Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (564)
Professor Yunan Labib Rizk investigates crime in Egypt in the 1930s
Until the 1930s, the Al-Ahram crime page took up a column or two of the seven columns on page 11. Reports would appear under headlines such as "Incidents in Cairo", or "Incidents in the Provinces".
It has, perhaps, always been the case that the big fish swallow the small ones. But contemporary Al-Ahram readers, increasingly accustomed to hearing of bank officials and firm owners absconding with millions of pounds and sometimes billions, would be amazed at how small-time our thieves were some 70 years ago. Compared to the whales of today, bloated on all the fish in the sea, if not the entire sea itself, yesterday's thieves were no larger than the Nile smelt that feed on the decaying remains of other creatures of the aquatic depths.
To illustrate with a few examples from those distant days, Al-Ahram of 7 August 1935 reports: "There has been an upsurge in theft and pickpocketing in Old Cairo. Barely a day goes by without an incident or two of this kind. The latest case being investigated by the police is the theft of a valuable gold watch belonging to Mustafa Dawoud Effendi, precinct officer in Giza district station, while he was walking down the street. Police are also looking for another gold watch, valued at LE50, which was pickpocketed in this precinct from Taha Mohamed Lutfi Effendi, an agent for a local commercial establishment. The watch bears an identifying inscription. Meanwhile, in Shubra, thieves broke into the home of Kamel Gamaleddin, inspector at a tobacco company, and made off with LE65 worth of jewellery. And in Abdeen, police are investigating the theft of a watch from the office of the director of the financial department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."
That the Al-Ahram crime page editor considered these incidents as major is evident from the amount of space he allocated to them in his column. In comparison, minor incidents were brought up in passing, although they were frequent enough. The newspaper reports that a pensioner in an old age home had 70 piastres taken from him "by force" by one of his fellow residents. We read of Madame Adma Saleh who was walking down Church Street in Old Cairo when a car stopped and a thief got out, snatched her purse, knocked her down and sped off again in his car. When they heard her cries for help, passersby rushed to her aide but were unable to apprehend the criminal. Then there is the rather amusing story that appeared under the headline, "If only I didn't have it ironed". Anton Farid, a student at the Jesuit College, had given his suit, worth LE4, to the ironing boy with instructions that he needed it washed and ironed. When the ironer's boy failed to reappear after a few days, the student went to the ironer's shop to inquire after his suit. The boy told him that some respectably dressed man met him in the street and told him that he was Anton's brother and would deliver the suit himself. We also have the tale of the private guard in Ain Shams who notified the precinct station that a thief had tried to steal some of the cabbages he was guarding. He ran after the thief but was unable to catch him. Then, when he returned to his post he discovered that his clothes were gone. The guard suspected that at least two thieves were working together, one acting as a decoy while the other stole his clothes. ( Al-Ahram did not explain why the guard did not have his clothes on at the time).
In addition to such stories, we have the type of petty crimes that were rarely reported to the police: the theft of clothes hanging from the laundry lines and the theft of the brass cooking vessels that were still in common use at that time. So common were these fields of specialisation that their practitioners became known as "laundry thieves" or "pot thieves".
Of course crime and the form it takes is a product of the circumstances of its age. Egypt of the 1930s was characterised by massive rural to urban migration. The global recession of 1929- 1933 had precipitated plummeting prices in cotton, Egypt's staple crop, which had a profound impact on the countryside. Destitute farmers, most laden with debt, had little alternative but to leave their villages in search of another means of subsistence in the cities, of which Cairo seemed to hold the greatest promise for all job seekers. Former tillers of the land became street vendors, construction workers, porters and other such manual labourers. Failing that, some turned to crime, and most frequently, given their meagre capacities, petty theft.
At the same time, cities were places where people given to theft could congregate and, unlike the villages there were plenty of places to hide and plenty of opportunities to dispose of stolen goods. It is worth mentioning here that the petty thieves plied their trade in the upper or middle class quarters since, after all, that was where the most valuable objects were to be found. Rarely did the crime pages of those days record incidents of theft in the popular quarters where, to adapt the popular saying, not even the wind could sweep anything from the bare floor tiles.
Meanwhile, at that time, the Egyptian middle classes had yet to accommodate to the idea of banks as a safe place to keep their savings. Valuables as a rule were either converted into jewellery or stowed under the mattress. Thieves were thus assured certain plunder, as numerous items on the crime page confirm.
