The Murder of Nazla Aboulleil
Almost as soon as the interrogator began his questioning, she announced,
And when he asked her, “Scared of what?” she said,
“Scared of my mother, and of my mother’s husband [her father], and of Sakina. Of all my people. Because whenever they sit to eat, they give me a scrap of plain bread, and if I ask to dip it in the food, they beat me and swear at me and they tell me, ‘Get out, you daughter of a whore!’ So I get scared and I drag myself off like a dog and leave the alley, and I go and watch a zaar or play with the other children. And then at night, when I’m inside, they lock the door on me and the whole world’s dark as dark, and I get so scared I could shit myself.
“One time, when they were unlocking the door in the morning, I told myself I was going to run away, to jump on the train to Kafr Ezzeyaat and go to my uncle there, but I didn’t know how to do it.
“I don’t love any of my people except my mother, because she’ll spend on me. If I look in on them while they’re dipping their bread and eating, my father will come to the window and shake his cane at me, and I’ll run off, drag myself off like a dog, shitting myself. And if I ask him for half a piastre to go and buy something he’ll curse my father’s name.
“And Sakina’s always drunk. Sometimes I used go into her building and shout at her and throw bricks at the door to her room then run away. And whenever I asked her for a bit of fish to dip my bread in, or for the loan of a piastre, she’d say, ‘Leave me alone… You think I’ve got enough to feed myself?’ She’d hide her money from my mother so that my mother wouldn’t think to borrow from her.
“And I wanted to buy a little garland of cotton flowers like the other girls wear, but none of them was willing to buy it for me. And Sakina wanted to give me the garland that belonged to one of the women they killed, but I wouldn’t have it, and I kept with the ragged old wreath I’m wearing now because I was scared someone would see me in the new one and know it belonged to one of the murdered women, and then I’d be done for.
“My mother would always tell me, ‘Don’t pay them any mind. They’re flat broke and can’t think of anything but money. You ever want anything, just tell me and I’ll get it for you from under the floor.’ And she’d buy me an orange for a piastre or two. And sometimes she’d say to me, ‘We’re going to travel far away, me and you, and leave them all behind.’ But we never did.”
From the testimony of Raya’s daughter, Badia
A Brief Introduction
The following passage is taken from Tales from a Nation’s Archive: The Men of Raya and Sakina: A social and political history (Al Karma Books, 2016, Cairo) , Salah Eissa’s huge and discursive study of the crimes and world of the notorious Egyptian serial-killing gang which comprised of the sisters Raya and Sakina Bint Hammam, their respective husbands, Hasaballah Saeed Maraei and Mohammed Abdel Aal, and two local enforcers, Orabi Hassan and Abdel Razeq Youssef.
The sisters and their husbands were arrested in Alexandria in early 1921 on suspicion of murder, after the disappearance of several women in the neighborhood of Labban. All six were found guilty and hung in December of the same year. They were thought to be guilty of the robbery and murder of seventeen women, the majority of whom worked as prostitutes and assistants in the unlicensed brothels and hash dens the sisters managed in Labban and adjoining neighborhoods. Investigators eventually discovered the bodies of their victims buried beneath the floor of several ground-floor properties they owned or had owned in the area.
The seed of Eissa’s account was his chancing upon the original case file during his research for another book:
“One day in early 1993, I was searching through the index of major political case files at the National Centre for Legal Studies, looking for the first legal case involving the Egyptian Communist Party (founded in the 1920s), when my eye fell on an entry which read: Criminal case no. 23/1920, filed at the Labban police station. Accused: Raya Bint Hammam, Sakina Bint Hammam and others. My curiosity piqued I scribbled the number of the microfiche on a piece of paper and turned back to the work at hand.”
With the wealth of information contained in the file—2,200 pages of foolscap containing wide-ranging interviews conducted by the police and the conflicting and confused testimony of the suspects themselves—he produced a devastating account of his protagonists’ journeys through the famine-stricken, colonized Egypt of the twentieth century.
The main part of the text is a forensically detailed recreation of the day-by-day unfolding of the gang’s murder spree, their interrogation and eventual execution. This narrative, an imaginative act of immense political and creative power, is embedded in the wider story of the nation—the mechanics and impact of British colonial rule, the First World War and famine, the 1919 revolution, and the social dynamics of the Alexandrian underclass—a context that enriches and is enriched by the murder narrative.
