This article was originally published in the August 2017 Princeton Echo.
Long time Princeton resident Katherine Nouri Hughes is proof positive that having had an eclectic life is no hindrance to another exciting chapter. Her varied career has included working at American University in Cairo, being an executive at a crisis management firm and a family foundation, and securing a graduate degree while being a wife and mother. Now Hughes will be adding another title to the roster, that of author. After many years of painstaking research, encouraged by professors and friends, Hughes has written an engaging historical novel based on the improbable life of a little-known Venetian Renaissance woman who rose from slavery to be the wife, and later more importantly, mother of a sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
The novel, “The Mapmaker’s Daughter,” coming out August 8 by Delphinium Books, is no timid debut volume. Hughes has tackled head-on a complex and contentious subject that has fed countless scholarly tomes: the Ottoman Empire at its height, a topic that popular culture in the West knows little about. But Hughes knows her subject so well that the subtleties of Ottoman society are accessible, and the drama unfolds logically.
At the book’s core is one of the most drastic dynastic edicts of any age. To reveal more would be a spoiler; however, suffice it to say the book poses the all-too-real question of how far would you go to safeguard your husband, son, and grandson. It also explores the powerful female influence during the period known as Sultanate of Women.
As engaging as the life of her subject is, Hughes’ own background is also fascinating. Her father, Edmond J. Nouri, was born in Baghdad in 1918, a Chaldean Christian. This branch of the Catholic Church was originally formed out of the Church of the East in 1552 and employs the Syriac language in its liturgy. He came to the United States on an IBM scholarship in 1938.
“When the United States entered World War II, my father enlisted as an Iraqi national and fought for the U.S. Army,” Hughes says. “In addition to serving his adopted country, this also allowed him a fast track to becoming a citizen.” He met her mother, Gloria Montgomery, in Washington, D.C., while on leave, and they married after a three-week romance. He survived the war to become a general agent in New York for the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company.
“My mother was an actress by training and temperament,” Hughes says. She had studied with Uta Hagen, the highly influential acting teacher at New York’s Berghof Studio and creator of a series of “object exercises” that built on the work of Stanislavski. After her marriage, she left the profession but continued her craft in local community productions. “Amazingly, in later life, she taught behavior modification and stress management at maximum security prisons. I still marvel at her getting up every morning to enter that environment. The acting gene skipped me, but my brother, Michael Nouri, has had a long career in film and TV.”
Hughes entered Barnard in 1967, in time to have the campus and her education disrupted by Mark Rudd and the Vietnam riots. Return to college was not in the cards. At a party in Washington D.C., Katherine Nouri met Emmet John Hughes, the former foreign bureau chief and article editor for Time-Life as well as aide and speechwriter for U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Despite a 30-year difference in age, the attraction was immediate and mutual, and the couple married in 1968. In 1963 Emmet Hughes had written “The Ordeal of Power,” which took him politically away from Eisenhower and led to a new relationship as the political advisor for the Rockefeller family through Nelson Rockefeller’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1968. Hughes and her husband, who was Princeton Class of 1941, moved to Princeton in 1971 when he took a position as a professor of political science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, a post he held until his death in 1982.
Princeton has been Hughes’ home ever since. “We have always lived near the Institute for Advanced Study, and I love being able to walk everywhere in town. Both my children, Caitlin and Johanna, attended Princeton public schools throughout their grade school education. My second daughter, Johanna, returned to Princeton High as an English teacher.”
Katherine and Emmet divorced in 1977, and Hughes determined it was time to jumpstart her interrupted education. She began by taking a course in Middle Eastern politics from Fouad Ajami at Princeton. Her background naturally led her to take a keen interest in the Middle East. Professors at Princeton included noted Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis, prominent intellectual historian Carl Schorske, and famed comparative literature scholar and translator Robert Fagels.
“I was in an odd position as an older student at Princeton,” Hughes says. “I was close enough in age to the undergraduates to be part of that milieu, but I was also in my 30s by this time and old enough to engage as a peer with the professors. Consequently, I became very close to these marvelously erudite teachers.”
To be enrolled as a matriculating student at Princeton, Hughes had to take four courses a semester. “I knew that three courses a semester was the maximum that I could handle and still be the kind of mother I wanted to be for my children. Bob (Fagels) and Carl (Schorske) wanted me to get my degree and even lobbied then-President Bowen, but it was not to be. I found that Thomas Edison State College (now University) would accept all my credits and granted me my bachelor’s degree. I became convinced that I wanted a Princeton degree and enrolled in the graduate school, getting my master’s in Near Eastern studies in 1984.”
Degree in hand, Hughes was determined to get to the Middle East and secured a job in the development office at the American University in Cairo. “At the time, Cairo was the epicenter of the Arab world, and I was eager to experience it,” she says. She worked at the university for almost two years and still serves as a trustee of the institution.
She returned to New York in 1987 to the American University in Cairo’s offices there before making her next career move as a writer at a crisis management firm. Michael Milken was a client at the firm and engaged her to become the vice president of communications for his family foundation. “The foundation was located in Los Angeles,” Hughes says, “so in the late 1980s I was actually commuting from Princeton to L.A. about one week a month.”
In 1994 a friend, Richard Leone, former New Jersey state treasurer, set up a blind date between Hughes and Robert Del Tufo, then an attorney at the New York City firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Del Tufo was U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey from 1977 until 1980. He served as New Jersey Governor James Florio’s attorney general from 1990 to 1993. He took Hughes to the venerable Lahiere’s for dinner.
Hughes remembers that dinner well. “He managed to spill his glass of white wine all over me. He was stricken by his clumsiness, and it was his utter distress that endeared him to me right then and there, and we married three months later.” Del Tufo died in 2016 at the age of 83.
While at Princeton, Hughes became close friends with Bernard Lewis, a friendship that continues to this day. Lewis, at 101, is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. His expertise is in the history of Islam and the interaction between Islam and the West. In addition, he is a noted scholar of the history of the Ottoman Empire. In 1997 Lewis encouraged Hughes to write about the life of Nurbanu, born Cecilia Baffo Veniero, the illegitimate daughter of a patrician Venetian mother and a Venetian noble.
Little is known about Nurbanu other than the year of birth, 1525; the date of her capture by the famed Ottoman pirate Barbarossa, 1537; and the date of her death, December 7, 1583. Despite the much-vaunted Ottoman bureaucracy, there is very little else that is known for certain about her life, although oblique references occur, and some information may be conflated with the records of other notable women of the period. She would have been just another slave of the empire had the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent not known of her capture and singled her out to be the wife of his successor. As it was, she became a great power, not so much behind the throne as beside it.
“Bernard said that this was the story that I should write,” Hughes says. “I was engrossed by her and the array of possibilities that her life presented. Because there is little hard data on her, I chose to pursue her story as historical fiction, making plausible, well-educated guesses about what happened to her.” As the daughter of a noble father and patrician mother, Nubanu would probably have had a good education at the time of her capture and perhaps her intellect was what drew Suleiman to her out of all the slaves. She is known to have become exceptionally influential to her husband and, as mother of the sultan, even more so to her son.
“The records, scant though they may be, do reveal an intelligent and savvy woman who successfully negotiated the profoundly complex world of the Ottomans during a tumultuous time,” says Hughes. “With Bernard’s encouragement and guidance, I immersed myself in the period, traveling to as many locations where she lived as possible to see up close the culture and geography of the region. Research and writing off and on has led to ‘The Mapmaker’s Daughter.’ It has taken 20 years, but life gets in the way, doesn’t it?”
Katherine Nouri Hughes will discuss “The Mapmaker’s Daughter” at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street on Monday, October 9.