27 April - 3 May 2000
Issue No. 479
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (335)
The trial of a Frenchwoman for the murder of her Egyptian husband in London in 1923 turned into a courtroom show of contempt and racist prejudice against Eastern men generally and Egyptians in particular. There was not the slightest shadow of doubt that the wife fatally shot her husband in the back. But her British lawyer tore the husband's character to pieces and, in the process, strongly condemned Eastern men for depravity, corruption and ill-treatment of wives. The jury, swayed by the dramatic defence performance, acquitted the wife. The ruling touched off adverse reactions among the Arabs.
Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* tells the story from reports published by Al-Ahram
The scene: the Savoy Hotel in London on the evening of 1 September, 1923. Ali Kamel Fahmi Bek, an Egyptian notable, quarrels bitterly with Marguerite, his French wife. He then emerges from the hotel room and as his little dog scampers down the hallway. He whistles to call it back when suddenly his wife shoots him in the back. He dies instantly.
Fahmi (r) with his wife Marguerite and a friend
This incident may well have remained confined to the crime pages in the British, Egyptian and French press had it not been for the great commotion stirred by the trial of Marguerite, which lasted from 11 to 15 September that year. Indeed, such was the sensation surrounding this trial that the correspondent of The Near East in Cairo observed, "The Arabic newspapers in Egypt have spent fortunes on obtaining wire releases from London on the Madame Fahmi case." Al-Ahram stood out as the only newspaper to feature the court transcripts, and the correspondent went on to relate that when he attempted to buy a copy of Al-Ahram one afternoon, the newsboy told him, "Even if you could pay all the money there is in Egypt you wouldn't be able to buy a copy of Al-Ahram dealing with the Fahmi case."
While much of the excitement stemmed from the identity of the protagonists, the victim and the murderess, the case also highlighted an issue that some might have pinpointed by citing Rudyard Kipling's famous verse, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."
To begin with the protagonists, Marguerite was 33 years old, French, a divorcee and remarkably beautiful, according to the accounts of the reporters who attended the trial. She also had a 15-year-old illegitimate daughter. Ali Kamel Fahmi was a 23-year-old Egyptian youth -- 10 years younger than his wife -- and is not to be confused with Ali Fahmi Kamel, the brother of the Egyptian nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel. Belonging to the upper class of notables most of whom were of Turkish origin, he had three brothers and during the short period of his marriage he claimed to be related to King Fouad, and, moreover, assumed the title of "prince." He certainly spent as lavishly as a prince, for, according to Al-Ahram, over the four years prior to his murder he spent "half a million pounds on women, alcohol and cars. The palace he had built for himself cost him LE120,000. He was also in the habit of presenting valuable gifts to the police in every city where he took up residence."
In her memoirs on her marriage to Ali Fahmi -- memoirs which the newspapers scrambled to publish following her trial -- Marguerite relates that she was in Cairo when her husband-to-be started to court her. She was flattered and delighted by his infatuation, "and as Fahmi Bek's love for me grew stronger and stronger, I began to see before me a life I had only read about in A Thousand and One Nights and I heard passionate words of love and promises of what happiness his vast wealth could bring us." Marguerite and Fahmi signed their marriage contract on 27 December, 1922, and as this contract stipulated that she had to convert to Islam, she did so two weeks later.
Marguerite's memoirs also give a picture of her husband's extravagance. He had to have three telephones in his hotel room, undoubtedly strategically placed to avoid excess legwork. He had a speedboat fitted out with a 450-horsepower engine in which he would "fly across the surface of the Nile at terrifying breakneck speeds, creating strong waves that caused houseboats to rock precipitously and careen into the banks, shattering the pottery in them as their occupants climb out and shower curses after the boat and its passengers."
Fahmi's and Marguerite's marriage lasted only eight months, ending in that tragic scene in the Savoy Hotel. The incident afforded Egyptian readers an unsettling view of the racism and bigotry latent in the European soul and encapsulated in the famous Kipling verse. This is undoubtedly one reason why Al-Ahram covered the ensuing trial so assiduously through the reports filed by its correspondent in the British capital.
