Dans la ville d’or et d’argent

“Sakina” is a picture of the bulb roof of the Chhota Imambara, also known as Hussainabad Imambara or the Palace of Lights, located in Lucknow, the city of the Nawabs in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
It was selected to make the cover of “Dans la ville d’or et d’argent”, a novel by Kenizé Mourad.


Kenizé Mourad’s new biographical novel “La Ville d’Or et d’Argent”, published in French, Italian and Spanish, has not yet appeared in English.


Kenizé Mourad is a French writer and journalist whose reporting on Middle East and Indian issues was published under her real name, Kenizé de Kotwara.
Amazingly, Ms. De Kotwara only became aware of her Turkish-Indian parentage in her late teens.


• Kenizé Mourad’s mother:
Kenize Mourad’s mother was in fact a granddaughter of the Ottoman Sultan Mourad V, the Sultana Selma Rauf Hanin (born in Istanbul in 1914 and died in Paris in 1941).
Selma’s story itself was a case of fact being stranger than fiction. She grew up in Istanbul in the years following the First World War, leading the secluded and frivolous life of a little princess, but always peeking out trying to observe life outside: Istanbul is occupied by the Greeks, the British and the French.
She has a chance to meet and be fascinated by Mustafa Kamal, the man who would modernize Turkey, free Turkey from foreign occupation, and at the same time, free the country from the ruling Ottoman dynasty.
Selma and her mother have to leave the country and live in exile in Beirut, where the lively young girl is able to enjoy the relative freedom of Lebanon at that time.
Since the girl is vivacious, her mother feels that a suitable marriage must be arranged before she compromises herself beyond repair. In fact they have become penniless.
This means diplomatic woman’s work around the available royalty – after a disappointment with the King of Albania, an Indian Rajah is chosen.
So the girl is sent off almost alone to India, where she learns that she is expected to live in purdah.
Selma’s life of adventure, and the events that lead her to be alone and pregnant in Paris just as the Germans invade in 1939, is told in Kenizé Mourad’s novel Regards from the Dead Princess, first published in French in 1987, after years of research in Turkey, Lebanon and India.
This book is a real labour of love, and the authoress, who had no memory of her mother, tiptoes between the love she would have wished to express and some bitterness over her mother’s rather erratic behaviour.
Her pen-name Mourad is a homage to her mother’s ancestor, Sultan Mourad.


• Kenizé De Kotwara’s father:
Kenize De Kotwara, the journalist, takes her name from her father, Rajah Syed Sajid Hasain Ali of Kotwara (born in 1910 and died in 1991).
Kenizé only found out her own identity when she was about twenty, so she never as an adult knew her mother, but she did get to know her father. The painful story of this young French girl is told in Mourad’s second family novel, “Le Jardin De Badalpur” (published in French, Spanish, Italian but seemingly not in English).
It follows the girl from her earliest belief that she was an orphan, brought up first in the family of a Swiss diplomat and then by Catholic nuns, a typical Parisian student of the 1960’s.
She then finds herself in an unknown India, not as a tourist but as the daughter of a Rajah who in the meantime had formed another family, unaware until then of the existence of this daughter, having been led to believe that Selma’s daughter had been stillborn.
Although the authoress gives her heroine another name (Zahr), the book is an autobiography, taking us through her childhood and the difficult years until she finally comes to terms with a new self.


In her new book, Kenize Mourad recounts the story of Begum Hazrat Mahal it is available in French as “La Ville d’Or et d’Argent” (The City of Gold and Silver, i.e.Lucknow), and in Italian as La Principessa Ribelle (The Rebel Princess).
This is a biographical novel whose heroine is the fourth wife of the King of Awadh, who led a rebellion of Northern Indian States against the British Colonial Powers represented both by the East India Company and by the Crown.
The novel is set around around the First War of Indian Independence of 1857, also know as the Sepoy Rebellion.


The novel has two themes: the romantic, mainly imaginary tale of the girl Muhammadi, a poetess, who becomes wife of the King of Awadh (Oudh) and takes the name of Hazrat Mahal. Mahal is the title given to the mother of a royal prince.
Her personal story – how she has poor relations in the Zenana (part of the house reserved for the women), how she loses love for her husband and later becomes involved with one of the rajahs leading the revolt, how she manipulates to have her young son and not one of the sons of more senior wives nominated to the crown so that she becomes Regent – is not really special.
Yet is keeps the story from being dry history.


The second theme of the novel is the historical part, the military history, the political and economical analysis of the Indian State of Awadh (Oudh), of the unethical dealings of Britain’s East India Company, the faith of certain Indian Rulers in the British Crown, in Queen Victoria, how far removed they were, how physically long it took for messages to go back and forth, rendering the local British officers and functionaries of the East India Company subject only to their own good sense and conscience.


This book recounts massacres on both sides, the siege of Lucknow, the destruction of much of India’s heritage and treasure, and since the country had to wait another 90 years for independence, there is no happy ending.


Ms. Mourad with her different backgrounds manages to put herself wholly behind the Indian point of view, while not sparing her unease with many aspects of Indian life and society.


Kenizé Mourad’s interview in French:


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