Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (536)
I conjure thee
In 1934 Al-Ahram spent time on the supernatural, in
particular individuals who claimed they could invoke genies who would
perform any number of miracles: find husbands for spinsters, restore missing
persons to their families, cure diseases and ailments that defied doctors
and bring back wayward husbands, on their knees begging forgiveness. Professor
Yunan Labib Rizk* delves into the mysteries of
The world of superstition and myth thrives on the sense of impotence, the fear of the unknown, ignorance and the belief in miracles in an age that recognises only the power of rational thought. This age was ushered into Europe in the 18th century with the Rationalist Movement, whose father was the famous French philosopher Descartes (1596-1650). Among its basic tenets was that God, who created this universe, also established the fixed laws that govern the movement of celestial bodies and other natural forces, and that it did not stand to reason that he would alter the natural order he created merely in response to some earthly supplications and entreaties. It also held that mankind had the mental faculties to discover these laws, and in doing so, scholars refuted many of the scientific and metaphysical claims of Aristotle, Plato and Virgil. The new devotion to the natural sciences also put paid to the reverence with which mediaeval man beheld the world around him and the faith he had in miracles and the powers of saints, angels and other spirits to intercede on his behalf against evil and misfortune.
This brief historical background better enables us to follow a case that absorbed Al-Ahram 's attention throughout 1934. Dubbed the "Genie Kings", it revolved around individuals who claimed they could invoke the powers of Abdel- Rahman Shamhurish, the "King of Genies". More often than not, the people who had experiences with Shamhurish and his subjects were women. Two who occupied the headlines in 1934 were Nazla Mohamed Abdallah, 28, and Zeinab Mustafa El-Naggar, 30, a widow and known to her clients as Sheikh Ali. Generally these women were from the lower classes and were fully steeped in the popular lore of superstition and fantasy that prevailed among these classes. Although minimally educated at best, they did have a flare for deluding their clients into believing in their spiritual powers. Frequently, they had secret helpers, generally men, to create illusions, and often they had vocal skills. In one of its articles on the subject, Al-Ahram mentions that some were adept at ventriloquism "which Europeans define as the art or skill of producing vocal sounds that seem to come from something other than the speaker".
There were some men who claimed access to the supernatural powers of genies. Most were blind or deformed in some way, as was the case with the subject of a picture staring out at Al-Ahram readers on 16 March 1934. The man with an enormous head attached to the body of a crippled child was Abdel-Ati Abdel-Gawwad who had acquired such notoriety in Fayoum that Al-Ahram 's court correspondent felt compelled to go to the "village of the five waterwheels" to interview the man. The correspondent relates, "He is 25 and lives in Sheikha Mariam Alley in the home of Hagg Moussa. He produced many different types of voices for us, from the high and piercing to the low and rumbling. Such was the quality of these sounds that listeners could not entertain the slightest doubt that they were coming from another person. Abdel-Gawwad proved to us that people have amazing creatures living inside them and that God bestowed upon them characteristics and peculiarities that are impossible to fathom rationally."
Perhaps it was these "creatures" that led others to believe that the people in whom they resided were capable of extraordinary feats. Many would have thought that God compensated them for their deformations by granting them supernatural powers. After all, "God invests his mystery in the weakest of his creations," as the saying goes.
It was also the case that most of the victims of these conjurers were women, both Egyptian and foreign. Perhaps driven by their sense of vulnerability -- women in traditional Oriental society have little say in the course of their lives and are economically dependent on men -- they sought some means of control. The powers of the supernatural offered a way to keep their husbands bound to them, "like a ring on a finger", as they would say, or at least keep them from abandoning them.
Although the belief in superstitions and the supernatural has always existed in all societies, it tends to become more prevalent in times of economic and social insecurity, especially when the more educated or ruling classes, who are presumed to shape the "intellect of the nation", espouse it. Indeed, there are reports of Arab kings and presidents who would never embark on a political or personal course of action before consulting their fortunetellers, whose predictions generally led more to delay than progress.