The trial opened on Tuesday, 11 September 1923, in a small London courtroom. In fact, the courtroom was so small that Al-Ahram's correspondent in his first dispatch described it as containing no more than 20 seats to accommodate lawyers, journalists and the few members of the public who were able to obtain passes. Clearly justice officials had imagined that they had an open-and-shut murder case that held nothing to attract widespread attention. They could not have been more mistaken. Only two days into the trial, the tiny courtroom swelled with spectators while a queue of at least 50 people stood outside the courtroom door waiting for someone to leave so they could take his place. In fact, the correspondent recounts, there were some inside the courtroom who recognised the opportunity to turn a little profit and sold their places to any of the many dying to get in.
Inside the courtroom, there was, of course, the judge, the attorneys for the prosecution and a 12-member jury. However, the star performer was Sir Marshall Hall, who headed the three-member defence team. It was Hall who turned an ordinary criminal case into a trial of Oriental customs, transforming it into a "public opinion" issue which had the French and British siding with Marguerite as the victim of Oriental "backwardness" and "barbarity," and the Egyptians, supported by some Arabs, rallying to the defence of their customs and traditions. And, indeed, it did seem as though "the twain" would never meet.
Undoubtedly, Marguerite hired Hall for her defence both because of his social status -- he was after all a "Sir" -- and because of his considerable repute as a lawyer. But Hall's services were not cheap. According to Al-Ahram, he charged £3,000, and another £2,000 and £500 for his first and second assistants respectively -- huge sums by the standards of the times. The defendant also set aside £4,500 for the London and Parisian press, for the purposes of "winning over public sympathy, vilifying her Oriental husband and portraying the 'sufferings' of a wife in Egypt, particularly if she is a civilised European woman." Needless to say, it was her dead husband's money that enabled her to afford the exorbitant expenses it would take to escape paying the penalty for her crime, particularly as her father was a driver by profession.
As the foregoing suggests, Hall's defence consisted primarily of an extended broadside against the character of her Egyptian husband. He exploited some of the testimony given in court to portray a man who lured an unsuspecting woman to Egypt, where "he showed her his luxurious palace with its full suite of maids and servants, his luxury car, his yacht and his motorboat and all other accoutrements of opulence." He argued that Fahmi was "driven to this by that infatuation Eastern men have for Western women," but beneath his urbane exterior he was still a "brutal savage." And, in an "impassioned speech," as Al-Ahram's correspondent described it, Hall went on to enumerate the many horrors perpetrated against the refined French wife. He alleged that Fahmi possessed a gun that he would fire over her head "to frighten her into submission, exacting from her as one would from a slave abject obedience, for women to him were no more than mere property."
On several occasions, Fahmi forbade his wife to take the car and made her, instead, take the tram in the company of a Nubian servant "to keep an eye on her." One suspects here that the British lawyer was deliberately distorting the fact that it was the custom among prominent Egyptian families for women not to leave the home unescorted, if not for protection, at least for the sake of propriety; but certainly not for the purposes of surveillance.
Third on the husband's list of crimes against his wife was that he had promised to pay her a dowry of LE1,000, but only gave her LE450 in cash and a cheque for the remainder. Sir Marshall adds, "This was all the money Madame Fahmi obtained from that man who we can assure you was one of the wealthiest men in Egypt." Hall ignored the fact that the large number of servants in palaces was a social status symbol. As for his contention that Marguerite was a virtual prisoner in her husband's palace, Fahmi's aim may have been to restrain his wife's Parisian way of life which would not have gone down well in Cairo.
It was thus, Hall stated, that Marguerite lived in Cairo in that palatial abode prepared for her by her husband, "but at the mercy of the Negro servants and as little more than a prisoner at his command." Then, with a dramatic flourish, the distinguished lawyer extracts a letter, unsigned, but purportedly sent to Marguerite by a well-meaning friend in Paris, and reads it to the court. The anonymous letter read:
"Pray permit a friend who has travelled extensively in many countries of the Orient and has studied the morals of Oriental people and knows their sinister ways to offer you some advice. Do not return to Egypt. It is better to risk your money than your life, for I fear an accident may befall you if you go!"
