Yvette ‘Yvonne’ Blanche Labrousse born in 1906, of a father who was a tramway driver and a town councillor for Le Cannet, and a mother who was a seamstress. Nothing in her modest upbringing told anything of the glorious destiny that was to be hers.
Today, 110 years ago, Yvette Labrousse was born Yvonne Blanch Labrousse in the small town of Sète, near Marseilles, France, on 15 February 1906. She was the daughter of Adrien Labrousse (October 25, 1874 – June 1, 1969) and Marie Brouet (December 26, 1870 – .. ) , a seamstress. When she was only six months old her family soon move to Cannes, where they lived in a flat in the Rue d’Antibes, and later on to Lyon where the young Yvette spent most of her childhood.
Yvette grew up tall, more than six feet, and vèry beautiful. Having stricktly raised, however, she showed no disposition to accept the film and modelling offers that cameher way, instead, she went to work with her mother, who was running a dress shop that time. She always told that her parents were very warm, kind and always openminded.
After being elected Miss Lyon in 1929, at the age of twenty-four, then Miss France in Paris in 1930, she joined the Miss Europe 1930 pageant in Paris, at the Paris Opera. The streets outside the hall were packed with people eager to see the beautiful participants from all over Europe… It was one of the most talked about events in the press.
Miss France, Yvette Labrousse, was always full of great story’s about ‘her time’ as Miss France. Talking about the girls, the fashion of that time, the make-up and the travels.
Yvette Labrousse, Paris, 1930’s
Yet Yvette Labrousse was no longer a provincial. As a beauty queen and a representatieve of France, she traveled to many countries around the world. She found herself particulary taken by Egypt and, in the late thirdies she moved to Egypt, she moved to Cairo and adopted the faith of Islam.
In Cairo, Yvette Labrousse met her future husband, the Sultan Aga Khan III, 48th Imam of the Nizari Shia Ismaili community, and they fell in love at first sight when they met at a royal dancing party in Egypt in 1938. They married thirteen months after the Aga Khan III and his third wife were divorcedby mutual consent, on 9 October 1944 in Switzerland.
Sir Sultan Mohamad Aga Khan III and Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan seated half-length portrait by Weinberg. Photograph signed and inscribed by Begum, “A souvenir – from an old friend – of the family Aga Khan”. Inscribed in the image, middle left and right. 8 1/2×6 1/2 inches; matted in original sterling silver frame bearing Khan’s emblem at top. Circa 1955
After her marriage she took the name of Om Habibeh (Little Mother of the Beloved) and became Begum, fully Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan. Her husband playfully nicknamed her ‘Yaky’, which was composed from the initials of ‘Yvette’, ‘Aga’ and ‘Khan’. In 1954, Om Habibeh was given the title of ‘Mata Salamat’, which literally means serene or peaceful mother. She was the foutyh woman in Islamic history with that title during last 13 centuries.
I have at last been granted the real and wonderful haven of finding in and with my wife a true union of mind and soul
Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, Aga Khan III, in his Memoirs ‘World Enough & Time’, page 275
They settled in the Avenue Victoria villa at Le Cannet, in the hills above Cannes, on a hillside wich she had once looked on to from the flat in the Rue d’Antibes, for which planning permission applications had been submitted in 1937. They named it Yakymour: Y for Yvette, ak for Aga Khan, mour for amour. The French word for love. As is clear from such indications , the couple was very close and the two loved each other dearly.
Yakymour, Le Cannet, France
Within this property surrounded by parkland, Her Higness La Bégum used to assemble the members of the Cannes film festival jury, and many national and international movie stars. Some of them became friends for live. She wasn’t only Kees van Dongen’s muse, but with her husband’s encouragement, she also developed an active interest in painting and sculpture, herself becoming an accomplished artist and sculptor. She was also interested in the arts including classical music, opera and ballet.
