Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
17 - 23 June 1999
Issue No. 434
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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A Diwan of contemporary life (290)


Makram Henein

Prostitution, drugs, theft, thuggery and slums provided an ideal setting for gruesome serial murders that rocked Egypt in 1920. The victims were all women and the killers were two sisters, assisted by their husbands and a few others. The scene was Al-Labban district, Alexandria's poorest area where crime was a way of life. The bodies of 17 women had been discovered by the time police completed their investigation. The two ringleaders, Raya and Sakina, were tried and hanged in 1921 along with their husbands and two other men. The grisly murders inspired dramatists and produced a movie and a play, both entitled Raya and Sakina, in the second half of the century. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * recounts the story on the basis of reports and articles published by Al-Ahram

The women killers

In the winter spanning 1920-21, Al-Ahram and the rest of the national press were riveted by the most gruesome criminal case of 20th century Egyptian history. The case would become known after the names of two notorious female perpetrators -- Raya and Sakina -- although Al-Ahram, at the time, covered it under the headline "The women's massacre".

The lurid details of the case of Raya and Sakina fired the imagination of Egyptian dramatists and cinematographers and furnished ample fodder for students of law and criminology. It is curious, however, that it attracted little attention among historians, perhaps out of the belief that the case was irrelevant to the general course of political developments.
Kamal Effendi Ibrahim Effendi Souliman Ezzat

However, not only is it impossible for us to ignore the "women's massacre" in the Diwan series which deals with the events that drew the attention of Al-Ahram throughout its lengthy history, but we find that certain factors render it of historical significance.

Raya and Sakina began their series of ruthless crimes in Alexandria in November 1919. It is not inconsequential that the Egyptian port city at this time also saw the famous popular uprising that pitted its major protagonists -- stone-throwing children -- against the forces of the British Empire. With security forces preoccupied with quelling the disturbances, Raya and Sakina were afforded the opportunity to act with impunity. An anguished contemporary, Fikri Abaza, who would eventually acquire fame as a prominent Egyptian journalist, commented on this phenomenon in Al-Ahram of 25 November 1920, as the details of the serial killings began to unfold. "Where are the police?" he asked. "Where is the sword of government that should fall on the necks of bloodthirsty criminals? Where is the vigilant eye of justice that should never wink? Where is the mighty hand of authority?" In answer he wrote, "Indeed, the government has been too intent upon training the hordes of its secret political police to concern itself with training forces necessary to safeguard our internal security or personal safety. It is time for us to ask it to address the dangers posed by that negligence. The recent murders are a great calamity, the horrors of which have blackened the forehead of the 20th century."

Periods of war and their immediate aftermath are known to bring with them manifestations of moral degeneracy and the spread of associated criminal activities. As Egypt, along with the rest of the world, had just emerged from the "Great War", it is little wonder that the case of Raya and Sakina would afford a scandalised Egyptian public a glimpse into Alexandria's underworld. Public Prosecutor Suleiman Bek Ezzat furnished testimony to this aspect of the women's crime. In his appeal to the court on 11 May 1921 he said, "This criminal ring began operating in Alexandria more than three years ago. The women in it are originally from Upper Egypt and made their way to Alexandria via Beni Soueif and then Kafr Al-Zayyat. It was in Kafr Al-Zayyat that Raya married Hasaballah while her sister, Sakina, still a young girl, worked in a brothel until a man fell in love with her and brought her to Alexandria."

Raya and her husband would soon follow. "Hasaballah was a thief and hashish smuggler," Mohamed Ezzat continued. "He was banished from Kafr Al-Zayyat, after which he and Raya made their way to Alexandria where they moved in with Sakina who was living in the Azarita district." The two sisters proved themselves very enterprising, having decided to open and operate a chain of "houses of depravity". "They opened one in Souq Al-Asr, which they called 'The Camp' due to its proximity to a camp for British soldiers. They also opened one in the vicinity of Al-Fahham Mosque, another near Akhwas Mosque, a fourth in the Al-Uyuni district and a fifth on Makorbis Street near the Labban Bakery. Early on they had made the acquaintance of Orabi Hassan. It is the practice of such houses of ill repute to hire a protector, and Orabi Hassan was such a person. Protection, in this sense, means that if a person enters one of these houses to drink and have sex and refuses to pay the bill to the madame of the house, the tough hired to protect the place will intervene and force the customer to pay."

Prostitution, alcohol, drugs, theft, racketeering and murder against the backdrop of a large presence of British soldiers whose numbers increased enormously during the war -- these were the facets of the portrait Mohamed Ezzat depicted to the court. Although the scale of the crimes committed by Raya and Sakina's ring would ensure them particular notoriety, the picture was not unique to them. Salama Mousa, the intellectual and journalistic luminary who rose to fame in the thirties when he founded Al-Majalla Al-Jadida, observed that a similar case, if not of the same magnitude, occurred in Tanta, the capital of Gharbiya Governorate, at about the same time. Al-Ahram began to cover the details in June 1920 under the headline, "Women disappear in Tanta". According to the newspaper, investigations eventually brought a certain Mahmoud Allam to trial on charges of conspiring with his wife and a female partner of theirs to murder women and prostitutes in order to steal their jewellery. Allam was sentenced to death in November of that year. Writing in Al-Ahram of 8 December 1920, Mousa remarked on the similarity between the two crimes: "They are linked by a common thread of circumstance, modus operandi and aim," a fact which he attributed to the alarming spread of hashish, alcohol and cocaine. "British alcoholic beverages are now being sold in Cairo at lower prices than in London. Hashish and cocaine are available everywhere and easily procured." The criminal is the product of his environment and the similarity of the environments of Tanta and Alexandria is what produced two similar murder rings, he concluded.

