It's not every day one gets to meet a princess, of course, I met them in my head growing up and reading fairy tales to my heart’s content. However, this princess is very different from the ones I read about growing up. This princess, is not waiting to be saved by the handsome prince, and is not asleep waiting to be woken up by true love’s kiss. This princess, is real, she’s taken the injustices of this world in her hands, she has become a role-model for women all over the world as an accomplished medical doctor, published scientist in the field of genetics and an emerging artist, has spoken openly about the importance of women’s role in society, has campaigned for those who cannot be heard, and loves gardening.
With my fancy Arts Club drink half drank, and my hands slightly clammy, I see Princess Nisreen rapidly walking towards me, profusely apologising for her delay as “the tube was very slow” and I'm slightly shocked at the fact that she rode the tube to get here, but mostly in awe of her warm and wise smile.
As I compose myself, I thank her for joining me and I immediately ask – “How should I address you? Princess? Doctor? “ – She says, “Nisreen is absolutely fine.”
This is the story of a Princess who has done things her way, not only because she’s Princess Dr. Nisreen, the granddaughter of King Faisal (I) Bin El-Sharif Hussein, the first King of Iraq, but because through her efforts she’s helping the most vulnerable children in the Middle East. With her foundation El-Sharifa Fatima El-Hashemite Trust Fund for Children and Motherhood, she is currently raising funds – through her artwork – for the life saving heart operation for a 10-year-old girl in Lebanon.
Here, she shares her passion, her wisdom and her heart.
TLS: Tell me a little bit about your upbringing and your early influences in the world of science, art, health and education?
N: I’m the only girl after three boys, born in 1969 – it was a Thursday – both my parents were overjoyed with the addition of a girl into the family. My father was an educated man, with a Masters in Business Management, and later a PhD. So, he was committed to implementing higher education in the Gulf States, Africa, Asia and Latin America, it was his main priority. My mother, has a strong sense of justice which is probably why she has a PhD in Islamic Law and why her main focus in bringing up her children, was the value of education. We were brought up with the Islamic principles, for us, when you die; you leave everything behind except your education and knowledge.
One of my grandfather’s first mandates as king was to buy land in Baghdad to build the city’s first university, where he was a teacher himself. Finally, my brother’s spoiled me a lot! That is, when they learned piano, they taught me piano, when they read a book, they wanted to share it with me, it was never ending.
When you grow up with these values it’s hard not to pay attention and want to continue with the legacy. As I grew older I knew I wanted to make people smile, and help them, and science it’s how I chose to do this. After I met a little girl with Thalassemia (a blood disorder), she made me promise I would help children like her and this is why I specialised in genetics.
TLS: What about your teenage years? How did you spend them?
N: I don’t remember having teenage years! [Laughs] My mother would encourage my brothers and I, to spend time in charitable organisations. Specially, as my father had founded the Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT) in 1968 to help educate around 21,000 underprivileged children from around the world, so we saw first hand how these children had very little opportunities. We, as a family, felt compelled to help and support these causes as we went into our teenage years.
TLS: Tell me about your work with UNESCO?
N: I have always believed in the transfer of technology as means of creating peace. About 20 years ago there was a huge celebration of UNESCO’s 50 years of being founded, and ironically the UK was not a part of UNESCO then. I campaigned to get them to re-join, and gave a speech in the importance of uniting the dialogue between all regions of the world through science, education, and culture. As a doctor, I don’t ask you “What’s your religion?” As a scientist that question doesn’t come up either. And in culture, we all love music, art and we don’t care about an actor’s or performer’s religion or ethnic background. These are uniting forces in these times of wars, and what I have been focusing on since 2006.
TLS: Your mother was obviously a strong role model for you, and growing up in a household of mostly men, how do you relate to your message of empowering women in societies? How do you take that message to the world?