Returning to the investigative pursuits of the Al-Ahram court correspondent, we discover that one of the most notorious cases he covered was that which claimed as its victim Segnora Regina Youssef Tamlar, "widow of Orestes Julius". On 7 May 1934, Al-Ahram announced that an indictment had been brought against Nazla Mohamed Abdallah and her accomplice, Khalil Ibrahim Habib. "When they learned that Mme Regina's husband was critically ill, they made her acquaintance and began to visit her often. They told her that they communicated with genies and were, respectively, their maid and manservant. To prove this, they brought their victim, blindfolded, into a dark room and began to speak in diverse voices, which introduced themselves variously as Sheikh Ali, Sheikh Afifi, Abdel-Rahman Shamhurish the King of Genie Kings, and other such fantastic names and titles. Mme Regina was soon persuaded that the two had the power to summon genies and that it was her duty to do as the genies told her. Using this influence upon her, Abdallah and Habib lured the segnora away from her home and family and took her to live with them in Abbasiya so as to be better able to put her entirely under their power."
In Abbasiya, Abdallah and Habib continued to exercise their ventriloquist skills on their victim, on one occasion producing the voice of the genie they claimed was Shamhurish. "The following day, that same voice spoke to her again, declaring its intention to marry her before a gathering of all other genie kings. To prepare for that farce, Abdallah and Habib asked her for money in order to purchase cakes and decorations for the occasion. Soon afterwards, the voice spoke to her again and told her to travel with the two to Tanta where the wedding was to be held. In Tanta, they proceeded to a house that had been rented with her money and in which she was installed in a wing that no one but Abdallah and Habib could enter. They forbade her to appear before men unless absolutely necessary, in which case she was to wear a veil so as not to anger her future husband who was an extremely jealous sort and would visit unspeakable punishments on her if she aroused his wrath."
The indictment goes on to relate that one night Abdallah feigned to converse with several genies, after which she told Regina Tamlar that Gharib, Mirsal and Abdallah, servants of Shamhurish, announced that the King of Genies was coming and that his fiancée was to go to her bedroom and wait until she heard three knocks on the door. "Regina obeyed. Under the influence of the phenomena she experienced, she proceeded to her room and sat there with a blindfold over her eyes. Suddenly, she heard three knocks on the door. Then she heard a voice tell her that she was to be contracted in marriage, that her guardian for the purposes of this contract would be Hagg Mohamed, King of the Genies of Ethiopia, and that the wedding ceremony would be attended by her groom's sister, Queen Nigma, wife of the White King; his other sister, Queen Badour, wife of the Red King; Leader of the Genies Barhoum; and a host of other genie kings and queens. Then the voice told her to prepare a banquet suitable for these royal guests."
"The following day, Abdallah and Habib, feigning to convey the orders of the genies, told Regina to go to her bedroom at midnight and to remain on her bed dressed in white from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. Abdallah took her to her room and helped prepare her for the arrival of the King of Genies. When they heard a knock on the door, Abdallah told Regina to put on her blindfold because Abdel-Rahman Shamhurish was coming to marry her. At that very moment, the voice of the genie king echoed throughout the room, as did the voice of his companion, King of the Ethiopian genies Hagg Mohamed, who presented the victim with a piece of paper he claimed to be the marriage contract. Hardly had she signed the paper than her 'husband' snatched it away from her again, before she could remove the blindfold, saying that he wanted to show it to all the genie kings who had been unable to attend that evening."
The account continues, "On another night, the accused took her to her bedroom, blindfolded her and lit incense, telling her that her husband would consummate the marriage that evening. They then left her alone under these delusions, only to return later and violate her. When the accused noticed she had bled, they realised she had been a virgin, and they congratulated her. They repeated this act another night. Her willingness on both occasions was borne of the ruses and devices the accused had used to sap her of her will at the time they perpetrated the crime."
Abdallah and Habib then began to extort money from Regina using other ruses. "They tricked her into believing that she was being stalked by an evil genie who had to be eliminated, that the father of King Shamhurish had died and that she had to go to Sidi Gaber to host 40 days of commemorative ceremonies at the genie's tomb, and that the genies ordered her to install an elevator in her building." The confidence tricksters swindled more then LE1,700 from their victim, a hefty sum by the standards of the time. In addition, for two years running they obtained the rents from the apartment building she owned in Abdeen in Cairo, which brought in LE200 per month. Finally, "they obtained her signature on forged documents entitling them to the use of the aforementioned property on the pretext that the King of Genies wanted to put the building in trust for charitable purposes."