Certainly, in Labban, the poorest district of Alexandria at the time, prostitution, drugs and alcohol addiction were rife. This perhaps is not surprising in that such districts are magnets for the destitute and dispossessed. What may come as a surprise, however, is that many of the women who frequented Raya and Sakina's houses "to commit adultery" were married women. They ranged in age from 17 to 50 and, in fact, one of them was blind in one eye.

The story of Raya and Sakina begins to unfold in Al-Ahram of 18 November 1920 under the headline, "Women slaughtered in Labban: 12 corpses unearthed". The article reports that the mother of one of the victims had reported that her daughter -- Fardous -- had gone missing. Her report coincided with that of a building owner who had discovered the skull and remains of a woman while clearing the drainage well beneath his home. Suspicions turned to Sakina, a previous tenant in that building. The scent soon led to Raya -- literally. One day an undercover policeman passed by her home and was arrested by the strong smell of incense emanating from it. He informed the police commissioner who ordered a search that led to the discovery of two female corpses and the remains of a third, which turned out to be Fardous. Within a week, police unearthed 15 female corpses and the remains of two other women in a number of buildings which security authorities learned Raya and Sakina used for the purposes of prostitution.

Oddly, it was Sakina, the younger sister, who held out the longest under interrogation with her persistent refusal to admit anything to do with the corpses. Raya, however, broke down quickly with a series of confessions that led police from one building to another and the discovery of more bodies.

Rayia Raya Hasaballah Hasaballah
Sakina Sakina Abdel-Aal Abdel-Aal

At the same time, testimony began to come forth from other sources. One informant, described by Al-Ahram as "the lady living at 5 Makorbis Street", where Sakina had also lived for a while, said that two months previously she had seen Hasaballah and Abdel-Aal, the husbands of Raya and Sakina, entering Sakina's room with "Zanouba, the poultry saleswoman". She continues, "They began to drink and then, near dawn, I heard a scream coming from the room. When I asked Sakina about it in the morning she said it was nothing." The woman relates that a similar incident occurred six weeks later. This time, the victim was "one-eyed Fatma, the servant broker". Once again, the woman was awakened by a scream in the middle of the night and when, the following day, she asked Sakina what happened, Sakina "offered no revealing information".

Another witness came forward to explain why Zanouba was killed. "Zanouba knew too much about their activities and was being paid to keep her mouth shut. Evidently, they feared her gabbing tongue because she would taunt them about what she knew, so they killed her to silence her once and for all."

The victims did not present themselves to the murderesses voluntarily. Investigations revealed that Raya and Sakina had other ways to lure their prey. Al-Ahram's correspondent in Alexandria reported, "from confidential sources", that Raya would go to the market "where she would single out the woman wearing the most jewellery. She would strike up a conversation with her about the wares and prices in the store they happened to be in or standing in front of. If she found the woman responsive, she would work the conversation around to saying that she had come into possession of some wares from the customs zone which she had for sale for cheap prices. Then she would invite the woman to her home to see these wares. Sometimes she would use other pretexts for luring women to her home, holding out the promise of monetary reward or jewellery."

Although, at first, investigators were faced with conflicting testimony, they were soon able to piece together a coherent picture of the way the murders were committed. The medical examiner testified that the women "were killed by suffocation, not by strangulation as the larynxes of the victims were uninjured, although the two methods produce the same effect which is to close off the passage of breath. This form of murder was most likely committed after having administered to the victim a dosage of drugs."

The killers themselves provided the rest of the picture in their confessions. Sakina said that Abdel-Aal and Hasaballah would strangle the women and bury their bodies in the houses where they were eventually discovered. Raya added that she would slip a drug into the drink she would offer her victims.

Evidently the killers had a strict division of labour. According to Abdel-Aal, Sakina's husband, one of the killers would clamp his hands over the victim's mouth, another would grab hold of her throat, a third would hold her hands behind her back and the fourth would pin down her feet until she stopped breathing. Abdel-Aal was in charge of holding the feet.

It took some time before the authorities were able to identify the victims. Even so, the statement they issued was not complete. Seven of the 17 victims could not be fully identified, suggesting that they were runaways or women who had left their homes to turn to prostitution. In all events, such women were easy prey for merciless killers, and a horrified society was quick to demand revenge.