N: It’s funny, nowadays, people don’t see my brothers but they see me. However, if it weren’t for their support, love and assistance I wouldn’t be here today. I was lucky I had 3 mentors growing up, and even today if you called them for an interview, they’d talk about me and then they’d ask you to speak to me [Laughs]. Both my father and my brothers showed me that women must be respected and heard. My mother’s work in women’s rights, empowering them in business and education was a constant in my life. And even going back to my grandfather in 1923, when he supported the publishing of the first women’s magazine in Iraq ‘Leyla’. There was no “he” “she” it was “we”. When I went to Harvard Medical School to continue my studies, I was shocked to discover the huge wage gap between women and men salaries, I couldn’t understand why that was the case. It wasn’t happening in Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq, in these countries you are paid according to merit not gender. Why are women paid 40% less than men? It’s too much!
As for taking the message to the world, it’s hard because the people who are having these discussions nowadays in Britain, the U.S, France – about women’s rights and gender equality – they are all men!
Once, I was in a UNESCO forum in 1998 where an official meeting on women in education was taking place and there were 8 men in the panel, I stood up and said, “With utmost respect to all of you, I am surrounded here by smart, educated women, and none of us deserve to be up there talking about these issues?” They could only apologise. To be clear, I don’t think men and women are competitors, on the contrary we are partners and should be seen as such.
We need to include women in top positions in governmental roles, at the moment there is only one-woman expert in science at the United Nations and that’s not enough. We need the vision of a woman in these roles so they can help shape policy. This is why this past February 2015 I established the World Women’s Health and Development Forum under the United Nations, to gather women experts of all fields – in addition to men and youth – to come and share their knowledge and expertise.
TLS: I guess, the role models we are seeing nowadays don’t really reflect all this expertise and knowledge that women in science or economics have. In the media, we see women in the arts for instance singers and actresses…
N: Exactly, and this is part of the problem and one of the things we discuss at the forum. How is it that women who are changing the world with their scientific discoveries, their contribution to economics or other social sciences are not being treated as celebrities? Are these women even considered for interviews in popular talk shows like ‘Loose Women’ in the UK or ‘The View’ in the U.S? No, they aren’t, we aren’t.
TLS: With shows like X-factor it seems we are teaching the younger generations that that is the only valid career choice…
N: Indeed, and the point is, it isn’t. I have a dear friend and colleague, who’s a fantastic Harvard trained medical doctor, as well as, a flute player at the symphony and is also a loving mother. She’s beautiful, has a wonderful sense of humour and a fantastic fashion sense. The same applies to many of my contemporaries, where is the show about these women?
TLS: Motherhood, is a huge part of a women’s role in society and with the El-Sharifa Fatima El- Hashemite Trust Fund for Children and Motherhood you aim to support this side of a woman’s life through your artwork. Tell me a little bit about that.
N: It’s named after my mother, El-Sharifa Fatima, and the story goes back to a time in the early 90’s when my father was not in great health and needed a very delicate surgery. I was feeling so sad and hopeless, so I made myself a cup of Turkish coffee and in my despair I dropped it on the floor. This is a good omen in Arabic culture. Later that day, I received another call from my brother and this time, the news was good. He no longer needed the surgery. I felt like I could breath again, and I was so grateful that my prayers had been heard. Suddenly, I remembered the coffee parching my kitchen floor. As I went downstairs to clean it, I saw an image of someone like this [lifts her arms slightly above her head and moves her body contrary to her hands]. The following day I took the remaining of my morning coffee placed it on a piece of paper, and started moving my hand, and suddenly these organic shapes begun to appear…
I showed the drawings to my brother and mother and they loved them. And as always they encouraged me to continue.
Don’t ask me how I do each artwork, but I can tell you two things; it has to be the remains of the morning cup of coffee and secondly, something has to move me from inside. I don’t sign each painting with my name, for me it’s the location and the date it was made in that's important.
TLS: Is this about the personal significance it has for you?
