Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 October 2005
Issue No. 763
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

The other Egypt

One part of Egypt that perhaps to this day gets scant attention -- the vast desert stretches of the Sinai -- was in the news in the summer of 1937 following the theft of buried antiquities and a subsequent court trial which rendered a surprising verdict. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk follows the case of the stolen goods

Click to view caption
The Sinai desert

As we know, the inhabited portion of Egypt, which consists primarily of the Nile Valley and the Delta, makes up only about 10 per cent of the country. The vast deserts that comprise part of the great Sea of Sand to the west and that extend eastward to the Red Sea, and most of the Sinai, form the rest. This "other Egypt" is largely unfamiliar to us and only forces itself upon our consciousness on far and few occasions, such as when its depths are probed by explorers, or when it becomes a theatre of war, as occurred in the Western Desert in World War II and in the Sinai in the Arab-Israeli wars, or when it serves as a staging point for terrorist activities, as has tragically been the case recently.

One of the rare occasions when the attention of Egyptian public opinion was turned to the "unknown" part of Egypt occurred in 1937. The cause was what the press labeled "The Ameriya antiquities case" which surfaced in June that year and continued until a ruling was pronounced on 24 May of the following year.

Little did Egyptians know that there was a wealth of Greek and Roman antiquities buried beneath the sands and that these were being unearthed and sold to intermediaries who smuggled them abroad. This startling information was confirmed by reports in the press of a series of "strange charges," as Al-Ahram described them, that were brought against a number of government officials who took advantage of their postings in remote areas for pecuniary gain. Indeed the slate of charges was extensive. According to Al-Ahram, the deputy public prosecutor accused the defendants of "clandestine excavation and trade in antiquities, procuring bribes from companies and contractors, forging official documents and government records, levying illegitimate taxes from the people, subjecting Bedouins to torture and illegal imprisonment for purposes of personal gain, embezzlement of public funds and falsifying evidence in cases before Western Desert provincial courts."

The persons most immediately affected by the defendants' criminal behaviour were the inhabitants of the areas under their jurisdiction. Al-Ahram relates that these petty government officials had deceived the Bedouins into believing that the government had imposed taxes on their fields, livestock and crops. "The people paid these taxes submissively, never once daring to object. The officials who stand accused in this case collected these taxes and divided the proceeds among themselves. Some of the accused had the audacity to employ persons charged with petty offenses to collect these false taxes, threatening them with heavy penalties for any negligence in collecting them."

The newspaper adds that the defendants would often randomly arrest Bedouins, imprison them for months and subject them to torture, sometimes gratuitously, at other times in order to coerce them into executing their schemes or to force them to pay their taxes. Al-Ahram remarks, "To compound the Bedouins' distress, they have suffered a seven- year drought that has decimated their crops. So severe has been the famine that afflicted them that the government has had to come to the rescue with large quantities of wheat and barley. However, this overwhelming wretchedness did not deter the defendants from continuing their illegal levying of taxes and augmenting the Bedouins' misery."

AS THOUGH aware that readers in the Nile Valley and the Delta did not have sufficient information on life in the desert, Al-Ahram filled them in on some of the customs, traditions and other facts about the denizens of the "other Egypt". The newspaper's court correspondent recounts that all the inhabitants of the area from Al-Maks to Al-Sallum are Bedouins. "They are a nomadic people who live in tents as had their ancestors for hundreds of years. They earn their meagre living from agriculture and trading in their produce, which amounts to no more than barley, dates, figs and some fruit. For irrigation they are dependent upon rainfall and a few far- flung wells."

A "curious tradition" would have raised no few eyebrows among Al-Ahram 's readership. Bedouin women were responsible for the management and provision of the necessities of life, whereas "the men remain inside the tents to tend to the children and prepare the food. It is a familiar sight in these parts to see a man in front of his tent, playing with the children and singing them songs. Meanwhile, the women have dispersed to the horizons of the desert to tend to work, and to return to their homes at sunset to find that their men have prepared dinner."

Other amazing customs and traditions followed. Formalising a marriage entailed no more than the recitation of the Fatiha, the opening verse of the Qur'an. As dowry, the groom supplied a few heads of camel or a patch of land. In a traditional Bedouin wedding ceremony, the families of the bride and groom, equipped with tablas and tambourines, gather in a large circle. In the centre, a beautiful, veiled woman dances to the rhythm of the drums. "The guests divide into teams, which rival one another in praising the beauty of the dancing girl in song and verse. The competition continues until one of the teams outstrips the other in its eloquence. The dancing girl then hands her cane to the victorious team amidst a great joyful hubbub." The chances are that the united couple will remain so until death do them part, for the Bedouins "frown upon divorce and abhor polygamy".

The correspondent goes on to relate that he could barely contain his surprise when he learned how perfunctorily Bedouin women give birth. "After delivering their child, they remain in their tent for no more than a few hours, after which they head off to work again with their newborn strapped to their back in a woolen pouch, which is where it remains to the end of the day. Women continue to carry their infants in this manner until the children reach the age in which they are strong enough to walk by themselves."