Egyptians expressed their shock at the barbarity of the crimes in many ways. Perhaps the best known reaction of ordinary people manifested itself under the Al-Ahram headline, "Raya and Sakina in the Zoo!" According to this story, a rumour spread in the latter half of December 1920 that Raya and Sakina were on display in the Zoo. People flocked to the Zoo to see the "two notorious ringleaders" whose notoriety had spread like wildfire. Although, of course, the rumour was totally unfounded, Al-Ahram remarked that the rumour itself indicated that the Egyptian people not only wished to strip Raya and Sakina of their qualities as women, but also as human beings. The newspaper observed caustically that "in general, animals do not prey upon their own genus as Raya and Sakina."

The lengthy trial, too, attracted considerable commentary. Al-Ahram wrote that the Egyptian justice system had never seen a case of this sort. The crimes that are generally brought before the courts, it wrote, "occur within the bounds of human disputes. Murder is an ordinary crime in the history of mankind. If it is premeditated our sense of abhorrence is relative to our ability to comprehend the motives that led the criminal to commit the act." The case of Raya and Sakina, however, was in a class of its own. "Their crime has exceeded all bounds of human nature and rational behaviour to reach a level of barbarism and savagery of unbridled evil."
Sakina's wedding Abdel-Aal and Sakina on their wedding day

Raya and Sakina inspired the pens of prominent writers of the time. Al-Ahram. featured a commentary by the famous poet and literary critic Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad entitled, "Raya and Sakina between Lombroso and Anatole France". As the title suggests, his article involved an analysis of the pictures of the two criminals, which brings us first to an interesting footnote. The case of Raya and Sakina probably marks the first time Egyptian newspapers published the pictures of criminals. In fact, we learn from an Al-Ahram report that the public prosecutor had "instructed Abdel-Galil Effendi to draw the buildings where the crimes took place and the Khawaga Aziz and the Khawaga Doss to photograph the bodies of the victims and the perpetrators."

Remarking on the pictures, El-Aqqad said that some people were given to the theory of Lombroso, who maintains that criminal personalities are reflected in the physical features of the face. These people believed that the faces they would see in the pictures of Raya and Sakina would inspire nightmarish dread. El-Aqqad observed that the opposite was the case. He argued that there was nothing inherently terrifying in the pictures, per se, apart from what the imagination, fired by the horror of their crime, read into them. As a matter of fact, he said, there was nothing extraordinary at all about the pictures, particularly those of the two men, "but the ugliness of evil and the effects of addiction are more pronounced in the faces of the women than the men." El-Aqqad did observe that a certain "insensitivity" was evident in all the faces, although "it could easily be missed". "Insensitivity, by its very nature, does not catch the eye."

Just before the trial began, controversy arose over whether the women would or should be condemned to death. Until then, no woman had ever received the death penalty. Al-Ahram's opinion was that there was nothing to prevent imposing the death penalty on the accused given the gravity of their crimes. It referred readers to relevant articles of law, such as Article 13 of the penal code which said, "Those sentenced to death shall hang", and Article 263 of the criminal investigations law which stipulated, "If a woman so sentenced declares that she is pregnant, the sentence shall be suspended pending the confirmation of her claim and shall not be implemented until after she gives birth." Article 13 of the penal code provided for no exceptions, and, clearly, neither Raya nor Sakina were pregnant.

Certainly Public Prosecutor Suleiman Ezzat was in favour of the death penalty and devoted a good portion of his appeal to it. There were two reasons why the Egyptian courts have not imposed the death sentence on women. He said, "Firstly, women's crimes generally demand an element of mercy and compassion, such as crimes in which women are driven to kill their husbands' second wives or in which they poison someone who has brought them harm. Secondly, the death penalty was executed publicly." Neither of these reasons applied to the case of Raya and Sakina. By all means they did not call for mercy and nowadays the death penalty is executed inside the prison.

The trial of Raya and Sakina lasted three days, from 10 to 12 May 1921. There were 10 defendants of whom three were women and the court heard the testimony of 31 witnesses. Witnesses for the prosecution included a milkman, a seamstress, a tobacco salesman, an alleyway elder, an egg salesman, a baker, a tarboush manufacturer, a carriage driver and many more. Sakina was the more aggressive during questioning, shooting up to her feet to interrupt testimony and entering into squabbles during the questioning of some witnesses. Of the nine witnesses who had been brought in for the defence, six withdrew and the remaining three had little to offer. The defence lawyers (there were four) had little on which to base their final pleas to the court. In general, their tack was to deny the charges against their particular client and shift the blame to one or more of the other defendants.

On 16 May 1921, Chief Magistrate Ahmed Bek Mousa issued the death sentence against Raya and Sakina, their husbands and two "thugs" who had taken part in the actual murders of the 17 women. Three of the defendants were found innocent while the goldsmith Ali Mohamed Hassan was sentenced to five years in prison for having purchased the victims' jewellery. Al-Ahram's reporter at the court described the spectators' reaction at the end of the trial. "Pandemonium broke out in the place. After about a quarter of an hour the commotion subsided and the people started to leave the courthouse. As for the condemned, they were taken off to prison; Raya and Sakina to the women's prison and the rest to Al-Hadara Prison." So closing its file on the case, Al-Ahram left Raya and Sakina to enter the annals of history and the world of drama and cinema.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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