One day Ahmed Khalil took his wife to Qasr Al-Aini hospital. He had his wife remove her 12 gold bracelets, which he placed in his money purse which he tucked away in his pocket. In spite of this precaution, a pickpocket lifted the purse and its valuable contents. A second item comes from Port Said from where Al- Ahram reports that Nazla Ahmed Marouf notified the third district police that LE23 and a piece of gold jewellery worth LE7 had been stolen from her home. "These valuables had been stored in a tin cup which she had buried under the floor of her house. Nazla suspects that the thief was her neighbour Bahiya. Police have registered the complaint filed by the victim and begun investigations."
Although we began with petty thieves because theirs is an era that has passed with the onset of the era of the bigger thieves, this does not mean that the Al-Ahram crime page was devoid of bigger stuff. Cairo and other major Egyptian cities in the 1930s were acquainted with other forms of crime, some of which had never existed before and began to spread while others were becoming extinct.
Blackmail was not uncommon in those days nor was it a new crime except, perhaps, in the substance of the threats. At one time members of the nationalist movement used blackmail as a weapon against persons alleged to be agents of the British occupation. Perhaps the letters sent by a group calling itself the Revenge Society in 1883 were the first of this type of politically motivated blackmail. Saad Zaghlul was one of the defendants in that case when it came to court.
Generally, however, blackmail letters were unsigned or signed with an intimidating pseudonym: "The ferocious lion", "The great dragon", "The mighty avenger", and the like. They generally contained an open or veiled threat which would be carried out if the recipient failed to perform a stipulated undertaking. Another trait which many of these letters had in common was their extreme naiveté, as some examples from the "Incidents in Cairo" column serve to illustrate.
Under the headline, "He threatened to kill his father," Al- Ahram recounts, "Yesterday's post brought Mahmoud Mohamed El-Digwi, tobacconist, an unsigned letter threatening to kill him within a week if he did not alter the way he treated his children. El-Digwi, a resident of Al-Nuzha Street, brought the letter into the Sakakini police precinct station and accused his son, Ali Azab, 25, of sending it. The police arrested him and brought him in for questioning."
"A peculiar threat letter" introduced the story of an investigation conducted by the public prosecutor's office into a letter received by a Boulaq resident and threatening to "erase him from the face of the earth if he failed to mend his ways". The letter bore the signature of the victim's sister-in-law.
A similar letter, sent by registered post this time, arrived at the home of Mohamed Ibrahim El-Soueifi, a cook residing in Ganeina Alley, Ezbekiyya. The blackmailer threatened to "slaughter" El-Soueifi if he did not leave Cairo and return to Alexandria within 24 hours. The victim's suspicions fell on a certain Ahmed Othman, a barber from Al-Khazendar Street, because of a long- standing acrimony between them. The police arrested the barber and placed pen and paper before him so that they could compare his handwriting to the handwriting in the letter, only to discover that the barber was totally illiterate.
It appears that Dr Ahmed Hassan, chief physician at the ophthalmology hospital in Tala, had mistreated one of his patients. The Health Authority had received an anonymous letter addressed to "The Honourable Director of Ophthalmological Hospitals", threatening to kill the doctor if health authorities did not have him transferred from Tala. It is perhaps just as well that the Department of Health did not respond to the letter, for if it had one imagines that few doctors would be left in our public hospitals.
In Sayeda Zeinab, Ali Hassan El-Tawil Effendi received a letter whose author threatened to kill him if he did not divorce his wife. El-Tawil turned the letter over to the police who instigated a search for the "anonymous lover", who we imagine disappeared without a trace.
The crime page also carried news of accidents, which were increasingly frequent given the spread of automobile and tram transportation in the cities and the disappearance of donkey cart or horse carriage transport which claimed few victims. Naturally, the most frequent accidents were in the capital.
Under the headline, "Police officer wounded in accident", Al- Ahram reports that while he was on patrol in Al-Gezira, the car of Sergeant Hassan Fahmi Effendi, Abdeen police station chief, was struck by the car of a doctor whose driver was Abdel-Hamid Mohamed Hindawi. "The police chief suffered multiple injuries as did the driver who was knocked unconscious. The officer was rushed to Demerdash Hospital. Cairo police were greatly distressed by the news of the accident and many rushed to the hospital to inquire after Sergeant Fahmi Effendi's health."
