Monday, 2 March 2015

Rania Al-Ghais: Dancer, courtesan, assassin, mystic and spy.

Born in the first year of the twentieth century Rania Al-Ghais was brought up by her mother and sister in Cairo for the first eleven years of her life.  She would see her father, the famous painter Sir Lawrence Swann, only during his annual visits to Egypt from September to December, when he would sketch, paint and collect interesting oriental items for his studio in Chelsea.  Nevertheless, when he was in Egypt he would spend a great deal of time with the girl, teaching her English, German, Dutch, the piano and how to draw.

Rejecting the French and Italianate villas of the Garden City, Sir Lawrence had a traditional Egyptian house in the centre of Cairo and Rania delighted in frequenting the souks and coffee houses as much as the grand hotels.  She was equally at home in both environments without really belonging to either.  She loved watching the traditional Ghawazi dancers who would perform in the streets and at festivals and holidays.   Her mother taught her the dances, which she had embellished with some sensuous moves of her own, devised for the entertainment of Sir Lawrence.

As she grew up she watched her mother and aunt perform for her father in daring belly-baring costumes and, sometimes, much, much less.

At the age of eleven she made the long journey to England to study at Roedean School, on top of windswept cliffs near Brighton.  She soon became a proper young English lady and lost the Dutch accent she had acquired from her father.  She missed the heat and noise of Cairo and for the first term cried herself to sleep every night in her damp, miserable dormitory.  She never felt she entirely belonged in England and many of the other girls taunted her because of her mixed blood.  She learned to fit in with the English while secretly despising them.

At Christmas, following her first term at school, her father returned from Egypt with her mother and she went to stay in Sir Lawrence's London house and studio in Chelsea and at his country house in the Meon Valley.  She enjoyed the traditional English festivities down at Sir Lawrence's Hampshire home and her mother took her shopping in London's department stores: Selfridge's, Marshall and Snelgrove, Dickens and Jones and her favourite, Harrod's which was considerably more splendid than even the Orosadi Back store in Cairo.

She took up ballet but continued her oriental dancing as well.  In 1913 she posed naked for her father's painting The Young Dancer which depicted her dancing before pharaoh in an Ancient Egyptian court setting. It was reminiscent of a painting he had done of her mother before she was born.  Rania was proud of how her father had captured her sinuous looks but Sir Lawrence's paintings were now out of fashion and critics took issue with his depiction of her naked, pubescent form.  Stung by the painting's reception Sir Lawrenee never exhibited again.  Swann took Rania to the Twentieth Century Art show at the Whitechapel gallery in 1914 and was appalled by the "primitive daubs" on display.  

The Great War depressed him enormously, particularly as his mother had been German.  He would stride around his studio ranting that Britain was fighting the wrong country and that they should join forces to conquer the real enemy: France.  He confined his work to drawings and watercolours of Rania's mother, Zairah, and her aunt, Deena.  These pictures only saw the light of day after Ranias's death in 1985, when the archive she had kept of her father's work was catalogued.  The drawings and paintings shocked many who saw them, especially given the fact that they depicted two sisters, but they were eventually published in a book entitled Sir Lawrence Swann: Forbidden love. Studies of the Al-Ghais sisters 1914-1919.

After her father's death in 1919 Rania studied at Ruprecht-Karls-Universit├Ąt Heidelberg,  where she met the young men who saw the advantages of a fluent Arabic and English speaker in the post war turmoil of the Middle East.  Eventually, she came under the influence of the Tarnhelm family who were conducting mysterious excavations in Egypt, far from the usual archaeological sites.

Coached by family matriarch Eva von Tarnhelm, who seemed particularly delighted in Rania's ripe but unfashionable figure, young Rania became adept in many skills useful to an undercover operative in Egypt and the Levant.  She, like other groups in Egypt, will soon be embarking on the quest for the treasure house of Queen Weret-Imtes.  

Brother Vinni resin figure.  He's probably the best sculptor of women in this scale at present.