|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
19 - 25 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A Diwan of contemporary life (399)
Crime stories have forever attracted newspaper readers and those of Al-Ahram are no exception. Though the newspaper had no such page when it was launched, by the 1920's crime had become a staple diet. Blood feuds and family rivalries made up the bulk of crime in rural Egypt. Financial irregularities, embezzlement, fraud and counterfeiting were offenses which owed their beginnings to the country's transformation into a capitalist economy. So strong was the newspaper's campaign against drug-related crimes that a law was enacted stiffening penalties for offenders. And, as expected, sexual harassment had its place on the crime page. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* looks at Al-Ahram's early crime coverage
The magnetic pageIf newspaper readers were polled to determine which section they turn to most, the crime page would undoubtedly come out on top. There is an irresistible human impulse to grab the morning newspaper and flip immediately to those columns that shock and titillate and supply unlimited fodder for conversation later in the day. Moreover, whether readers are aware of it or not, it seems to make little difference that they had previously read similar heart-rendering stories, even in the same newspaper, with only different casts of characters and changes in scene and circumstance. Nor does it matter that their emotions are often intentionally manipulated through a heady sprinkling of lurid detail, liberal doses of exaggeration and spicy language.
It is curious that Al-Ahram did not have a crime page when it appeared in the 1870s. The most readers would find was an occasional crime item taking up only a small space on the second page, which for some time was the most important of the newspaper's four pages.
Eventually, however, the newspaper increased in size, and so, too, did the space accorded to crime so that by the first quarter of the 20th century, rarely did an issue appear without at least one or two juicy stories, sometimes extending a full column's length on page four or five. Around this time, page editors began to write headlines to capture readers' attention. "Heinous Crime" was one of the most commonly used. Frequently, too, they felt it appropriate to append a pithy moral for the purpose of public edification.
Rural Egypt was the scene of a good many crimes of "heinous" stature. An example is found in the following report from Kom Hamada:
"The livestock pen of Abdel-Aziz Qutb and his brothers was set on fire last night while they and their families were asleep in it. The enclosure is located on the estate of El-Sufani Bek. The blaze killed a man, two women and four children and four others suffered serious burns. Seven animals also died. The man suspected of setting the fire, Abdel-Qader Mohamed, is reported to have fled and police are currently in pursuit."
Under "Heinous Crime" appeared the following report on a street brawl that broke out on El-Fawala Street in Abdin in the heart of Cairo. The incident involved two women. One of them, aided by her son, "trussed up another woman, threw her down to the ground and sprayed a caustic substance (hot pepper) on her body, which ultimately led to her death." The report continues, "Police arrested the two culprits and the prosecution is currently conducting an investigation. It has come to light that the assailant had wanted to purchase the home of the victim who had refused to sell."
Not surprisingly, crimes concerning kinship and local family rivalries featured much more prominently in the countryside than in the cities where such affiliations tended to be weaker. One frequent cause of violence in the village was family feuding over the position of mayor. Al-Ahram's crime page was filled with news briefs of local skirmishes that flared up over such issues, sometimes claiming many casualties. Typical of such incidents was the account, carried in a March 1924 edition of Al-Ahram, of "a brawl in El-Shawarbiya, Akhmim, between two families battling over the village mayorship after the mayoral selection committee had made its decision in favour of one of the families." The brief concludes that the fight resulted in one death and three people injured. The rest of the combatants were arrested.
Disputes over irrigation rights and commercial interests were also frequently behind rural flare-ups in which the lines were drawn on the basis of local affiliations. Take for example the following report from Al-Ahram of 24 March 1925:
"A group of villagers from Kafr Alim went to neighbouring El-Atouta in order to grind their wheat in the village's mill. As the mill was crowded they had to await their turn well into the evening. Returning to their village after nightfall, they were set upon by a gang of villagers from Hourin, but fortunately, their relatives rushed to the rescue. The assailants had brought with them a water buffalo which they claimed their victims had stolen. However, it came to light that the villagers from Kafr Alim and Hourin had a history of disputes over commercial and agricultural concerns. The prosecution and police officials arrested the assailants and had an injured man taken to hospital. "
Blood feuds, of course, were very much associated with the countryside, particularly Upper Egypt. On 26 August 1925, Al- Ahram's correspondent in Tahta reports:
"As Mahdi Ali, deputy chief of the government guards in Fazara, was returning from the market yesterday afternoon in the company of the chief of the guards from Joheina and two other people, they were assaulted by a gang consisting of Mohamed Gabali and 19 others armed with swords. The assailants killed Mahdi Ali and fled, taking with them his body and rifle. The district police commissioner, the public prosecutor and a company of police chased the assailants and apprehended them. It turned out that the motive for their assault was that Mahdi Ali had killed one of their brothers."
The foreign communities, particularly the Greeks and Italians, played a big role in urban crime. Undoubtedly they were encouraged by the immunity granted to them under the capitulations system.