Hall concludes his appeal with a deft summation of the picture of an innocent European woman who had fallen into the clutches of a man epitomising all the Oriental vices. "This curiously alluring, yet cheerful and unsuspecting woman committed a dreadful mistake in her assessment of the moral fiber of Fahmi Bek. Many women fall for younger men and Fahmi Bek, using all his Oriental cunning, succeeded in posing as a gentleman and an acceptable spouse. Yet, in fact, he was a womaniser, a philanderer whose traitorous deception surfaced only after he secured her signature on the marriage contract. Then, his true character began to show itself, as suddenly he changed from a meek and ardent suitor to a savage beast of the lowest possible nature. The more one looks at the conditions that this ill-fated woman endured the more one shivers in horror and disgust."
On Friday, 14 September, Hall addresses the jury directly, asking them to disregard the fact that the victim was younger than his wife. "Yes, he was only 23 years old," he told them. "But he was given to a life of debauchery and was obsessed with his sexual prowess." He went on to remind them that, as an Oriental man, his wife to him was no more than a belonging and that however much he may have acquired the outward signs of urbanity and sophistication, he was forever an Oriental under the skin.
The Al-Ahram correspondent said Hall was "as outstanding an actor as he is a lawyer." This had an effect on the jury and on British public opinion.
The prosecution, moreover, proved no match for the defence. In fact, the public prosecutor almost admitted as such, opening his appeal with the wry comment that Hall's performance was "the most powerful and expert dramatic production ever presented by the legal profession in Britain." He went on to add, "However, now I would like to transport you away from the theatrical climate that has prevailed in this courtroom for four days." And he did indeed try to do so, but without succeeding in significantly diminishing the effect Hall had on the jury.
The prosecutor argued, firstly, that the difference in age between the spouses was a significant factor. As a 33-year-old woman, Marguerite was experienced in the affairs of the world and men, having given birth to a child when she was no more than 16. He then went on to furnish evidence of Fahmi's love for Marguerite, a love that had driven him to write her numerous passionate letters and to woo her into marriage. In Cairo, he enabled Marguerite to live in the lap of luxury. "There is no proof whatsoever that he took delight in tormenting women. Quite to the contrary, the evidence points to the fact that Madame Fahmi yearned to be a princess and that she was prepared to renounce her religion and relinquish her right to divorce in order to fulfill this dream. Greed played a large part in her marriage to that young man."
Unfortunately, the prosecutor had to confess that that marriage was marred by frequent quarrels, and it may have further weakened his argument that he expressed his regrets that Islamic law confers on the Muslim husband certain marital rights, such as the right to discipline the wife, but, he was quick to add, "not in the brutal manner described by Sir Marshall."
The presiding judge was apparently well aware of the general tide of opinion. He could see it on the faces of the jury members, in the behaviour of the spectators and in the comments of the British press. Consequently, at the end of the hearings, he took pains to deliver a stern caution to the members of the jury:
"The prosecution has demonstrated that the defendant killed Ali Fahmi Bek, in an act which the law considers deliberate murder, as long as the defence has not been able to prove otherwise. If the members of the jury doubt whether the defendant believed or did not believe that her act was a crime or anything less than murder, they must nevertheless resolve that she did indeed commit a deliberate act of murder. We must not allow hair-raising testimonies to distract us or affect our judgement. Do not let fear or loathing prevent you from using your mental faculties."
In spite of this caution, the jury's deliberation lasted no more than an hour. When they returned to the courtroom and took their seats, the clerk stood up to ask their verdict. Al-Ahram's correspondent at the trial recorded the ensuing exchange:
"Clerk of the court: Is Madame Fahmi guilty of deliberate murder?
Murdered husband Ali Kamel Fahmi
English poet Rudyard Kipling
Foreman of the jury: Not guilty.
Clerk of the court: Is the defendant guilty of manslaughter (murder committed without deliberation)?
Foreman of the jury: Not guilty."
The correspondent goes on to describe the reaction in the courtroom: "When spectators in the court heard this verdict they started to applaud. The news quickly reached the members of the public waiting outside and they, too, began to applaud. Offended by this display, the judge angrily called the court to order and ordered all present in the courtroom to leave with the exception of the lawyers and journalists. He then turned to address Madame Fahmi and said, 'Madame Fahmi, the jury has found you not guilty. You are acquitted of the charges that had been brought against you.'"
This ended the proceedings but the trial of "Oriental customs," in which Egyptians were the target, continued to rage for several days in the British press. This development, too, Al-Ahram brought to its disconcerted readers.