The writer undoubtedly felt that his readers would also be amused by the following tidbit. If a Bedouin man is blessed with a daughter of some beauty, he will be able to borrow money on the basis of the pledge that he will be able to pay back his loan from the dowry for his daughter. "It is not unusual to see a man taking his daughter with him to the person from whom he wants to borrow money so that the lender can inspect her and weigh the amount of the loan he is prepared to offer against her beauty and charm."

Naturally, the correspondent could not leave the customs and traditions of the Bedouin without discussing the rites of death. "When one of their number dies, they carry his body deep into the desert and bury him wherever is convenient. If the deceased is an important member of the tribe they will plant a stick with a white handkerchief attached to it on top of his grave."

HAVING PRESENTED the broad outlines of the Ameriya case in June 1937, Al-Ahram turned to the trial itself. The first order of business was to form the special tribunal before which the defendants would be presented. The area described by Al-Ahram 's court correspondent fell under the jurisdiction of the Border Authority. As this authority was a department of the Ministry of War, the tribunal was created by decree by the head of that ministry. It consisted of General Abdel-Maguid Fouad Pasha as chief tribune, Major Hamed El-Mistikawi and Sergeant Amin Rifaat. The Public Prosecutor's Office would be represented by Abdel-Rahman Ammar.

On 11 July Al-Ahram published the official indictment. The prime defendant in the case was Muhammad Habib. Inspector of the Eastern Department, he faced 26 charges which, taken together, provide some insight into how the government at that time administered its desert provinces.

Five of the charges related to his illegal excavation of Roman and Greek antiquities. By making "probes, excavations and clearings on government-owned land without a license," Habib had unearthed fixed and moveable antiquities that he not only failed to report to the Antiquities Authority but also sold without a permit to trade in them. He also abused his authority by employing people in activities unrelated to government work. Specifically, "he used persons detained in the Eastern Department Prison to dig for antiquities for his personal benefit and he also had subordinates in his department working on his personal behalf by instructing them to patrol the desert in search of antiquities, to excavate them and to bring them back to him."

The next three charges pertained to bribery. Habib had received LE150 from two building contractors in exchange for allowing their lorries to transport overweight loads of rock and pebbles. Another contractor gave him LE150 to turn his head the other way should the contractor use imported gunpowder to break up boulders into smaller pieces of stone. Then there was the LE65 he received from a group of Bedouins for not reporting their sale of figs from the government- owned fig orchards.

He was also up on four counts of embezzlement. Apparently he purloined more than LE700 of government-owned petrol and oil, three pieces of ivory worth 50 piastres, LE5.50 from the government funds under his supervision and LE44 from the rents paid by tenant workers on government farms.

Then there were numerous counts of illicit gains: LE100 from the Khawaga Abdullah Karam as commission on a property exchange between him and the government, the revenues from fraudulent taxes on the people, the revenues from the 50-piastre fees he charged to investigate complaints against tenant farmers -- this was to cover the costs of the petrol consumed in the transporting of the inspectors to the fields, he claimed.

Further down on the list were the charges of fraud. Habib was charged with falsifying verdicts on cases involving the unlicensed bearing of arms. By recording fines less than the actual sentences demanded from the offenders, he skimmed off a tidy profit. He also enlisted the services of a local religious official for the purpose of sending off false anonymous complaints to various government agencies.

Because the case involved illicit antiquities dealings, Al-Ahram solicited an article from a wealthy British expatriate on the measures that were needed to protect Egyptian antiquities. In Mr Meyer's opinion the relevant laws that currently existed were all aimed at preventing the departure of Egyptian antiquities from the country, whereas it would be more appropriate to institute a system that would regulate their distribution abroad in a manner that reflected the collection in the Egyptian Museum. Meyer justified this curious position on the grounds that the current laws ensured that archeologists coming from all corners of the globe to excavate and study Egyptian antiquities were prevented from removing any item of importance from the country, which gave thieves the run of the field. The danger was two-fold. Not only were antiquities being smuggled out of the country with no gain for the government, but the condition of these valuable objects was threatened as well. "It takes tomb robbers three days to complete a job whereas a proper excavation on the same site requires at least a month and some LE400 of expenses," he said. He added that although the era of antiquities theft had passed its prime it was still ongoing. He personally bore witness to one instance. In the season of 1930-31, he visited the site of Armant to copy down some of the hieroglyphic engravings on the columns. When he returned four years later he discovered that the columns had disappeared.