A second case to enthral readers that year claimed as its victim Hagg Sayed Abdel-Meguid El-Saftawi, a trader in used metal who lived in Boulaq. Hagg Sayed had a son, Mohamed, 17, a student in Giza Secondary School who had gone missing in 1928. Hagg Sayed had notified the police immediately and they continued the search for two years without finding a trace of his missing son who, the newspaper notes, "was such a cinema fan that one cinema house offered him a permanent free entry permit in reward for his enthusiasm". His mother was called Rizqa Abul-Einein.
On 14 January 1934, under the headline, "Stranger than fiction", Al-Ahram relates the story of the distraught parent. One day, one of Hagg Sayed's neighbours advised him to go to consult a person called Sheikh Ali who turned out to be none other than Zeinab Mustafa El-Naggar, friend and business associate of Nazla Abdel-Rahman. At "Sheikh Ali's" home, Hagg Sayed stayed in the reception room while his wife met with Sheikh Ali. "Suddenly, he heard a voice call out his name. Then the charlatan asked him to put a blindfold. She told him no more than his son was well and that he should come back the following day and that he would have to pay LE20 for the service she would perform. The following day, he returned and paid the required fee, and so he continued to do, lured as he was by her fiendish promises while she stole his money in that fraudulent manner."
Zeinab, or Sheikh Ali, was a confidence trickster of an unusual brand. Unlike most other female spiritualists she did not feign modesty or piety. Rather, as El-Saftawi stated in his testimony, she dressed as elegantly as the women of the highest class Egyptian families, in silken gowns and a fox- skin stole over her shoulders. "Frequently, she would ask him to purchase box seats in the theatre, claiming that Mazouza, Barhoum and Hanafi, the children of Sheikh Afifi the genie king, wanted to see a certain performance. He would always do as she asked without hesitating in the hope that he would soon be led to his missing son."
El-Naggar and Abdel-Rahman swindled LE170 out of Hagg Sayed and Rizqa "by using diverse deceptions to delude the parents into believing that they could restore their missing son through their ability to intercede with genies. In addition to producing voices they attributed to certain genies, they produced two forged letters addressed to the parents from their son and uttered a number of charms and came up with spells that were to be chanted then cast into an incense burner or tied around a tree. They also produced a silk waistcoat that they claimed belonged to Barhouma, another genie king, which the parents were to keep as a pledge from him until he restored their son to them."
The stories of Segnora Regina and Hagg Sayed prompted considerable commentary, as well as the occasional cautionary tales. In a letter to the editor, Mahmoud Zulfiqar El-Kashef related the following account that he had come across in Clot Bek's Apercu Generale sur l'Egypte :
"At the time of the great Mohamed Ali, there was a woman who claimed the ability to tell the future. Among her clients, she counted many army officers and senior officials who said that she used genies. As the notoriety of this charlatan increased, Mohamed Ali feared that she was becoming too dangerous and had her summoned to the palace. When she was brought before him, he feigned a desire to speak with her genie and she agreed to demonstrate her powers to him. It was nighttime and the woman asked for all the lights to be extinguished in the room in which many officers had been assembled to observe the spectacle.
"Mohamed Ali had ordered his attendants to light a lamp as soon as he issued the command. The woman summoned her genie, which answered her in a voice that echoed as though it emanated from the depths of a cave and all present imagined that it issued from the very walls of the chamber. She then extended her hand to Mohamed Ali telling him that this was the hand of the genie that was at her service. At that point, Mohamed Ali called out for the lamp to be lit and it was revealed that the hand belonged to her. When the woman realised she had been exposed she dropped to her knees and begged forgiveness."
Mohamed Ali ordered the woman cast into the Nile. Against the protests of his officers he said, "If the genies are truly at her service, as she claims, then they won't let her drown, and if she doesn't have companions among the genies, then her fate will be her just reward for the shameless audacity with which she deceived people." The woman was then duly thrown into the Nile; no genie came to her rescue.
