Once Upon a Time – She Wanted to be Free

Saturday, October 29, 2020
By: Nader Habib

Lotfia Al Nadim Painting by CHANT AVEDISSIAN

The lead story of the 11 October 1933 issue of the newspaper Al-Aroussa was about Lotfia Al-Nadi, who at 26 years of age had just become Egypt’s first woman pilot.

Born on 29 October 1907 to a regular, middle-class family, Lotfia went through her primary education and was expected to marry at an early age and become a housewife and mother. Her father, who worked for the Matbaa Amiriya, the government print house, didn’t believe that girls should go on to secondary education.

But her mother thought otherwise, and pushed for Lotfia to go on to the American College, a language school with a modern outlook and curricula.

Like many of girls of her age, she dreamed of bigger and better things. One day, she came across an article about aviation that had a bit of intriguing news. A flying school had just opened in Cairo. This was just too much temptation for the young Lotfia.

Lotfia started thinking of who could help her fulfil her dream. Her first port of call was the popular journalist Ahmed Al-Sawi, who used to write a daily column in Al-Ahram titled “In A Nutshell,” or Ma Qalla Wa Dall.

This proved to be too much for the forward-looking social writer, who was all for women’s liberation, but refused to encourage Lotfia to fly without her father’s knowledge or consent.

Undaunted, Lotfia went straight to the man who ran Egypt’s national airlines. Kamal Elwi, the director general of EgyptAir, didn’t take long to agree to her request. Here was a young woman who could capture the imagination of the country. It would be great publicity for the airlines and the flying school, he thought.

Because Lotfia had no money to pay for the flying lessons, she went to work as the school’s secretary and telephone operator to cover the costs.

She started taking flying lessons twice a week. Her father had no knowledge of this and had still not given his consent. On 27 September 1933, at the age of 26, Lotfia earned her pilot’s licence, becoming the first woman pilot in the Arab world and Africa.

Her father was mad at her at first. But he relented once he saw the adulation and praise showered on his daughter. When she took him on a flight over Cairo and he saw the pyramids, he seemed to enjoy it.

Her flying coach, Mr Carroll, used to be very protective of her, and advised her not to let her newly acquired celebrity status go to her head.

“He used to be very concerned for me, and advised me not to become like Amy Johnson, the British pilot who was said to have turned against her parents after she gained fame,” Lotfia recalled in an interview.

Lotfia had earned her pilot’s licence in only 67 days. On her graduation day, the press corps was invited to see her perform her flying test.

She took part in the international flying race between Cairo and Alexandria on 19 December 1933, where she flew her one-engine plane at an average speed of 100 miles an hour, arriving at the finishing point before any of the other competitors. But she was denied the reward because she had failed to fly over one of the two mid-point tents that the competitors were asked to pass along the way.

Still, she received congratulations from King Fouad and a consolation prize of 200 Egyptian pounds.

Hoda Shaarawi, the feminist leader, sent her a message of congratulation: “You brought honour to your country and made us walk tall.” Shaarawi then raised funds to buy Lotfia her own plane.

First female flying instructor Linda Massoud in uniform

Following Lotfia’s example, other Egyptian women also joined the flying school and became pilots. Among them were Dina Al-Sawi, Zohra Ragab, Nafisa Al-Ghamrawi, Linda Masoud, Blanche Fattoush, Aziza Moharram, Aida Takla, Layla Masoud, Aisha Abdel-Maqsoud, and Qadriya Tolaymat.

The trend for women to become pilots died out about ten years later. Since 1945, no Egyptian women have trained as pilots.

Lotfia worked for a while as secretary general of the Egyptian Aviation Club. Sadly, she was injured in a flying accident in the 1950s. She travelled to Switzerland for medical treatment, and ended up residing there. She never married and died in Cairo in 2002.

In 1996, a documentary film called Taking Off From the Sand, or Al Iqlaa Min Al Raml, was made about her. In the film, she was asked why she wanted to fly.

“I wanted to be free,” she said.

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