The notoriety of these crimes and their afterlife in Egyptian popular culture has focused on the involvement of the sisters: the combination of their gender and the degradation of the world they moved in, a sexually promiscuous and violent underclass, providing an irresistible fascination. A fascination that allowed the embroidery of ever more horrific detail into the account. Eissa quotes a passage from Latifa Al Zayat, the activist and writer born two years after their execution, who describes her first encounter with the legend of the sisters:
“My first encounter with evil came when I was girl of eight. It was an indirect encounter, though transformed by the imagination of my mother and my own into a most intimate and immediate acquaintance. My mother, who was extraordinarily inventive and a skilled storyteller, told me the tale of two murderers from Egypt: Raya and Sakina. She would go into the killings themselves in great detail, as though she’d been there herself: picking out the victim, escorting her home, throttling her, dismembering the corpse and burning the body parts in a great oven. There was the rhythmic drumming of the zaar which prevented the victim’s cries for help reaching the police station across the street. And at the end of this account, with me completely entranced, my mother would be sure to emphasize that crime didn’t pay, that it had all ended with the execution of Raya and Sakina.”
The murderers and their victims belonged to marginal, even invisible, communities, whose powerlessness left them directly exposed to the cruelties of colonial administration and the attitudes of a wider society itself under enormous strain. Two of the killers, and all of their victims, were women, but the role of the four men who actually committed the murders themselves is poorly understood. Popular accounts of the story foreground the moral dissolution of the prostitutes and madams as the petri dish in which more terrible transgressions could flourish: the sisters were “evil” and their victims were “asking for it”. The men feature as dupes of their wives, as failures for failing to control them as proper husbands should, but in Eissa’s account they are restored to center of events both as the vectors of the violence and oppression enacted by the colonial state and its war machine, and as the prime movers of the plot to kill.
It is a story of layered powerlessness.
In his introduction to the book, Eissa compares the fate of Raya and Sakina in popular consciousness to that of the celebrated bandit Adham Al Sharqawi, a supposedly noble outlaw cut down in his prime by the police, but in fact the son of a wealthy villager from the Delta who quarrelled with his relatives. While Adham, a murderer himself, was hymned in popular ballads as a counterpart to Christ—a friend of the poor betrayed by his closest friend to the police—the sisters were, “criminals without a cause, without meaning”.
They had, as Eissa tells us, “entered history as symbols, their human features reduced to silhouettes: dark blotches that fill the outline of the face”. Perhaps the documents in the case file and further research, “could cast light on this shadow image, uncovering the identity of the true criminal, a name not included on the charge sheet.”
Through Eissa’s restaging of the historical moment in which they lived and died, never losing sight of the significance of their insignificance, we are able to access the true scale of the hardship and horror that lies waiting to be discovered, just beneath the tiled floor of the post-1952 Egyptian state.
Nazla Aboulleil was a light-skinned, spare young woman of medium height with close-set eyes, and though not especially beautiful her slender build drew attention at a time in which most Egyptian women tended to plumpness. She was, in addition, a cheerful person, always smiling, which lent her an appeal not lost on the young men of Bab Sadra where she had been born, and among whose lanes and alleys she had lived her whole life.
She was sixteen when she married for the first time but the marriage had lasted just two years, ending in divorce when she had failed to provide her husband with a child. She returned to live with her mother in Harat Ragheb Basha, but did not remain there long, for as soon as news of her divorce spread through Bab Sadra, three young men began competing for her attentions.
The first of these was Abdel Rahim Mahmoud, a Saïdi, who in summer wandered the streets selling irqsous and in winter, along with the majority of his fellow rural migrants, worked in the distinctively Saïdi version of the import-export trade. In his case, this involved travelling back and forth between Alexandria and Umm Douma (his home village, part of the administrative district of Tahta in the Sohag governorate) to sell what foreign goods he had managed to find in the markets of Alexandria, and with his takings buy up tins of semna and honey to take back and sell in Alexandria.
The second was Orabi Hassan himself, who at that time worked as a porter with the customs authority as well as running an import-export operation similar to that of Abdel Rahim, only with much less commitment and considerably more adulteration and theft in his dealings. Though Orabi was some five years younger than his rival he was, as the neighborhood futuwwa, a better known and more glamorous figure. Both men were married at the time.
Nazla favored Abdel Rahim over Orabi, maybe because he was more pragmatic and less violent, and maybe, too, because his first wife and their children lived in the south, whereas Orabi’s wife stayed with him in Alexandria. Keen perhaps to avoid the complications and problems that could arise from living not only in the same city but in the same neighborhood as her durra, or co-wife, she accepted Abdel Rahim’s proposal.
The engagement did not last.
