare Orientalist cliché about “fabled” Oriental wealth and sexual prowess was marshalled to conquer (read “violate”) the blonde English snow fairy,’ he wrote in al-Ahram Weekly. And in impressive support of his opinion, he cited the 10 August issue of the Sunday Times:

Does he [al-Fayed senior] hope that William’s coronation, in however many decades’ time, will have an Alexandrian air due to the dark-eyed presence of the new king’s half-siblings Cleo and Mo, the dashing children of Dodi and Di? And will old Grandpa Mohamed, the matchmaker, be there himself, rubbing his hands in victory?

After the Paris deaths, hostility to Dodi became quite explicit, and it was presumably in order to combat such disparagement that Dodi’s bereaved father decided to put his own spin on the tragedy – and, indeed, on the romance. Within days of the car crash, Michael Cole – al-Fayed’s ultra-Brit PR man – was feeding the newspapers sugary tidbits from the couple’s final hours. Diana, he said, had given Dodi a pair of cufflinks that had once belonged to her father. Dodi had responded with a ‘Tell me yes’ ring. There was also a silver plaque on which Dodi had inscribed ‘a poem’, seemingly authored by himself.

Cole also refuted press suggestions that Dodi was a fast-car freak. ‘In point of fact,’ he said, ‘Dodi did not like speed.’ He also dismissed speculation that Mohamed had dreamed of becoming step-grandfather to the future King of England. ‘All the Fayed family loved the Princess,’ he said, ‘and wanted nothing from her. Their only wish was that she should find personal happiness and contentment after her years of difficulty.’ And on 17 September, on the Geraldo Rivera TV show, Cole mused on the several ways in which the two lovers had been suited to each other:

When they were together they were quite similar ... they had such a lot in common. They both liked the films, I mean Dodi was besotted with the film business. And Diana was a film fan. Somebody was saying to them, you know, they should go and see a stage play in the West End which was just wonderful, and both of them agreed simultaneously that they’d rather see even a second-rate film than go to the theatre.

‘The mouth-piece doth protest too much, methinks,’ wrote one reader to the Sunday Telegraph. Al-Fayed, though, was not to be restrained. When the Sun (which, pre-Paris, had run the headline ‘Dodi is a Dud in Bed’) reproduced a letter which al-Fayed had despatched to the ‘hundreds of ordinary folk’ who had sent him their condolences, there were suggestions that the letter had been leaked. ‘I take some comfort,’ the letter, signed by al-Fayed, read, ‘from my absolute belief that God has taken their souls to live together in Paradise ... If the planet lasts for another thousand years, people will still be talking about the terrible event we are living through. But what they will remember most is the love that existed between two wonderful people.’

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