The following is another instance in which members of the same profession rally around their own. Al-Ahram relates that Mohamed Hussein Makhlouf was on his way home in a taxi when, at the corner of Madbouli Street in Helmiya, a car coming from the other direction crashed into his taxi. The journalist suffered only mild injuries. This, however, would not prevent the page editor from allocating space for the misfortune that occurred to one of his colleagues.
Hit-and-run incidents had already made their mark in this early period. One victim was Abdu Ahmed Omar who was riding his bicycle when a car knocked him down, leaving him injured and unconscious. "Meanwhile, the driver fled in order to evade liability. However, several pedestrians managed to see the licence plate number, which they reported to the police who began the search for the vehicle."
Car thefts may have been on the rise but for three to vanish on the same day was highly unusual. The first had belonged to a British army officer who had parked it outside his home on Al- Sibaq Street only to leave his home and find it missing. The second was stolen from Alexander Sassoon who lived on the same street. The third was owned by George Votaire, who had parked his car on Al-Ahram Street and returned an hour later to find it gone. Clearly the car thieves had found some excellent pickings in that neighbourhood. One also suspects that the thieves themselves were foreigners, for Egyptians had yet to enter this criminal specialisation or even the theft of automobile parts, although that would eventually come with the disappearance of public garages and the conversion of the streets into parking lots.
As though real-life traffic accidents were not tantalising enough, Al-Ahram announced that the National Club would be staging an automobile event that would have spectators gasping in horror. "Daredevil drivers have been selected by the famed Chrysler automobile manufacturers in America to perform amazing feats before the public. Their cars will leap into the air, soar through burning barricades, and crash into one another, flipping over several times and then landing upright and resuming their course. Such feats are intended to demonstrate the power and solid construction of these automobiles." Al-Ahram cautioned Egyptian drivers not to try to emulate the stunt drivers.
By the 1930s tramway accidents had become so commonplace that only the most dramatic drew the attention of the "Incidents" column. One example is that which claimed as its victim the tram conductor, Abdel-Aziz Badawi, who was standing precariously on the stairs of the tram carriage selling tickets to passengers when a car swooped by and sent him flying through the air. "Badawi was seriously injured and rushed to hospital."
Another category in which we might sort the items on the Al- Ahram crime page might be labelled "Cherchez la femme". And beneath this we might include a sub-entry for the variations on the story of the husband and his wife's lover. One such story unfolds when a shop owner reported to police that thieves broke into his store and stole fabric worth more than LE100. The trail led police to the El-Shimi family home. Upon further investigation it was discovered that the thief, one Rishad Mohamed Ali, was in love with a woman of that family. "He had hoped to implicate the husband, which would have landed him in prison and freed the space for himself. He had already committed several thefts, presenting the booty to his beloved as tokens of his affection."
Another sub-category is one we might term crimes of obsessive jealousy. Fathiya Mohamed was a young woman who served as a maid in a private home in Boulaq. "Whenever she had to go out on errands, some of the neighbourhood youths would try to flirt with her. One young man was so infatuated that he declared his affection for her, and persisted in this until her heart softened. A young student by the name of Abdel-Moneim Hussein grew jealous and began to compete with the girl's new-found friend. But competition soon turned to burning hatred, which culminated yesterday evening when the student went to the home of his competitor -- Mohamed Bakr -- and started to hurl insults. The latter took out a knife and stabbed the student repeatedly. The student was rushed to hospital."
The crime page also featured a number of suicides. Most of these were committed out of despair from an unconquerable disease or financial disaster. It should be added that most suicides were foreigners, as to Egyptians suicide was a crime no less odious than murder.
Crime in the provinces differed considerably from crime in the city. In his doctoral thesis, The History of Crime in Rural Egypt: 1849 -- 1883, Emad Hilal subsumed rural crime under four major categories: land ownership and distribution, the harvest and produce, livestock, irrigation water and navigational rights. A perusal of Al- Ahram 's "Incidents from the Provinces" in 1935 indicates that crime in the countryside had not branched out beyond these categories in spite of the passage of more than half a century. However, before proceeding to examples to support this contention, a few observations are in order.
The violence in the countryside far exceeded that in the cities. Many had guns, and they pulled the trigger over the most trivial provocations. As these were farming communities, there were also knives, axes, hoes and any number of other implements to be used as weapons. Just to cite an example, on the Shirara estate in Malwi, the bodies of two men were discovered in a corn fields. Their faces had been smashed in with a hatchet, leading police to suspect that the killers wanted to send others a message.