This time it was Nazla who broke it off when she came to realize how incompatible they were. She was an Alexandrian girl, raised in a relatively liberated environment and happy with the lifestyle to which she was accustomed, whereas Abdel Rahim, a typical Saïdi with strong views on tradition and a dismissive attitude towards women and their needs, sought to impose his authority on her: she was not to leave the house without his permission or uncover herself to strange men. Then there was the callous way he treated her. Nazla, who had been deprived of a father’s care and tenderness early in life, was later to confide to Sakina that she longed for a husband who would treat her gently and with affection, who would spoil her and be careful with her dignity and honour. And perhaps it was for this reason, too, that she refused the advances of Orabi Hassan after breaking off her engagement, despite the fact that in a moment of unguarded emotion he declared that he was prepared to divorce his wife if she would marry him. Nazla seems to have decided that Saïdis with their rough ways were not husband material.
And so it was that the third suitor won her hand and she ended up marrying a young neighbor of hers, an Alexandrian by the name of Ibrahim Saeed, who made his living as a carter. She went to live with Ibrahim in a single room in Geninat El Ayouni, in a building owned by a thirty-five-year-old widow by the name of Fatima Bint Ali El Metwalli, known to all as Battouta. Battouta’s husband had left her with children and not much money, and she soon persuaded the very Abdel Rahim Mahmoud who had formerly been engaged to Nazla to take her hand in marriage.
Though Ibrahim was calm and kind-hearted, the carefree and capricious Nazla (“lighthearted” as Sakina was to describe her in her testimony) soon began to feel that he was not the man to fill the void in her heart. She started to regret breaking off her engagement with Abdel Rahim and turning down Orabi. Her husband’s gentle temperament came to seem like indifference, his kindness like passivity, an impression exacerbated by the increasingly long periods he spent off work as a consequence of the multiple conditions and illnesses which he had contracted as a child. Furthermore, they had no children together, something which could have strengthened the marital bond. Nazla was forced to go to work at the local market to support herself and her sick husband and once again her dreams of a stable family life were shattered. After a year of marriage she was responding to Orabi’s crude advances and had agreed to become his lover.
Though Nazla Aboulleil was just twenty-four in 1917 when she first entered Raya’s home in Maskoubiya, by then she had been a married woman on-and-off for eight years and Orabi’s lover for four. She had gained a reputation as a skilled seamstress and the women of Maskoubiya and Farahda turned to her to make clothes for themselves and for their husbands’ and children’s undergarments. And if they were happy with the standard of her work they would entrust her with their nightclothes and the robes they went out in beneath their black milayas.
That Nazla Aboulleil was chosen as their second victim might come as a surprise given the strength and depth of her relationships with the members of the gang.
With the exception of Abdel Razeq Youssef, whom she met around the same time that the other three men had first encountered him only a few months previously, her friendship with the rest dated back three years, to the day Orabi Hassan had first escorted her to Raya’s home. Since that time she had been an almost daily visitor to the various rooms occupied and administered by the Hammam sisters, a fact that Raya touched on in the course of her interrogation, when she stated that the girl was deeply attached to her and spent most of her time in her company; that she even came to stay with her in the rooms she rented for months at a time. Raya said that she thought of Nazla as a daughter; that some nights Nazla would sleep with her, her husband, and their daughter Badia in the same room.
Furthermore, Nazla had been the favored companion of Orabi Hassan—futuwwa, brothel doorman, and the strongman of the gang—for a full seven years, their relationship maintained despite the occasional cooling between them. But though one might assume that the death of Ibrahim Saeed, Nazla’s second husband, would have prompted a change in their arrangement, perhaps raising her status from companion to that of wife, as things transpired, the change, which was sudden enough, came in Orabi’s feelings towards her, and prompted him (as Sakina was later to recall) to “give the signs to kill her”.
Most probably, Orabi had finally discovered what had remained hidden from him all those years; that he had learned—by chance or thanks to the malicious intervention of a third party—that Nazla had not been his alone as he had fondly imagined, was not hopelessly infatuated with him as he’d assumed, but had instead repaid his deceptions in kind, betrayal for betrayal, and while still his companion had allowed herself to sleep with other men, whether during those periods when he was overseas working for the British or during the time he was back in Alexandria. That she had sometimes done so in the rooms adjoining those in which he had cheated on her, in the various brothels run by the Hammam family up to and including Beit Al Camp.
None of the Hammams had any obvious reason to provoke Orabi Hassan by revealing this side of her life, particularly since they were all complicit in encouraging her to cheat on him. Given the extra money she brought in as one of the women servicing men on their premises, their interests were better served by maintaining the deception. Yet it seems that someone did stoke Orabi Hassan’s rage by telling him that one of the men with whom she had betrayed him was Abdel Rahim, his old rival for her affections. Orabi would come to believe that she had even travelled to Cairo, where she lived for six months in an apartment rented for her by Abdel Rahim, who would come down and live with her for considerable stretches of time, while claiming to his wife in Alexandria that he was visiting his first wife and children in their village in the south of the country where he would buy grain and seeds and honey to sell in Alexandria during the winter.
