A few years ago, a friend of mine, Marie, who lives in New York, befriended a woman named Genevieve Arnault, who once fell in love with, and married a king, lost him when he was executed in a bloody revolution, and then suffered the attempts of those who wished to write her out of history, as if she never existed.
Marie was walking in a small town in New York when she saw what looked like a homeless woman crumpled in a heap on a sidewalk. Looking more closely, and realized that it was not at all a homeless woman, it was her friend, Genevieve, who was not having a good day.
Genevieve, a native of France, was an artist. Her paintings were once exhibited, in 1963 or 1964, in a one-woman show at the Beaux-Arts Gallery, 151 East 71st Street in New York. A brochure was made with the names of the painting and some brief biographical information.
The contrast between Genevieve in her disheveled, rumpled clothes, compared with what she had once been couldn’t have been more stark. There were riches and luxury in Genevieve’s past, but there was more than that. Genevieve was part of history, a history that goes back to Mecca, Mesopotamia, to the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, to the rise and fall of the British Empire, to Lawrence of Arabia, and to the villainous Saddam Hussein.
There was an article about her in Life Magazine in 1963, but most of the world, to this day knows nothing of her existence. She is not even a footnote person in history. Genevieve ought to be listed in Encyclopedias, like Wikipedia, next to the name of a king, and yet she is not. To this day, the nation of Iraq refuses to acknowledge her marriage to King Faisal II, and so does Wikipedia.
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She suffered a fate that most people could not fathom. On July 14, 1958, her world came crumbling down and it was never the same again.
Briefly, below is Genevieve’s story from the brochure of her art show:
This Exhibition of Paintings by Genevieve al-Malika al-Iraqiah is the achievement of an amateur who took art lessons at Finch College for a short time. The young artist tried to express here only her emotions and souvenirs of her short-lived happiness which was ended by the bloody Revolution in Baghdad, July 14th 1958, in which her beloved husband King Faisal II was brutally murdered.
Genevieve and King Faisal had been friends since their childhood (1948) and on June 22, 1957 they were married in Baghdad. al-Malika Genevieve al-Iraqiah was overwhelmed by the love and devotion extended to her by the people of Iraq (over the 2 years she lived there since 1956).
Genevieve, who was at an impressionable age when it happened, lived with the memory of the horrific circumstances of her husband’s death for the rest of her life.
One can’t find much about her on the internet, however, a series of connections between friends, namely my friendship with Marie, Marie’s friendship with Genevieve, and my friendship with a woman named Dorothy, whose memories of Iraq were jarred by an illustration from my first novel of an M.G. Roadster, compelled me to write this article to share with those who might be curious about what happened to Genevieve and the history and circumstances surrounding her marriage to King Faisal II.
My friend Dorothy was a British expat, who strangely, also had a connection to King Faisal II through a friendship with his chauffeur and the king’s M.G. Roadster. Like Genevieve, Dorothy’s life was also dramatically altered by the King Faisal’s assassination. I had gifted Dorothy a copy of my first novel, and in it was an illustration of an M.G. Roadster that brought to mind her own dramatic escape from Baghdad in the king’s own M.G. Roadster.
In the mid-1950’s Dorothy and her husband were living and working in Iraq. They lived in a modest single dwelling home, owned and operated vending machines throughout Baghdad. Dorothy, a lover of birds, kept a pet parrot.
She and her husband were friends with many Brits, as well as Iraqis. In those days Brits and Iraqis regularly socialized together at cocktail parties, and their friends ranged from highbrow to lowbrow. One friend in particular, was the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, and another was King Faisal II’s chauffeur.
After World War I, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East was partitioned with arbitrary boundaries that sometimes made little sense. The British were fearful of what would happen if the Russians and the French would take over the region, because among other things, they wanted to protect their own empire, especially their crown jewel, India.
Iraq became a British protectorate, and the Brits thought that a dynastic monarchy would bring stability to the newly formed country. The first king was a man named Faisal from the Hashimite dynasty in Mecca, who was immortalized in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence of Arabia and Faisal had worked together in a brilliant, concerted effort, to overthrow Arabia’s Turkish rulers.
T.E. Lawrence was a man who whole-heartedly believed in Arab independence, gave it his all to help the Arabs free themselves from Ottoman rule, only to have his Arab friends betrayed by British imperialistic meddling. Still, Faisal, born in 1885, was made a king in 1920, Faisal I bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi.
Faisal I first became king of Syria in 1920, and then was King of Iraq from 23 August 1921 to 1933 (the French, who came to control Syria after the war, did not want a dynasty in place).
According to Wikipedia: “Faisal fostered unity between Sunni and Shiite Moslems to encourage common loyalty and promote pan-Arabism in the goal of creating an Arab state that would include Iraq, Syria and the rest of the Fertile Crescent. While in power, Faisal tried to diversify his administration by including different ethnic and religious groups in offices.”
King Faisal I died in 1933, and his son Ghazi took the throne, but only ruled until 1939, when he, too, passed away. Ghazi’s son, Faisal was only six years old. The child Faisal was made the new king, Faisal II, but the running of the nation fell into the hands of his uncle, Ghazi’s brother, Prince Abdul al-Ilah.
