Egyptian Husband and Wife Leaving After Nearly Decade in D.C.
Over the past nine years in Washington, Nermin Fahmy, wife of Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, has become a reliable role model. She is a gracious and well-informed ambassador’s wife, a passionate Egyptologist, the veteran leader of the Mosaic Foundation charity, and the woman who successfully redecorated the Egyptian Residence single-handedly.
As news spread recently that the Fahmys would be leaving Washington at summer’s end, their many friends and colleagues began to plan the Fahmys’ farewells, as well as their own trips to Cairo to visit the popular couple.
Nevine Hassouna, wife of Arab League Ambassador Hussein Hassouna — both of whom are Egyptian — said she doesn’t know what she’ll do “without my morning call with Nermin every single day.”
“We’ve been friends forever. I used to work for her father Ali Abdel Nabi, who ran an Egyptian newspaper. And I remember one day he came to work and told me that his daughter was going to marry the son of the foreign minister and that was Nabil,” Nevine recalled, noting, “Our husbands have always been friends because my husband worked for Nabil’s father at the [Egyptian] Foreign Ministry.”
With the Fahmys’ imminent departure, Nevine and her husband have already planned to return to Washington earlier than usual this summer to spend a few remaining days in late August with their dear friends, Nermin and Nabil.
To a wide circle of friends, Nermin, 56, is the quintessential diplomat’s wife who knows how to get things done. Certainly, for the last three years as chair of the Mosaic Foundation, Nermin was the one who kept things going after the charitable organization’s dynamic founder, Saudi Arabia’s Princess Haifa, left Washington three years ago.
“Mosaic has been a very satisfying organization for me,” Nermin said of the group, which is made up of the wives of Arab ambassadors in Washington and works to ensure that children are sheltered and fed, women achieve their full potential, and cultures promote dignity and respect for others.
In May, Nermin hosted 720 guests for the last time at Mosaic’s 11th annual gala at the National Building Museum. “It’s very hard to get people together, especially women, to work toward a common cause. But it brings joy to my heart that so many women have worked so hard to make so much happen in the name of Mosaic.”
Beyond Mosaic, Nermin and her husband have been very supportive of the Meridian International Center and its annual ball, as well as many other established area organizations such as the Washington National Opera, Washington Performing Arts Society, CARE and Arts for the Aging.
Another project closer to home — literally — has been the Egyptian Residence, which is no ordinary Washington mansion. Built in the early 1900s by real estate magnate Joseph Beale for his wife Margaret, and designed by well-known architect Glenn Browne, this grand Beaux-Arts structure of stucco and limestone has a unique curved façade that’s perfect for the pie-shape property.
Egypt purchased the mansion from the Beale family in 1928 for the mere sum of 0,000. But several years ago, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry debated purchasing a new residence because of the current home’s aging interior and electrical systems. Fortunately, the government decided against the purchase and instead began extensive repairs on the historic property.
As a result, when the Fahmys arrived in October 1999, they had to live elsewhere until the residence was at least partially ready, which didn’t happen until more than two years into their posting. All that time, they commuted from Potomac, Md.
“It was the end of May 2002 when we finally moved in. My daughter Sherin got engaged in our Potomac home on May 26 and the next day, her [future] mother-in-law, an old friend of mine, helped me pack. When we moved, only the upper floors [the bedrooms] were finished,” Nermin recalled.
“It took two and a half years to redecorate this residence but I enjoyed it — perhaps because I had already ‘practiced’ on two other places. In 1993 to ’94, just before we came here, I was fixing our summer home in El Alamein [Egypt]. There, I started with nothing and even created new rooms. And before that, we were in Japan and I had to redecorate there. Our residence was very modern and sat high on a hill and I had to mix the old European look with the contemporary.”
But the Washington home was her biggest decorating challenge. “This is the fanciest of the three homes and I had more to do here with a very restricted budget,” Nermin said, explaining how she bargained to get wholesale rates on high-end items such as Dupioni silk fabrics, personally negotiated many contracts, and looked back home in Cairo to find expensive items for less.
For instance, when two mother-of-pearl chairs had been thrown out, Nermin rescued them and sent them to the restorer. Other friends found a handsome mother-of-pearl chest in Cairo and brought it back to match the chairs.