But if Orabi’s discovery of Nazla’s betrayal (a story that only Hasaballah was to tell, unsupported by the others’ testimony) was not the catalyst that prompted him to “give the signs”, we can at least be certain that his feelings for her had in any case died some considerable time before, and for reasons unconnected to any betrayal, real or imagined. Orabi himself was to state that he had lost all interest in her after she contracted the disease that had killed her late husband. With her hair falling out and her appearance radically altered, a repulsed Orabi had kept his distance.
The bonds of friendship and intimacy, the mutual respect that comes with long acquaintance, were not values that the gang had much regard for. Indeed, they may have been among the reasons for adding her to the murder list in the first place, given that their plan called for a victim who both trusted them and was a frequent visitor to their rooms. But more importantly, Nazla had, through years of combining her work in secret prostitution with her skill as a seamstress, managed to accumulate enough money to purchase for herself eight bracelets, earrings and a ring (all of gold), and an anklet and two pendants of silver.
This was cause enough.
Nazla had recently returned to live in Geninat El Ayouni, the neighborhood she had left after her husband’s death to join her mother in Bab Sadra. But her mother’s continual interference in her affairs and repeated objections to Nazla’s extended absences made the arrangement impossible to maintain, and Nazla had only been there a few weeks before she made her way back to her old neighborhood, taking a room across from Battouta’s building, where she had rented before her husband’s death.
This move may have been one of the factors that prompted many around her to suspect her of conducting an affair with her former suitor: Battouta’s husband, Abdel Rahim. And the new room was an ideal choice for an affair. Not only was it within view of her supposed lover’s home, her fellow tenants were perfect for the purpose. Nazla rented one of three rooms on the ground floor. A second room was occupied by an unmarried Saïdi woman who left the building early each morning to spend the day with relatives and only returned late at night, while the third was taken by another woman who was also absent for the greater part of every day. The building’s owner, Siteeta Umm Mohammed, lived in a room on the roof of the building and worked as a peddler. She spent her day either purchasing her goods from the markets or visiting the homes of her customers. All of which would have made it easy for Abdel Rahim to slip into the building at any time of day of night, though without solving the problem of being discovered by his wife, whose importance to him was derived in large part to the fact that she was wealthier than him.
Whether or not the rumors were accurate, Battouta herself noticed nothing in her husband’s conduct that led her to suspect the existence of an affair, either when Nazla lived in her building with her husband or after she moved into the building opposite as a widow of a few months standing. And though she knew from her husband that he had proposed to Nazla following her divorce from her first husband, she regarded this as a closed chapter: Nazla had chosen Ibrahim Saeed, Abdel Rahim had wed her, and there was nothing more to say on the matter.
Nazla’s mother, Zeinab Bint Hassan, was the person most alarmed by Nazla’s decision to live by herself following Saeed’s death. By staying with her mother, she believed, Nazla was not only safer but also more likely to attract a third husband to take care of and protect her. She worried that living alone would tempt Nazla into a freedom in her relationships with men that would do damage to her reputation and her opportunity of remarrying. Nazla, it seems, did not share her mother’s view: with two childless marriages already behind her she assumed that her chances of finding a man were almost exhausted. Her mother did not see why this had to be a serious impediment. Her youth could still attract a widower or divorcee with children of their own, not to mention that she had a profitable trade and wore silver and gold enough to appeal to anyone.
The desire to find a place suited to her work as a seamstress where she could receive her customers was another factor which motivated Nazla, while fear for her bracelets and anklets was a major source of her mother’s misgivings. She knew her daughter was carefree, easily distracted and easily deceived, and the thought of her hard-won earnings falling into the clutches of the wrong man bothered her deeply. The mother was genuinely and deeply attached to her daughter. Worn down by a life of trials and fretting about what the future would hold for the girl when she at last gave up the ghost—abroad in the world without father or brother, and no uncles on either side of the family—she made sure that she saw her at least once every day.
If Nazla didn’t come by to see her, then she would take herself to Nazla’s room to make sure all was well.
It was during one such visit, as she was helping her daughter clean and tidy, that she came across a tray of wood and plastic propped in the corner of the room. She was sure she had never seen it before. When she questioned Nazla, her daughter told her that it belonged to Raya, and that she had offered to deliver it to a khawaga she knew to have it repaired and repainted. And because the mother was unhappy about her daughter’s relationship with a woman like Raya, whose reputation she was well aware of, she said:
“I worry that woman’s going to lead you to ruin.”