With regard to trivial provocations, Al-Ahram reports that in Bilbis a merchant from Bardin was shot for having been unable to relieve himself in private. In Abnoub, Mohamed Abdel- Wareth stabbed Zaki Ibrahim for refusing to go to Beni Zayed to buy him cigarettes. From Senouris came the news that Abdallah Mohamed was recovering from having been shot twice while on the New Kaabi Estate. His assailant was Mohamed Amer who flew off the handle because Abdallah Mohamed refused to make him tea. Moreover, it appears that there were times when no provocation was needed at all, as was the case when unidentified persons in Shabin Al-Qanatir fired two shots at a passing freight train on its way to Cairo.
Frequently the victims of rural crimes refused to identify their assailant, not so much out of fear from the local mayor or elder as out of the desire to take revenge rather than leaving justice up to the government. Some even took the secret of their assailant to their death, as was the case with Sayed Abdel-Salihin from Dirout in Maghagha, who stated that he had shot himself accidentally and handed over his weapon to the law enforcement officials. "He then died from his wounds after which the autopsy proved his testimony false."
Perhaps related to the feud were the not infrequent brawls that would erupt between inhabitants from neighbouring villages. In Talkha, for example, fighting broke out between the villagers from Basat and from Kafr Basat, during which "Shahin from the first gang was shot and later accused the agricultural inspector, the mayor and the village sentinel from the other gang as his assailants."
Returning to Hilal's four categories of rural crime, under the first -- property disputes -- the Al-Ahram crime pages of 1935 offer an example from Aswan, in which Hefni Abdel-Moneim and his uncle Ibrahim Nur fell out over a piece of land. "The former felled the latter with a heavy cane, causing instant death." In Al- Badari, Mohamed Ahmed stabbed Abdel-Latif Kilani in the chest for having tried to keep him from renting a plot of land. The same motive appeared in the report from Qena relating that Mustafa Mohamed and his brother shot and killed Saad Seifein and Youssef Gadallah.
Crop theft and vandalism were more widespread. In Abnoub, a guard on Georgie Rafael's farm in Kom Al-Mansoura caught Mustafa Azouz and another man in the act of steeling cotton from the farm. One of the two thieves fired a gun to frighten off the guard, who succeeded in confiscating the gun. In Al-Fishn, Badran Abdel-Aziz and others beat Aba Hamad to death because the victim had accused them of stealing corn from his farm. In Abu Qirqas, Samaan Murqus was shot and critically wounded. He accused Taqi Abdel-Malak with whom he had quarrelled over the division of the date yield. In Maghagha, Mohamed Seif and others had crept into the fields of Hussein Abdel-Aziz in order to steal cotton. Abdel-Aziz caught them by surprise and hit Mohamed Seif with a cane, but the latter pulled out a knife and slashed the farmer across the face. In Giza, Hassanein Mabrouk and two others were caught in the act of stealing beans from the farm of Fouad Sultan in Zawiyat Abu Muslim. Sultan's guard fired at the intruders, killing Mabrouk while the others fled. So frequent were the incidents of crop vandalism that it is impossible to relate them all here. Suffice it to say that this was a common means of taking revenge in disputes over land, water distribution and other offences.
Livestock inadvertently left to roam and graze in others' fields could provoke the most violent reactions. When a water buffalo in Shabin Al-Qanatir wandered over to the neighbour's farm to feed on some of the leftover straw during harvest time, a fight broke out between the buffalo owner and the farmer ending with the former shooting the latter. Similarly, a brawl broke out between the people of Kafr Zahran and the people of a neighbouring village because the goats from the first village were set on grazing in the fields of the second. And in Manfalout, Ahmed Ali struck Mohamed Ayat in the mouth with his axe on the grounds that the latter let his animals feed off his farm.
Surprisingly, water-related crimes were infrequent. Nevertheless, we read of a case in Al-Mahoudiya in which a villager attacked another with an axe in a quarrel over the running of a water wheel. Finally, from Abnoub again, the Al-Ahram crime page relates a story of a different order. Some 300 boat passengers had moored on the banks of the Nile to spend the night. They awoke the following morning to discover that some of their clothes and a sum of 950 piastres had been stolen. Those, indeed, were the days of the small-time thief.