"The most heinous crime" was a headline which introduced the account appearing in Al-Ahram of 21 May 1926 of a murder in broad daylight. From an upper story of a downtown building in Cairo, two Greek women threw a 16-year-old girl to her death. According to the newspaper, the girl's parents had bequeathed her a small fortune of LE3,000, placing it in the custody of her uncle. But her uncle appropriated the money for himself. His two sisters tried to force her to relinquish her right to this inheritance. "Eyewitnesses say they saw the girl trying to run away from the two women and crying out for help but to no avail."
"Cherchez la femme," goes the famous French maxim regarding criminal motive. In Egypt, this tended to apply less to the village than to the city, where crimes of sexual harassment took place as early as the beginning of the 20th century. One news item relates that a man and his wife "were walking in front of the mosque of Sayeda Zeinab when a man called Sayed Mohamed brushed up against the woman and muttered something rude and embarrassing. The husband flew into a rage and grabbed the man by the throat with such strength that he died in his hands."
This was one of those occasions in which the page editor felt a short sermon was in order. He expressed his abhorrence at individuals who "address disgusting remarks at women on the street, whether the women are on their own or in the company of others." He found it reprehensible that such men "have no shame and care nothing about the harm they cause others, despite the fact that we are in dire need of moral and upstanding youth. No people can succeed unless they are endowed with virtuous traits."
The nature of crime is also determined by changing times, by a panoply of economic and social developments. In the first half of the 19th century, Egypt slowly began to shed the shackles of the centuries-long Ottoman feudal regime as it made the transition to a capitalist economy. Initially this was not the product of an emerging bourgeoisie but rather the work of a single man, Mohamed Ali, and his version of state capitalism. The pace of transition began to pick up in the second half of the century, particularly during the reign of the Khedive Ismail under whom it is said that Egypt was transformed into one enormous cotton plantation. This led to the emergence of private land ownership and the rise of an Egyptian agrarian entrepreneurial class.
This period also saw the sudden influx of Europeans -- numbering more than 100,000 -- many of whom were engaged in finance and commerce which, in turn, gave the emerging middle class a predominantly foreign look.
Among the landmark developments of this period were the establishment in 1899 of the National Bank which minted the country's first banknotes, and the establishment of Misr Bank in 1920, reflecting the interest Egyptians started to have in financial affairs.
It is not surprising, in light of these developments, that a new category of criminal offenses connected with money made it into the newspaper. Heading the list was counterfeiting, which was primarily a foreign -- especially Italian -- preserve. On 31 March 1925, under the headline, "Currency counterfeit rings proliferate," Al-Ahram reports:
"No sooner do the police apprehend one counterfeit ring than another takes its place. In a hotel in Alexandria, police arrested a man from an old Gharbiya family who had forged 100 one-pound notes and who, it was later discovered, was part of a large counterfeiting ring operating between Egypt and Europe. Readers might recall that three years ago police discovered a money-printing press in El-Meks, on the outskirts of Alexandria, leading them to the arrest of the notorious forger Kandoliak, who was jailed but later escaped and has eluded police since. But Kandoliak left behind a highly skilled successor, a certain Abdel-Qader, who travelled frequently between Alexandria and Trieste to transport counterfeit banknotes which he would distribute through his partners and accomplices. Police in Trieste have also uncovered a workshop for forging Egyptian and British banknotes."
In order to help police in their efforts, the Ministry of Finance issued a public statement instructing people how to recognise a forged one pound note: "All the designs in general are indistinct and the two heads on the upper corners are poorly drawn. The background designs are difficult to distinguish and the mosque behind the camel in the medallion is too bold and crudely depicted. The initial stroke of the letter 'B', which is the first letter in the name of the governor of the bank, is scarcely visible, and the numbers are blurry, especially those on the right side of the banknote."
Counterfeiting also extended to coins, although the operations were smaller in scale. Al-Ahram's crime page of the 1920s reports two arrests in this connection: Mikhail Khalil El- Qumus of Nazlat El-Simman on charges of forging and distributing five and 10 millieme coins, and Mohamed Ahmed Arafat of Mazghuna in Giza for having coated one millieme coins with tin to resemble the one piastre denomination.
Embezzlement held second place in finance crimes. One instance, appearing under the headline "The case of the entertainment tax swindle," exposed rampant corruption among civil servants in Alexandria. Al-Ahram's correspondent in the port city reported that Ahmed Mohamed Garaya, a young municipality functionary, was arraigned on charges of embezzling LE147 out of the revenues from the entertainment tax levied on theatres, dancing and music halls and cinemas. When the young man appeared before the public prosecutor, he submitted documents proving he was a French subject, as a result of which the case was referred to the French consular court. When the magistrate asked the defendant how he pleaded, Garaya said he was guilty and that he was an accomplice to an official in the municipality who helped him collect the tax from entertainment establishments. The correspondent continues: "The defence lawyer pleaded that the municipality is rife with embezzlement and that the defendant was no more than an accomplice. The court gave Garaya a suspended sentence of three months detention. It is to be hoped that this case will force the municipality to open its eyes and ears."