But Nazla nipped the conversation in the bud:
“Well don’t. I’m not a fool.”
Less than a fortnight had passed since the murder of Khidra, when the men realized that their share of the proceeds from her jewellery had run out. Their pockets were empty again, and they received Orabi’s proposal to murder Nazla with enthusiasm. It would be a just reward for her betrayal, they told themselves; an act of brotherhood to revenge themselves on a woman who had broken her promise and deceived their friend.
It was just past ten on the morning of January 4th, 1920, when Sakina left Harat El Nagaa and set out for Raya’s room in Harat Ali Bek El Kebir. There was no pressing need for her to make the journey, since Raya was in any case due to walk over to Harat El Nagaa to oversee operations at the hash den and the brothel. However, the barber-surgeon had had advised her to walk as often as possible, to stretch and train her muscles now that the pustule on her left foot was almost healed, and she preferred to wander over to Raya then accompany her back to their place in Harat El Nagaa.
At the entrance to the alley, beneath the gas lamp that lit it by night, Mohammed Aouf was sitting at an overturned bird crate on which he’d arrayed the sugar cane, oranges and sweets that he sold, waving his stick to ward off the knot of children playing in the alley and prevent them knocking against the makeshift table and upsetting his wares. Because Aouf was an old man and could hardly see, Sakina walked past without bothering to acknowledge him, and was just about to enter the building where her sister lived when Aouf’s wife materialised at the entrance to the building opposite, and greeted her.
Sakina and the woman were still talking when Hasaballah emerged from Raya’s building and gave them both a curt and ill-tempered greeting. His daughter Badia, who had been playing with the other children in the street, scampered after her departing father, begging a couple of millimes to buy sweets from Mohammed Aouf. Hasaballah turned and shouted,
“Get out of here you little bitch.”
Raya had lit her oil burner and set a half-full tin of water to boil while she sat in front of a broad tub, washing her family’s clothes. Sakina entered and, sitting down on the rush mat beside her sister, stretched out her legs in front of her to rest her feet, then began to unwind the gauze dressing that covered her wound. This she handed to Raya to wash, so that it would be clean when she went to the barber the next day for him to inspect the pustule and add a fresh coating of Ictiol.
Hasballah had not been sitting long at the cafe when Abdel Razeq Youssef arrived, shortly followed by Orabi. They waited for Abdel Aal, who was still staying with his brother in Gheit El Enab, and when he failed to show the three set out for the Khourimi ginning-mill where he worked, sending a message to him via one of the mill’s guards that they were outside and needed to see him on important business. The message came back that he only had twenty bales left to process, then his shift would be over. As soon as he was done he would join them at the cafe opposite the entrance to the mill.
It was approaching one in the afternoon when Abdel Aal joined them, to learn that the three had decided to kill Nazla Aboulleil and had set in motion plans to lure her to Raya’s room. By the time they all returned from the mill they would find Nazla waiting for them in Harat Ali Bek El Kabir.
Later, Mohammed Abdel Aal would claim that he had hesitated when told of the plan, that he had tried to dissuade them, and that their response had been a barrage of angry threats. Among the things that were were said to him: “We’re completely broke.”
But he was still with them when they went back to the room.
Once she had finished washing the clothes and spreading them out to dry on the roof of her building, and before ducking into her room, Raya called to Badia who was playing in the alley. The girl ran to her side and lowering her voice, Raya instructed her to go over to Nazla’s room and ask her to bring the tray which Raya had given to her to repair. On her way back from Nazla, the girl should stop in at the cafe at the entrance to the alley and repeat to her father what Nazla had said. Sakina, who had been watching this exchange from her position on the mat, made no comment on what she had heard, but realized immediately that the signs which Orabi had given were now being put into effect, and that the murder would happen that day.
Neither Sakina nor her sister made any reference to the subject in the conversation that followed Badia’s departure.
Nazla Aboulleil had chosen this day to do her washing, and at the same time soak the pieces of fabric her customers had left her in cold water, shrinking them down so she could cut them accurately. She was on the roof of her building spreading out these pieces of cloth as Badia arrived and called out her name. Nazla’s neighbor Bakheita shouted up the stairs to let her know she had a visitor, then went back into her room, from where she overheard the exchange between the two.
She would testify that Badia had said:
“My mother says to get the tray and bring it over.”
To which Nazla had replied:
“Tell her I’m busy. The tray’s still with the khawaga.”
And because Badia, like all children, derived a special pleasure from provoking and frustrating her elders, she decided on the spur of the moment to deviate from the instructions her mother had given her, and improvise:
“We don’t know anything about a khawaga. You have to bring the tray.”
And Nazla was provoked. She shouted:
“Damn your father and your mother’s father, and the tray’s father, too.”