Other wonderful touches include a rich green velvet-wrapped handrail leading up to the main floor, where gold-gilded ceilings adorn the long living and dining rooms, as well as an especially handsome oval sitting room featuring a domed ceiling.
“I told Belinda Reeder, our architectural design advisor, that I was not buying new furniture but hoped to make the difference with good color combinations. I started with the rugs in each room,” Nermin said.
“Before we started redoing this residence, I asked each staff member what they wished they had to make their work more efficient,” she added. “When we started, our freezer and fridge were not only outside the kitchen but on a different floor from the rest of the kitchen. Belinda helped us with that. And now the laundry is where it belongs, in the basement, instead of on the fourth floor.
“Now that we know that we’re leaving at the end of August, we must paint again, fix any cracks and leave this house clean,” Nermin said, noting that their successors, Ambassador Sameh Shoukry and his wife Suzi, are friends of the Fahmys. “They are younger than we are but we all knew each other back in high school. She studied interior design at Parsons, and I want to leave the house in perfect condition.”
Although they were also friends in high school, Nermin and her husband never became sweethearts until they attended the American University in Cairo, where Nermin was a graduate student of Egyptology and archeology.
An expert in the field of Egyptology, Nermin used to lead group tours throughout her country when she lived in Cairo — a career she hopes to resume when they return, but only “after we settle in again.”
To Ambassador Fahmy, the son of former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy, there is no question how valuable Nermin has been to his career in Cairo and their postings abroad in Geneva, New York, Tokyo and Washington.
“Nermin is a jewel,” he said after 33 years of marriage. “A tremendous cultural asset with her expertise in Egyptology, she was always radiant in our intensive social life, yet at the same time rock solid in ensuring that our family life remained in balance with our kids getting enough time and attention.”
The Fahmys’ growing family now includes three children as well as three grandchildren, and Nermin said it will be difficult to move so far away from two of her grandchildren: 4-year-old Lina and 18-month-old Adam, who live outside Sacramento with the Fahmys’ 27-year-old daughter Sherin and her husband. Their newest grandchild, 4-month-old Nadia, lives in London with the Fahmys’ oldest child Ingi and her husband. Their 25-year-old son Ismail, meanwhile, a graduate of the College of William & Mary and now a consultant in emerging markets, will be closer to home, having just moved back to Cairo. “He thinks there are more possibilities in our region,” Nermin noted. “At least he’ll be there to greet us.”
Another “member” of the family is Tango, the couple’s 6-year-old golden retriever, who loves his walks around the neighborhood with Nermin and the ambassador.
“We got him when he was eight weeks old. Our kids had always wanted a dog but my husband had always said no.” Then an opportunity appeared. “We were going to celebrate Nabil’s 50th birthday with another family and their three dogs on another friend’s boat in California,” Nermin recalled. “We decided that we could present Nabil with this adorable puppy and it would be a fait accompli. It was. The next day we flew home with Tango.”
Over the years, drivers along Massachusetts Avenue and neighbors in Kalorama have gotten used to seeing the ambassador in his jogging clothes out for a run with Tango.
Many of those neighbors and friends will be joining the farewell parties for the couple, which have already begun even though they won’t be leaving until the end of August. At her first farewell luncheon just days before the big Mosaic gala, Nermin had to juggle cell phone calls about Mosaic seating in between her guests’ heartfelt goodbye toasts.
As she reflected on leaving after almost a decade in Washington and moving back to her beloved Egypt, Nermin hopes she has told her country’s story to American audiences.
“Egypt has been in a process of change,” she said, proudly pointing out that Egyptian women are represented in all professions. “We’ve had a women’s movement for a long time. Often I run into people who tell me, ‘I want to help women in your country,’ and I say, ‘Do what?’ Women in Egypt already do everything. One third of our ambassadors are women.”
It’s those types of misperceptions that she’s fought to reverse. “I love to talk about Egypt — it’s a subject I want everyone to understand. It saddens me that so many people are unaware of even Egypt’s location. It’s the oldest part of the world — a cradle of civilization — but the problem is, when there are problems in Palestine or a war in Iraq, people will cancel a trip to Egypt,” she lamented.
But Nermin stressed her country’s tolerance and openness to outsiders, suggesting this may stem from the country’s mixture of Arab, African and European roots. “I want people here to know how warm and very friendly Egyptians are. We appreciate it when people come to visit, and we live peacefully with everybody.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.