I always appreciated beauty, but he (the Aga Khan) taught me how really to enjoy a lovely sunset, moonlight, to know the stars, the colours and scents of flowers, to like music, ballet and opera, to appreciate everything that is beautiful in life.
Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan
She rarely left his side, and nursed him devotedly through the pains of old age until his death in 1957. But her duty was also a delight. She never ceased to be grateful for the manner in which he had widened her horizons, especially in music and in the arts. “Enjoy yourself”, he told her. “It’s later then you think”.
Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan
Shortly before his death, the Aga Khan III chose a location on the West Bank of the Nile as his final resting place. The location was highly symbolic, for centuries earlier the Aga Khan’s ancestors had founded the Fatimid dynasty with its capital in Cairo. The Fatimids represented one of the apogees of culture, being patrons of the arts, liteature, achitecture, pluralism (the acceptance of racial, ethnic, cultural and intra-religious differences) and scientific endeavors, all fields that were equally dear to the Aga Khan III an Om Habibeh. The Begum was very supportive of her husband in his work during their thirteen years together. They both took a particular interest in issues affecting women’s welfare.
When her husband died in 1957, he had stated in his will that his successor, his grandson Karim, would have Om Habibeh as advisor for the first seven years of his reign. because she had been familiar for many years with the issues facing his followers and he had the confidence in her wise judgment. Immediatly, with the help of architect Farid El-Shafie and contractor Hassan Dorra, Om Habibeh started building at Aswan, on top of the hill above there house, a mausoleum to her husband, a task that took 16 months. “The Aga Khan wants to sleep in the hot sand overlooking the waters of the Nile”, Om Habibeh always said, “and when I die I want to lie beside him. We do not want to be parted”.
It was not in her nature either to forget, or to try to hide, her humble orgins. Her legacy remains in the Om Habibeh Foundation, whose programs have contributed to health, education and inclusion in some of the poorest areas of Egypt.
Her gesture of daily placing a red rose on her husband’s tomb while in Egypt (every day for 43 years, either the Begum or when she was away in Europe, Sheikh Ahmed Ibrahim, whom she hired in 1963 to spend eight hours a day chanting verses from the Koran over her late husband’s tomb, laid a fresh red rose there) enforced the reputation of the legendary romance between the Aga Khan III and Om Habibeh. After the death of her husband, she continued to live at Yakymour, though she always spent three months a year in the villa at Aswan, the site of her husband’s mausoleum.
As a widow, she travelled widely both for charity and for pleasure. She was a regular face at Ascot (she herself owned several horses), where she always caught the eye. In the 1950’s and 60’s she was a true fashion icon, and was a countless times on the cover of International magazines. Her advice on fashion was typically sensible: “Don’t choose what you like, but what suits you. To be elegant one must have discretion. The secret is in the details”. Often she was sitting front-row at the Paris fashion shows from Christian Dior, Lanvin, Jaques Faith and many others.
Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan by Gyenes
It wasn’t only beauty on the outside. She was dearly loved by her people because of her generosity to the poor, childern, women and the elderly, and, by her own husband as well. She had a big heart for everybody. Also for people outside the Shia Ismaili community. No matter what kind of religion, man or women, or even sexual oriantation, she was véry openminded, Yakymour and Nour el-Salam were both an open house.
We should take care of eachother, everybody should be loved!, we are here on earth to do good, and not to harm or judge people, so lets love.
Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan
Begum Om Habibeh also loved annimals a lot. Over the years she had several dogs and cats. “Every person and every animal should be loved, we are all creations from Allah. “When a person is not good for animals, he can not be good to humans”. “We should take care of eachother, everybody should be loved!, we are here on earth to do good, and not to harm or judge people, so lets love”…. And that’s what she did!
Grandma ‘Yaky’, the Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan with her poodles at Yakymour, Le Cannet, France, January 1, 1985
Beauty was not only on the outside. It came from the heart. Highly popular, Her Highness La Bégum showed great generosity throughout her life. She made many donations to schools (‘education is the most impotant thing in life after being loved’ and ‘The highest result of education is tolerance’ she always said) and hospitals. But also donations to women’s shelters, Alzheimer foundation, and… Aids foundation.