And off Badia ran, delighted by Nazla’s fury and doubly so by the thought that she would get to convey these insults to the father in question, to the man who never stopped abusing and beating her, who refused to give her so much as a millime to buy a sweet or a knuckle of sugar cane from Aouf. And when she couldn’t find him at the cafe then her delight turned to purest joy, because now she could pass on the abuse to her mother then rejoin her friends in the street.
Nazla’s response irritated Raya, but it wasn’t the insults that bothered her so much as the misfortune of finding her victim busy with the washing on the very day appointed for the murder, and the fact that Badia had failed to find her father at the cafe, which meant the girl had been unable to alert the men that they would need to put off the plan to a more suitable date. And because she, Raya, was at that point the only member of the gang responsible for soliciting their victims (without any assistance from Sakina, who had received a share from Khidra’s murder as the price of her silence) she began to wrack her brains for another way of luring Nazla to her room.
She was still thinking when Hasaballah and Abdel Aal walked into the room. With Abdel Aal and Sakina soon engaged in a private conversation of their own, Raya took the opportunity to whisper an account of events into her husband’s ear, and no sooner had he heard what had happened than he left the room and returned to the cafe to inform Orabi and Abdel Razeq. Since Khidra’s murder, the pair had been careful not to frequent Raya’s room as openly as they had done before. They were the neighborhood futuwwaat and their faces were known.
Orabi’s fury at Nazla and his desire to see her dead seems to have been entirely heartfelt, because on learning the news he sat sunk in silent thought while the others talked, only to abruptly settled the debate by declaring that the plan would go ahead, and that he would take responsibility for luring Nazla into visiting them. This decided, Hasaballah returned home, where he was joined soon afterwards by Abdel Razeq who, as he approached the building made a show of wiping his face with the hem of his robe so that Mohammed Aouf would not recognize him. This, despite the fact he knew Aouf well: that the man had poor eyesight and would frequently doze off in his chair.
Though determined to see the killing carried out, Orabi did not risk marching straight into Nazla’s building, but stayed at a distance, keeping a watch for the moment he might slip inside unnoticed.
Nazla looked up to find him standing at the entrance to her room. Taken aback, she reacted as he had anticipated: a silent gesture towards Bakheita’s closed door, warning him not to raise his voice. He whispered that he would be waiting for her in Raya’s room and she replied that she would drop in on her way to Zanqat El Yehoud, a street close by Harat Ali Bek El Kabir, where she’d wanted to buy offcuts from which she would make clothes when her current stocks were exhausted. To guard against the possibility that Bakheita had heard Orabi’s footsteps or his knocking on her door, she raised her voice and spoke as if to a woman:
“Fine, sister. Tell her we’ll be round shortly.”
This was the phrase Bakheita was later to repeat to Nazla’s mother, leading her mother to suspect that the woman must have been Raya, and that she must have played some part in her daughter’s disappearance.
However, Orabi cannot have been wholly confident that Nazla would keep her word, because no sooner had he slid through the entrance to the building in Harat Ali Bek El Kabir, taking the same precautions as Abdel Razeq before him, than he signalled to Raya, who left her room to join him in the darkened hallway. Sakina’s curiosity was aroused. She was becoming increasingly suspicious about the activity taking place about her and had the impression that the air of secrecy was primarily and deliberately designed to exclude her. She came out into the hallway and stood bullishly between them. Orabi had no option but to continue with what he was saying, from which Sakina understood that he was asking her sister to waylay Nazla before she reached the Basma market in Zanqat El Yehoud.
Raya did not want to go. Afraid of being remembered as the last person to be seen in Nazla’s company, she told her daughter, Badia, to lay in wait for her at the entrance to the alley. And Badia was pleased at being entrusted with the task: a chance to make up the failure of her morning mission. She ran up to the head of the alley, where she stood until she caught sight of Nazla slowly approaching in the distance, then ran towards her, calling out,
“Mother says to tell you that Orabi’s at our place. He wants to see you.”
Nazla tried putting the girl off, telling her that she was on her way to the market in Zanqat El Yehoud and that she would stop by when she was done, but Badia trotted doggedly at her heels, repeating the name Orabi over and over until Nazla had no choice but to alter her plan.
The girl followed her until she walked into the building then returned to play with the other children.
She appeared in the doorway to Raya’s room and the assembled company greeted her with a warmth whose true significance she cannot have understood. Beneath her black milaya, which she shrugged off as she stepped inside, she wore a sleeveless house robe. For this, as well as for being late, she apologized, saying she had been washing her clothes. Then she sat on the mat between Orabi and Abdel Aal.