The fraudulent sale of government land was a crime born in that era and it quickly produced its own specialists. Al-Ahram's crime page supplies many names of impostors, the most notorious of whom was Mohamed Sadeq Shalabi from Tanan. Shalabi excelled at forging receipts for payment on paper bearing the seal of the Government Free Property Holdings Authority and the signature of the deputy chief of the authority. In this way, he fraudulently sold large tracts of government land.
Drug-related crimes began to proliferate in the early part of the 20th century but they were generally not felonious offenses. Hashish and opium were the drugs of preference even before World War I when the harshest punishment meted out to traffickers in these substances was a LE1 fine and seven days in prison. By the 1920s, however, drug addiction among the Egyptian populace had spread "so frighteningly as to alarm," as Al-Ahram observed on 23 November 1924. Another reason for alarm was that whereas once opium was smuggled into Egypt across the Sinai or from Greece, the poppy was now being cultivated domestically on quite a considerable scale.
According to that November issue of Al-Ahram, cultivation of the opium producing poppy began some 50 years earlier in Akhmim on an area not exceeding 150 feddans. "The kilo sold for one Egyptian pound," the newspaper wrote, "and no traffickers were interested in trading in it because Egyptians at the time did not indulge in the noxious substance. Thus, the cultivation of poppy remained uncontrolled, with the result that the 150 feddans given over to the cultivation of this plant in Akhmim expanded to 1,500 feddans and the 10 feddans of poppy fields in Qena swelled to 2,000."
The bulk of the opium was consumed locally, especially by the working classes. "It is highly disturbing that increasing numbers of peasants and labourers have become addicted to this substance to the extent that it is estimated that the annual opium consumption in Egypt has risen to approximately 40,000 pounds.
Worse yet, in the mind of the writer, was that instead of taking harsh measures to combat this phenomenon, the government was actually encouraging it by issuing permits to a number of merchants to export opium. The merchants, however, were reluctant to take advantage of the situation for the very simple reason that the price per kilo of opium in Egypt was LE14 whereas it rarely exceeded LE1 abroad. What was particularly deplorable was that the expanding cultivation of the narcotic-producing plant was encroaching on the cultivation of crops desperately needed by the Egyptian people.
Evidently the media's campaign against drug addiction spurred the government into action. In March 1925, the government introduced a bill stiffening penalties for drug trafficking from one month to three years in prison and from a LE10 to a LE300 fine. Foreigners were to receive no more than one week in prison and a LE1 fine. This discrepancy was due to the government's fears that the bill would precipitate objections among those foreign nations benefiting from the capitulations. It was agreed that foreigners would be referred to consular courts, which ruled in accordance to the provisions of their national laws, which meted out much harsher penalties against drug trafficking.
In all events, months went by without further action on the proposed law so that by August the exasperated Al-Ahram editors felt obliged to revive their campaign. One article, appearing on 11 August, under the headline "Trade in narcotic poisons threatens future generations. New legislation is vital." The spread of drug addiction, the article claimed, was the cause of many tragedies. In one case, three addicts tried to prevail on the mother of one of them to give them money to buy cocaine. When the mother refused, claiming she had no money, her enraged son threw an oil lamp at her. The woman died from subsequent burns.
The article complained that narcotic substances were being sold over the counter "in broad daylight" in pharmacies. Pharmacists at the time could easily obtain substances such as opiates for medical purposes and administer them to patients. The newspaper urged the government to take steps to secure a monopoly over the import and distribution of such substances "in order to ensure they are under its constant supervision and control."
The bill eventually became law and the apprehension of drug traffickers and smugglers became a regular feature of the crime page. Headlines such as the following became increasingly commonplace: "Hashish smuggling on the SSEvangilia," introducing the news about the Egyptian coastguard's confiscation of 800 kilogrammes of hashish aboard a Greek liner. Another, "136 kilogrammes of hashish seized" relates the story of a cabbie who was caught red-handed at the Alexandria train station trying to ship off two wooden barrels on a southbound train filled with hashish. Suspicious inspectors discovered that the barrels did not contain china as the cabbie had claimed. "The big hashish bust" gave a detailed account of the confiscation of a 750-kilogramme haul aboard another train.
There were also traffic offences, which initially were limited but eventually increased considerably. At the turn of the century, the automobile was the preserve of the wealthy few. With the development of mass production and consequent drop in prices, the automobile became increasingly available to a broader sector of the population. And with the spread of the automobile came the proliferation of automobile accidents.
It was not unusual in those days to read about a driver racing on the road adjacent to the Ibrahimiya Canal, only for his new car to veer off the road, plunge into the canal and sink. Al- Ahram attributed such accidents to the narrowness of the road but it also observed that some automobile owners were allowing their children to experiment behind the wheel, with disastrous results.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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