By 1958, Communism/Bolshevism movements had been growing all over the world for years, and Iraq was no exception. Even though wealth from oil, and modernization had changed Baghdad dramatically since WWI, there was plenty of poverty and misery left in Baghdad for the communists to capitalize on.
Two years earlier, in 1956, the bloody purges of Joseph Stalin had come to light in a speech by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, disheartening and demoralizing thousands of American communists who secretly belonged to Stalin’s U.S. network, but it did not stop the millions of deaths that were to come under communists regimes, worldwide, over the next four years.
On July 14, 1958, when King Faisal II and his household, including his uncle Prince Abdul al-Ilah, who had been listening to the threats of “Death to the King,” on the radio, were deceived by a military officer who came to the palace under the guise of wanting to escort them to safety, were suddenly gunned down by the officer in the palace courtyard with a machine gun.
Genevieve had returned to New York that spring with her mother, after her mother had been arrested in Baghdad, but managed to extricate herself after one day with the help of the American ambassador. The circumstances are unclear as to why, only that they were both asked to leave Iraq by government officials.
Dorothy and her husband were still in Iraq, so as Brits, it was in their best interest to get out of Baghdad as quickly as possible. The British Embassy had already been ransacked, looted and torched, with the comptroller killed. Fortunately, for Dorothy and her husband, two friends came to their aid, King Faisal II’s chauffeur, and the Iranian ambassador.
King Faisal was dead, his uncle was dead, and of all his domestic servants, the only one to survive was his chauffeur, who was not within the walls of the palace at the time of the massacre. The dynasty was gone forever. All that remained in Baghdad were the King’s personal possessions, such as his M.G. Roadster, and other cars.
His chauffeur no longer had an employer, or a job. Dorothy and her husband needed transportation to get out of Baghdad, so a deal was struck, Dorothy and her husband became the owners of King Faisal’s M.G.
They packed what little they could get into the roadster, including Dorothy’s pet parrot, and made their way to the Iranian border. With her husband driving the M.G., they sped through the desert in the dark of night, as fast as they could toward the Iranian border.
When they reached the border, they would need some kind of visa or documentation to cross into Iran. Fortunately, they possessed a letter written on their behalf by the Iranian ambassador, and it sufficed as their ticket into Iran and out of Iraq.
Once in Iran, they continued driving into Turkey and had the M.G. Roadster shipped by sea back to Britain.
After the murders of the royal family, a reign of terror followed, with show trials, thousands of people executed, and confiscation of property. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled the country over the next four years.
To give you a little of perspective on what was going on in the rest of the world at the time, it was in these same years, in China, between 1958 and 1961, that millions were executed, tortured and starved to death under Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. When Ho Chi Minh took over in North Vietnam, one million North Vietnamese would vote against communism with their feet and run to South Vietnam. And beginning in 1959 the Castro brothers conducted their own reign of terror, confiscating all private property, forcing Cuban citizens into work brigades, arresting imaginary enemies, and executing thousands. Cubans of African descent would once again be turned into slaves, with many of them choosing prison over slavery, like my friend, Ramon, a soft spoken and humble man, who, after years of being forced to work cutting sugar cane, harvesting tobacco, and picking cotton, escaped to the U.S. in the now famous Mariel Boatlift.
Eventually Iraq was ruled by the Arab Socialist Baath party in alliance with the Iraq Communist Party through a national front. While Sunni Moslems, the minority, had the control of the oil revenues, they did nothing to improved the lives of the Shia Moslem majority who lived in both urban and rural poverty up until the time the allied UN forces overthrew Saddam Hussein.
Dorothy and her husband immigrated to the United States where they settled in Houston.
Genevieve remained in the United States, where she eventually filed a claim in court proving that she, indeed, had been the wife of King Faisal II, and the court ruled in her favor as a legal heir to the remains of his estate. Then the Republic of Iraq sued the bank holding King Faisal II’s funds, but lost the case, clearing the way for Genevieve to receive her rightful inheritance of approximately $110,000. (See Republic of Iraq v. First National City Bank)
Genevieve’s post Iraq life was not a bed of roses. She remarried, had two sons, and was later divorced. She died in 2010 in Port Jervis, NY, her story all but forgotten.
Dorothy died in Houston, Texas in 2008. She was a kind, sweet, and charming woman. They called her the bird lady of Houston, for her love of birds. Being British, I knew she would like lamb, and so invited her for leg of lamb one evening, and another time, I brought her rack of lamb. Shortly after I gave Dorothy a copy of The Peerless Dulcinea, we paid her a visit, and that is when she told me her story of Iraq. I had a strange dream the night before, where a large bird, hopping in an upright position, insistently escorted me to her house.
There are some lyrics from the song Have I told You Lately That I Love You, by Jim Reeves, and later, other artists: “Have I told you lately that I love you?, Could I tell you once again somehow?
Have I told with all my heart and soul how I adore you? Well, darlin’ I’m telling you now.” To borrow from those lyrics, “I’m telling you now,” because their stories are part of history, and should be told.
If you are interested in reading more about pre-Saddam Iraq:
©2015 Susanna Godoy Lohse