Raya passed her a bolster to protect her back from the damp in the wall, and in return received a scrap of black fabric which Nazla had been taking to the market to exchange for a piece whose color went better with a set of clothes she was making. During this exchange, the eyes of all present fixed on her wrists to see what she wore there, and when they saw that her right arm held four gold bracelets, two of them with pendants, and her left three more, not to mention her earrings and the heavy anklets at her feet, they knew that their efforts had not been in vain, and they invited her to spend the evening with them.
Orabi pulled half a riyal from his pocket and held it out to Sakina, telling her to buy them a flask of wine and some food, plus a small bottle of cognac, which was the only alcohol Nazla would touch. But Sakina declined, pleading her injured foot, so Raya took up the half-riyal and her milaya and said she would go instead. Before she left, Orabi reminded her not to forget the cognac. Nazla, whose pleasure that he had made a point of buying her favorite drink was evident, failed to notice the gesture that Orabi made as he spoke to Raya: his open palm swept in a circular motion.
The movement Orabi made belonged to the gang’s private lexicon of gestures and phrases, and signified a cocktail of cheap liquor which tavern owners would concoct from the dregs left by their customers: usually a mixture of whiskey, cognac, wine and date arak, and known to those who bought it as skellence, a corruption of Excellence. An extremely potent drink, just a little was sufficient to render most people unconscious.
Raya returned a short while later with the jug of wine and a small glass bottle, as well as a tin of sardines and bread to add to the fish she had fried earlier. She put everything onto a low table in one corner of the room and one-by-one everyone got up, filled a loaf with fish and a cup with wine, then settled back in place. Nazla got a double share of bread and the whole bottle of skellence to herself.
Time passed. They talked and joked and drank and Nazla seemed as happy as she had ever been. Under the influence of the drink she seemed willing to answer any question they put to her, and was soon comparing the honor and courage of her two husbands with that of her various companions, though she still had enough sense to forbear from referring to Orabi, who was sitting beside her on the mat.
At some point, Badia came in to eat and tried to sit down and join them, but Hasaballah pushed her away and told to go outside and play. A short while later she came in again, still hungry, but now there was nothing left for to eat, so she dipped a tin cup in the zir, drank, and ran back to the alley.
Hasaballah was sitting on a crate beside Abdel Razeq, both of them facing Nazla. Nazla suddenly got to her feet and took up her milaya, apologizing profusely but saying she had left her washing out to dry on the roof and had to get home and take it in.
Orabi stood up, pleading with her to stay.Sakina was just lifting her third glass of wine to her lips when she saw Orabi suddenly wrap his arms round Nazla from behind. In the same instant, Abdel Aal leant forward and gripped each of her legs just above the ankles with his powerful mill-trained hands, while Hasaballah slid off the box, clamping a wetted handkerchief over her mouth and nose as Abdel Razeq pulled her head back to prevent her twisting her face free.
Unable to bear the sight, Raya left the room, but Sakina was so terrified by what she saw that she was unable to rise to her feet, or move at all. The glass slipped from her hand and smashed on the floor. The horror of the moment impressed itself deeply on her mind. Later, she was to recall the scene to her interrogator:
“The girl was gurgling like she had a mouthful of water, or she was drowning. And because four men were holding her and she couldn’t kick out, she was shaking all over. They held her until her breath gave out.”
The men were laying Nazla’s corpse out on the mat, when Sakina, whose legs were still unable to support her, at last began to crawl towards the door. It was only afterwards that she realized that she had urinated on herself. She had no idea which of the men opened the door for her, nor who it was that closed it behind her, but at last she found herself outside, in the darkness of the hallway, and there she heard a voice. It was Raya, a shadow darker than the darkness, standing just outside the door to the room.
A long time then passed before Raya at last helped her sister to her feet, then led her upstairs to the third floor of the building, to visit their landlady. As soon as Nazla was laid out on the mat, the men began to strip her of her jewellery. This task fell to Hasaballah, who saw no need to remove the her clothes, since the only clothing she had brought of any value was the crepe milaya which she had taken off on entering the room.
The work they had put in to digging Khidra’s grave made Nazla’s burial a simpler affair. The floor tiles which they had replaced over Khidra’s body were no longer held together by mortar, the plaster and gravel layer beneath it was broken up, and the earth in which they had to dig was already loose. Since not all of them would be needed, Abdel Razeq left the room, followed by Abdel Aal, while Orabi Hassan and Hasaballah got to work. One crouched by the sindara, removed the tiles from beneath it, then began to dig, keeping the grave deliberately shallow so as not to disturb Khidra’s body, which lay at a depth of about a meter. As he worked, the other would assist by collecting the earth in a basket and depositing it in a corner of the room, before swapping places with the digger.