The Daily Mirror cautioned against marriages between Western women and Eastern men. Such marriages, it suggested, give rise to ludicrous and inappropriate emotions. The case of Madame Fahmi, in particular, "should serve as a lesson to our young emotionally impressionable daughters who have yet to acquire a certain sophistication."
The Lloyd News wrote that "the white woman who seeks love from men not of her race, whether they are yellow, brown or black, enters a world against which her nature must rebel when she learns the truth." The Sunday Pictorial could not have agreed more. It commented that the Madame Fahmi case held little surprise for those who were familiar with the manifestations of the Oriental mentality.
In a similar vein, The Western Morning News cautioned against "the spirit of liberalism that has spread among many British families, bringing them to accept some Easterners as friends into their homes and, in turn, has eventually led to marriages." The newspaper went on to observe, "However, no sooner does the newly-wed British wife go east than her disillusionment begins. British parents must warn their daughters to be on guard against Oriental men."
Not all sections of the British press fell in with this wave of anti-Eastern hostility, particularly following the harsh condemnations of the trial and the verdict coming from Egyptians who resided in England at the time or happened to be present there during the trial and from the Egyptian people in Egypt who vented their anger through their national press.
One Egyptian citizen, Abdel-Rahman El-Biyali Bek, was so incensed by the substance of the trial that he dispatched a statement to the British press defending Egyptian marital life. Vehemently protesting Hall's assertions, El-Biyali wrote, "Egyptian men treat their wives with the utmost respect and those who deviate from this rule are no more numerous in Egypt than those who deviate from this rule in other countries. Islamic Law has placed such conditions on the permissibility to marry more than one wife as to render this option virtually impossible. Moreover, from time to time, the British press circulates reports on the women's movement in Egypt, reports which reflect the impact Egyptian women have on national affairs. When Saad Zaghlul Pasha returned to Cairo a cortege of women in 80 automobiles was there to greet him. The Egyptian women's delegation that travelled to Rome to participate in a conference there made an important contribution to the deliberations that took place there. The delegation was led by Hoda Sha'rawi, the well-known feminist leader. Finally, Egyptian law does not confer upon the husband the right to treat his wife any differently from another person. Among the wives of Egyptian men, there are many women of various European nationalities who vigorously denounce Sir Marshall Hall's allegations."
Also in Cairo, the Women's Wafd Party Central Committee met to draft a letter protesting the conduct of the trial and its verdict. This letter, which they dispatched in telegram form to the British press and to the residence of the British High Commissioner, read, "We take strong exception to the fallacious and appalling accusations directed by Madame Marguerite Fahmi's lawyers and most of the British press against Oriental peoples in general and Egyptians in particular. Egyptian women can only perceive these spurious allegations as a deliberate campaign of hostility, a new form of defamation of Oriental peoples in order to justify British colonial policy."
The outrage spread beyond the borders of Egypt, as can be seen from The Daily Express report from its correspondent in Jerusalem where the Madame Fahmi trial provoked harsh censure from British expatriates and Palestinian Arabs.
Several British newspapers sympathised with the Egyptians and were themselves critical of the way prejudice had perverted justice. The Daily Herald, the mouthpiece for the Labour Party, was the first to suggest that the jury's verdict had less to do with the demands of justice than it did with the outstanding performance of Sir Marshall. The newspaper added, "If the Labour Party comes to power, its government will do away with that system that conditions the defendants' chances of acquittal largely upon how much they can afford to spend on their defence."
The Daily Chronicle featured an editorial that prompted Al-Ahram to remark that that British newspaper had "come to its senses." The newspaper, which had formerly welcomed the court's verdict, admitted that the objections voiced by Egyptians were valid and that Islamic marital codes in Egypt "are founded upon powerful moral tenets and place men and women on equal footing in the performance of matrimonial duties. There are as many upstanding individuals among the Muslim people as there are among the Christian people and it is hypocrisy to claim that our culture produces better people than the 'backward' cultures in most parts of the Orient."
However, in spite of the apologetic tone of many British articles, it is doubtful that they went a long way towards dispelling the general cultural and psychological mindset that gave rise to Kipling's "East is East and West is West" and made possible the racially-inspired manipulation of justice in the Madame Fahmi case.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.