The highest result of education is tolerance.
Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan
Over four decades of widowhood (she never thought of remarrying) she was always out in the community helping the poor and elderly and would relentlessly encourage education for women. For over forty years, banquets were offered to the town’s elderly inhabitants. The Begum also ran a charitable foundation, the Om Habibeh Foundation, which tackled poverty in Aswan, Egypt, where she inherited her husband’s villa by the Nile. At home in Le Cannet, she established a home for the elderly. It was not in her nature either to forget, or to try to hide, her humble origins. In the last years of her life, she made an outstanding donation to the town, enabling it to renew its school property.
Begum Om Habibeh, Le Cannet, Jardin Des Oliviers, Avenue Thiers, Le Cannet, 1997
She also contributed to the creation of the Jardin des Oliviers, for which the town showed its gratitude by erecting a bronze statue by Charles-Louis La Salle, unveiled by the mayor of Le Cannet Rocheville, in her image. She last appeared in public for the inauguration of this garden in 1997. She was also vèry happy that she could be present at the wedding of Princess Zahra Aga Khan with businessman Mark Boyden, June 21, 1997 in Paris.
Le Cannet, Le Jardin Des Oliviers, Avenue Thiers, bronze statue of Om Habibeh by Charles-Louis La Salle
Before her death, the late Begum arranged for Yakymour, the home of which she and her husband were so fond, to be retained for use by the Aga Khan family. She also planned that a large part of her estate be donated to two foundations closely associated with the family: The Aga Khan Foundation, Geneva, a non-profit organisation established by the current Aga Khan in 1967, which oversees and supports major international programmes in health, education and rural development, in some of the poorest regions of Asia and Africa, and the Bellerive Foundation in Geneva, established by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan in 1977, which is devoted to the protection of the environment, conservation of natural resources and the safeguarding of human and animal rights.
There was no doubting her enduring devotion. “Now all I have left to hope for”, she said shortly before her death, “is that Allah will take me to his side”. Begum Om Habibeh ‘Mata Salamat’ aka Yvette Labrousse died on 1 July 2000, in Le Cannet, near Cannes, at the age of 94 years, and is buried next to her beloved husband at the Aga Khan’s sandstone mausoleum in Aswan. The couple had no children. She was survived by her stepson, Sadruddin Aga Khan, and three step-grandchildren, Karim Aga Khan the current Aga Khan, Amyn Aga Khan and Yasmin Aga Khan, who are the children of the late Prince Aly Khan, who died in 1960 and who was the eldest son of the late Aga Khan.
The jamat will recall with fondness and affection her support for the work of My late beloved grandfather, and also her devoted care and attention to Him particularly in the later years of His life. Throughout her lifetime Mata Salamat retained an abiding interest to the progress and well-being of the jamat world-wide
Mawlânâ Hazar Imam Karim Aga Khan IV
She has now been reunited with her husband, who has been resting, since 1957, in a mausoleum built on their Nour es-Salam property, near the river Nile, in Aswan, Egypt. ‘Till today she is very respected and loved. For her eternal love, her honesty, her help (she hated the word ‘charity’!) and being só openminded…..
by Jean Amr
The Om Habibeh Foundation
The Om Habibeh Foundation was established by the Aga Khan’s late step-grandmother, Om Habibeh, the Begum Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan. It is an Egyptian, not-for-profit organisation of long-standing that has been contributing to, and supporting, a number of institutions, in the Aswan area, which are involved in healthcare, education and income generation for disadvantaged communities. The Foundation draws on the support and technical expertise of the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network to advance the newly announced initiatives.
The Aga Khan Foundation
For more information:
Aga Khan Foundation
Tel. +20 (22) 506 1570