Once the pit was approximately half a meter deep they stopped to rest, then embarked on the final step. It was while they sat resting that Badia first learned the great secret that everyone was keeping from her. She was playing outside the building when she noticed Abdel Razeq and Abdel Aal leaving and walking up to the cafe. Shortly afterwards, because of the quantity of fried fish she’d eaten, she was overwhelmed by a great thirst, and ducked into the building. She looked for the faint light seeping from her parents’ room and realized that the door must be closed, but instead of knocking she decided to take herself to the left end of the hallway where there was an internal light shaft with a broken lavatory at the base of it, and a window which opened into their room. The window was in fact an empty frame which her mother had covered with a sheet of card to keep out the foul odors that drifted through from the lavatory, but Badia had managed to poke a hole through the card, allowing her to slip her arm through and swing the frame open far enough for her to reach one of the water jugs that sat on its inner ledge whenever she needed a drink and her parents were out.
On this occasion, instead of opening the window to take a drink, Badia placed her eye against the hole. And so it was that she found herself looking down into the room, illuminated by the sickly glow of the lamp which had been set on the sindara to prevent its light escaping the room, just as Orabi was helping her father lift the body of the woman with staring eyes and lay her down in the hole. They then pushed the piled earth back over the body, relaid the tiles and stamped them down.
What Badia saw did not frighten her. It didn’t cause her to cry out or run from the building. And not just because she hadn’t fully understood what it was she was witnessing, nor because it was her father who was doing it, but also because she was, quite simply, too old to be surprised. Her ten years on earth had been spent moving between various rented rooms run as secret brothels, and her free hours spent playing outside the street. She had seen a lot in her brief life. The next day, when she told her mother what she had seen, Raya became alarmed and tried to provide an alternative explanation, but Badia stuck to her story, adding yet more details to prove her point. Raya had no choice but to forbid her from talking about it, telling her that no one must know Nazla had been to visit them that day. And when Raya told Hasballah he repeated the advice, with the addition of a threat: that he would bury Badia next to Nazla if she revealed what she had seen to a living soul.
The burial over, the two men opened the door. Hasaballah called to his wife, who came down from the third floor with Sakina to cast her eye over the room and make sure that nothing was out of place. And when she had finished sweeping and had disposed of the excess earth in the corner, Orabi counted the jewellery into her hands so those present could count it out (seven bracelets, two pendants, a pair of earrings and an anklet) then left to join Abdel Razeq and Abdel Aal who were waiting at the Sawi tavern outside the public tap, just round the corner from the jeweller.
Although Sakina still had some trouble walking, she insisted on accompanying her sister to the jeweller. Her suspicions that the men were not sharing the proceeds fairly—that they were conspiring with one another and with her sister to hide the true value of the gold and silver they had sold—were growing ever stronger, particularly since the jeweller had not provided a notarized bill of weight and price for Khidra’s gold. Ironically, the men had similar suspicions, and appointed Hasaballah to go with the two women to make sure they did not make a deal with the jeweller to falsify the sale price.
The jeweller valued Nazla’s bracelets at fourteen pounds (two pounds per bracelet), her anklets at three pounds, her earrings at six riyals, and her two pendants at eight riyals. The payment made, the three returned to the public tap to join Abdel Aal, Orabi and Abdel Razeq, where, after a hasty piece of mental arithmetic (which saw four pounds added to the total as the value of Nazla’s crepe milaya), Sakina received her share. Four pounds.
In her confession she explained what she did next:
“I went to the barber and gave him half a riyal and he changed my dressing. Then I bought a brace of chickens for three riyals and went to the tavern. I sat there drinking and enjoying myself and when I went home I had three pounds left.”
[Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger]
A Short Glossary of Terms
Zaar - A ritual of incantation and dance that can be thought of as an exorcism, or otherwise a form of therapy, and common in traditional rural and urban communities
Irqsous - Infusion of liquorice root poured chilled by itinerant vendors
Semna - Ghee
Futuwwa - One of a range of terms to describe neighborhood strongmen or enforcers, this one carries some honorable associations, but in this time and place refers to a minor gangster, an extortioner and racketeer. Futuwaat is the plural.
Saïdi - Someone from the south of Egypt, known as the Saïd
Milaya - A black sheetlike wrap worn by women out of doors
Khawaga - An honorific used for foreigners or those from a non-Egyptian community or of identifiably non-Egyptian origin.
Sindara - In the buildings occupied by the sisters and their husbands ground floor rooms always contained a sindara, which in this case was a form of mudbrick shelf built out from the wall. By day a shelf or a bench, by night a bed, the space beneath the sindara functioned as a cupboard for domestic items.