N: Absolutely, it could have been done in Boston, London, New York, Baghdad, but it’s about the story behind it and while I am painting a poem comes to my mind which I write after I’ve completed the artwork. There are 23 paintings in the collection ‘Wonders of Coffee’ and they are all so personal to me, to let go of my artwork is to let go of a piece of myself.
One day I got a call from a friend who’s a doctor in Baghdad, and he asked me to help him get medicines and medical supplies for the hospital over there, of course after 13 years of sanctions and the invasion, they needed help. I spoke to my mother about this and she said, “Sell your paintings.” I wasn’t expecting that because I have given everything to support people, and these paintings were for me, they come from my heart. In her very specific manner she said, “You were given a talent to serve people, and you will continue to do so, it’s your legacy and an honour to help your people.” It was a cold shower of reality, so now all proceeds from this work are in aid of the fund. It was my mother’s stipulation that all funds collected were in support of motherhood and childhood in the Middle East, West Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and even the U.S.
Each child has such a unique story that is hard not to get attached to. Juda, is one of these children. She was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 2 and had never seen outside of her hospital room and hospital grounds. As she grew, she developed depression and her health deteriorated. Thanks to the fund, and all the art & music courses we implemented and the library we built, she was able to stop her anti-depression medicine and wished for a makeover, which the fund was able to provide. At age 17, she passed away having lived a better and more fulfilling life. She was able to spend a day with her family and friends in one the most beautiful parks of Baghdad.
My mother was right. These painting were made for my people.
TLS: Speaking of the paintings, do you think these non-verbal, very heart-led expressions are an escape from your scientific self that is very much in her head and uses statistics, numbers and verbal ideas to create change?
N: It could be. They are very organic shapes and nature based forms, and I think my artistic side becomes more alive because of my intellectual side. It’s always been there; even when I was younger I would collect wrapping papers of my favourite chocolate and create artwork with them. The same with my piano, I go to it when I’m desolate or over joyed. It helps me deal with the realities of my work, hopelessness, parents who suffer and the ache of seeing children in need.
The scientist within has helped me understand the nature of my medium, for example, I’m the first one to use Turkish coffee and as a scientist I understand how to use it. Other artists may use espresso, as it’s easier to maneuver. I don’t dilute my coffee and I know, temperature wise, when it’s at its best. My paintings talk about life, some may believe it’s about women, but actually it’s about birth.
TLS: Ultimate achievement?
N: Not that I wouldn’t love to be a Nobel price winner [smiles cheekily], but I’d like my legacy to be a set of policies that does more for women in science, not only in the U.S but also internationally. Secondly, I would like people to remember me the same way they remember my grandfather King Faisal (I).
TLS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
N: My mother told me, “beauty will disappear with time, like henna, but knowledge, intelligence and manners will remain forever.”
TLS: How do you unwind?
N: Gardening, because it connects me to nature. Cooking. The first time I tried to cook rice I almost burned the house, even the fire brigade came! It was a challenge but now I’m a very good and creative cook. And photography, it relaxes me.
TLS: Any one famous you’ve sold your paintings to?
N: Queen Sophia of Spain, it was lovely to see her Majesty showing real appreciation for the work.
TLS: How do you furnish your home so you never want to leave it?
N: Originality and simplicity. Beauty can be found in less and I need to feel comfortable in it so that it feels like home. Having one piece that really strikes you and that you really love. You have to feel like everything is dancing around you, and that the colours you choose make you smile, and I would add an artisanal touch to any interior décor.
And with that, the Art's Club crowd begin to arrive for the soiree and spread around us like rain drops. Princess Nisreen finishes her last sip of tea, and Sherry arrives after her day out at The Royal Academy of Arts. They greet each other like old friends and discuss their plans to meet in New York, as Sherry is invited to join Princess Nisreen's World Women’s Health and Development forum this February 2016. With an air of confidence she tells me, "Sherry, is one of those women who you know will leave a mark. She's great."
I leave wanting to change the world.
Follow @SherryER on twitter for live updates of the UN's forum and discover what you can do to be a royal giver too.
Yours in Design & Giving,