1979 Begum

Some time ago, Anne Matheson of the Australian Women's Weekly interviewed Begum Salimah in London just before Her Highness's visit with Mowlana Hazar Imam to Australia where they were invited as specia guests of honour for the 1979 Melburne Cup.

Here is a condensed version of the interview and a glimpse into the life of Begum Sahiba as wife, mother and worker.

At her Paris house, the oldest known building within the shadow of Notre Dame cathedral and once an abbey, photographer Alec Murry and I went up a circular stone staircase from the monastic entrance below street level.

Upstairs, stone walls were covered with tapestries and the room was furnished with medieval pieces that blended well with modern sofas. The silence was broken by a deliciously clear, crisp voice as Princess Salimah came in, hand outstretched in greeting.

Her children Princess Zahra, Prince Rahim and Prince Hussain raced down the echoing stone staircase and clustered around her. She asked "Have you met my darlings?" and they showed off spotty faces and told the story of the chickenpox, sometimes all three at once.

Prince Karim's grandfather, the late Aga Khan III, nominated his grandson to succeed Him as Imam. Prince Karim has not failed Him. His achievements in social welfare have become a legend in His lifetime.

What the late Aga Khan could have forseen, however was that the spiritual leader of the Ismailis would marry an English girl who would work beside him, bringing her own high sense of obligation to the community.

Princess Salimah told me, "I have visited our Ismaili communities in India, Pakistan, East Africa, Canada or wherever they are. I travelled and worked with Karim right through my three pregnancies and bringing up my babies.

"I belive in this day and age it is my role. It is breaking new ground for Muslim women. It is more than a duty. Karim's people are my people and my concern, but our concern is not only for the Ismailis. It goes deeper and wider than that. We have built new hospitals, schools, maternity centres and child welfare clinics which are open not only to Ismailis, but to all people.

"My husband firmly believes people of all faiths should share with our people. We are a minority group in any country and this way the Ismailis are assimilated into the community and all are much happier."

Princess Salimah had no training whatever for her social welfare work. "I was thrown in at the deep end, and in a way I think that is best," she said. "I did it my way. I read everything I could lay my hands on. I attended lectures and seminars but my experience came in what you might call the field, when I could talk to doctors, nurses. midwives and health visitors.

"I had never made a speech in my life and found myself down to speak before a crowd of 12,000 in a town in Pakistan. I was terrified - but apparently nobody noticed. It cured my nervousness. Nothing could frighten me after that."

Packed with her clothes for the Melbourne Cup the Begum has saris she will wear if she gets a chance to visit any of the 25 Ismaili families who have settled in Australia.

When Idi Amin threw the Ismailis out of Uganda, they went to Canada, which kindly received 16,000 of them," she said, "but some could not stand the harsh winters and went to Australia. They had a very good doctor who was reported that all are well and happy.

"On our way to Australia we were stopping off at Bangladesh. There is such a lot of work to be done there".

There are some fields in which the Begum is specially interested. "I would like to do more with deaf children who have speech difficulties. I learned of wonderful audio units for deaf children and getting them is part of our expansion program, she said.

"I am also particularly interested in our vaccination program and the baby care centres. We have 94 health centres in Pakistan alone."

Birth control, says the Begum is not a great problem. The Ismailis are, on the whole, very modern in their attitude, free thinking and aware. There are, of course, others in isolation, like the people in Hunza, a small state in the Himalayas, who need a lot of help. "Ante-natal care is virtually unknown. Women are in purdah and may not see a man, not even a male doctor.

She feels that travelling with the Aga Khan to these remote regions may be some help in bringing the women out of purdah. "Education goes a long way in healing", she said. "Sponsoring a sound education program is one of the best things we have done."

Language is no barrier when the Begum visits India. "You see I was born in Delhi and as a child my Urdu was fluent. My father Lieut. Colonel Croker Poole, was in the army there."

I asked the Begum why so little was known of her vast program of welfare work. "Well it is our work that matters, not me", she said.

The three children were getting impatient to have their mother to themselves - and who could blame them? The eldest is Princess Zahra. Her mother said, "My hope is that she will grow up to help me."

Zahra's wish at the moment is to fly her father's jet, but her mother told me, "None of the children come with us when we travel. The jet is not for pleasure. It carries at least four secretaries, thier staff and a crew of three. It is like an office and would never qualify us for the Jet Set."

The children are at school in Paris, have lessons when they are at St. Moritz in winter and holidays with "Grannie Joan" (Prince Karim's mother, Princess Joan Aly Khan, sister of Lord Churston) and with "Gan-gan" and "Grandad" Poole, the Begum's parents.

The following day the Begum invited us to Aiglemont, the recently completed property near Chantilly, where home, office and racing stables are brought together in an idylic country setting.

The Aga Khan's new chateau is a modern version of an 18th century country house. It is only partly furnished, but the Begum is in no hurry.

Work on Prince Karmi's projects is carried out from offices close to the chateau and he has about 100 horses in the most modern stables in the world. Trucks run smoothly and silently between the horse stalls and cleaning is done electrically. The big barns are immaculate and when the horses are resting no one dares whisper.

The present Aga Khan took some time to racing, but now he plainly delights in his string. The Begum loves horses. "They are my passion," she said and took us to see Top Ville, the winner of the French Derby. She said it was a heady moment when she stood with her husband to receive the trophy.

Canadian Ismaili

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