Such tales, however, did not prevent more genies from exercising their wiles on Egyptians in 1934. The next one to come to light on the pages of Al- Ahram was the "Red Genie" who was at the beck and call of Sheikh Sayed of Al-Qurudi Alley, at least until two cases led to his exposure.
The first case involved a woman who suffered a swelling in her breast. During her first visit, Sheikh Sayed had her recite the opening verse of the Qur'an. After she recited it, Al-Ahram relates, "Sheikh Sayed fell to his knees, slapped the ground with his hand and called out to the Red Genie. He then muttered some incomprehensible words, told the woman to show him the spot that pained her and he put his hand on it. After feigning a brief conversation with the genie, Sheikh Sayed told the woman to fetch 40 loaves of bread. When the woman said that she could not do so at that moment, he told her to give him the price of the 40 loaves, which came to 20 piastres. After she paid him, he mumbled some more and then told her that she would see the Prophet in a dream and that the vision would be a sign that she would be restored to health. He then asked for another 20 piastres and promised that she would recover in a week. A week later, the woman returned to the Red Genie charlatan to tell him that she had not yet been cured. He asked for another 20 piastres but the woman realised she had been duped and left the sheikh and went directly to the police to report him."
Another victim of Sheikh Sayed was a woman who had long complained of being barren. When she visited him in Al-Qurudi Alley, he brought her into a darkened room, lit a burner and began to recite various chants and incantations. Suddenly she heard a voice greet her and ask after her husband, a Qur'anic reciter. The voice then informed her that he was the Red Genie who had come from a far off land in order to cure her of her barrenness. She would soon beget a son, he told her. "When the woman moved to kiss Sheikh Sayed's feet, he told her to stay where she was and then began to bargain with her over the fee. She offered 50 piastres, but he would only accept 100. They agreed, on the condition that she would pay half immediately and the remaining half in the next session."
When the woman left, she must have had second thoughts, perhaps because the price was more than she could afford, for she went to the police to file a complaint. The police laid a trap and succeeded in exposing the manner in which the sheikh addressed his victims from behind a curtain. After searching his home, they led him off to the police station where no genie, red or otherwise, would be of avail.
Al-Ahram 's court correspondent happened to be at the station when the man was brought in. Describing Sheikh Sayed, he writes, "He is 50 years old, blind, short and dark complexioned and he has a large head. He wears a green turban, a blue kaftan and a black woolen robe. His full name is El-Sayed Hassan El-Falal." It also turned out that the swindler had a weakness for exotic cigarettes, for "he brought out a pouch containing 100 cigarettes which he offered to those around him in the station." When the Al- Ahram correspondent declined, saying that he did not smoke, the arrested man prodded him, saying, "Go ahead and take one. Be modern." Apparently he had a sense of humour, too.
Such became Al-Ahram 's determination to run such spiritualist tricksters to the ground that it dispatched correspondents to other parts of the country. Of the many cases they unearthed, two are particularly noteworthy, one coming from Port Said and the other from the farthest reaches of Upper Egypt. From the port city at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, the Al-Ahram correspondent recounts that a certain Sheikh Shehata Mohamed Ali preyed on innocent young women whom he deluded into believing that he could fulfil their every wish if they paid him a certain fee and brought in a chicken for him to slaughter "on a certain place on their bodies". However, one of his victims protested against that peculiar ritual and cried out for help, resulting in the sheikh's arrest and downfall.
In the Upper Egyptian village of Abu Tig, a young woman had dislocated her ankle. When traditional medication proved of no help she fell into the clutches of two conjurers who succeeded in persuading her to sell her gold earrings and give them the money. When they asked for more money, she told them she couldn't afford it and also asked for the price of her earrings back. They refused and she reported them to the police.
One of the more amusing stories comes from Cairo, again. A blind woman went to a self-proclaimed wizard who was also blind. He failed, of course, to restore her vision and eventually the parties concerned ended up in the police station, where the woman's husband, also blind, shouted at the conman, "If it weren't for the fact that we're in a government building, I'd poke your eyes out!" The story seems to hold a pithy moral for the metaphorically blind.