Meyer went on to offer several recommendations. Firstly, the government should ban all individual trade in antiquities and monopolise this field of commerce itself, towards which end it should open galleries of the items on sale at reasonable prices. Secondly, the government should offer a financial reward to every individual who reports the discovery of an archeological artifact or site to the inspector of antiquities, and every antiquities bureau should have an experienced archeologist on hand to examine the findings. Thirdly, the sale, purchase, bartering or lending of a non-registered artifact should be deemed a criminal offense. Fourth, officials responsible for museums and galleries abroad should be notified that under Egypt's new laws anyone who purchases an Egyptian artifact from a party other than the Egyptian government will be regarded as in possession of stolen property. Fifth, Sudanese soldiers in the Egyptian army should be appointed to guard the antiquity sites. The reason for this was that "the current sentinels are frequently a party to local battles in and between villages and are therefore afraid to enter certain areas that are part of their patrol." Sixth, archeological missions should be encouraged to excavate by a pledge that the Egyptian Museum will receive only the smallest possible amount of their findings.

In short, Meyer was telling Egyptians that if they did not let foreign archeologists deal with their antiquities, they would fall into the hands of thieves. Small choice that gave Egyptians.

RETURNING TO THE AMERIYA trial, it appears that in order to deflect some of the attention from himself Muhammad Habib or his attorney dragged in some of his accomplices. One was Hafez Ismail Effendi, former precinct officer in the Eastern Department, who had a hand in some of the embezzlement and forgery crimes. Among the eight charges brought against him was that he embezzled five out of the 100 piastres collected as fines for carrying an unlicensed firearm. Another accomplice was Ahmed Abdel-Qader Effendi, precinct officer of Al-Dab'ia, who was charged with detaining two Bedouins for more than five months without warrant. The third was Abdel-Nur Yunan Effendi, the Eastern Department comptroller, who was accused of having charged three per cent over the established amount of the tithes from tenant farmers on government orchards, a crime in which he had as accomplices Sergeant Muhammad Musaid and the mayor of Hammam, Sheikh Goweida Eissa.

Next in line were the contractors who bribed Muhammad Habib -- Bishara Daoud and Nashed Dimitri -- and Sheikh Hassanein, the religious official who penned off three false complaints addressed, respectively, to the governor of the Western Desert, the commander-general of the camel and automotive cavalry, and the Eastern Department inspector.

The hearings opened on 17 July. Because it was the height of summer, they were held from 8.00am to shortly before 1.00pm, which meant that these morning sessions were uncustomarily long. At least, they opened on an amusing note. When the court appointed Shaker Suleiman to defend Abdel-Aziz Abdel-Raouf, who had not engaged counsel, the latter protested loudly, "I don't want a government lawyer to defend me! If I'm wrong, punish me and if I'm innocent send me back to my family. Why should I look for a lawyer when the government is here?"

Better yet was the exchange that took place when the court informed Abdel-Aziz Abdel-Raouf, who had also appeared without counsel, that the attorney Hanna Asaad had volunteered to defend him. "What do you mean volunteered?" Abdel-Raouf asked the presiding judge.

"That means he'll defend you free of charge."

"Then let one of the gentlemen here state in the presence of the government that it's free of charge."

"When Mr Hanna said he volunteered that means he'll defend you for free."

"Well then, I accept. God bless you all!"

Some members of the audience may have also derived some amusement from the testimony of some of the witnesses, many of whom were the Bedouins exploited by the defendants but who little realised the nature of the charges. One man brought to the stand testified that the people whom the defendant's men hired to dig for antiquities were supposed to be paid two-and-half piastres a day. He went on to say that he himself had worked three days but was only paid for two. "I'm still owed two and a half piastres, and I want them!" he proclaimed.

A second witness said that once when he found a gold ring, the defendant's men told him to hand it over. When he refused they threatened him. "So I gave it to the inspector's son who paid me for the ring." The price was 20 piastres.

A third witness testified that the defendant's men instructed the Bedouins that if the "antiquities people" came they were to tell them that they were digging for water.

However, perhaps the most damaging testimony against Habib was that of the conscript he had engaged to cook for him in his home. Private Taha Mahmoud said that a couple of Bedouin men would come to the defendant's home bringing clay vessels, "some still in one piece, others broken." Then an antiquities merchant would come and take these vessels away. This was followed by the testimony of another soldier, Farag Hussein, who said that he once went with the defendant to Alexandria in a government car. His task was to guard two big antique "jugs", which the defendant handed over to the antiquities merchant that used to visit the defendant.

The next few sessions were dedicated to the testimony of antiquities officials. One was the British director of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, who testified that although the items that were entered in evidence in the court had no material value, "the Antiquities Authority regrets their removal because of the scientific value that could have been gained from unearthing them in the place they were found."

The next witness of note was Admiral Green, former governor of the Western Sahara, who came from Britain especially to give his testimony, which began on 12 August and continued through 15 sessions. Al-Ahram 's court correspondent reports that when the British naval officer first appeared in the court, "he took off his hat and held it in his left hand, while with his right he gave the court a military salute." After being sworn in -- in English, of course -- he began his testimony, which was not at all in favour of Muhammad Habib Effendi.

While still in service in Egypt, he said, he had received a report about the activities of the defendant, on which basis he went to the Wadi Al-Natroun police station, which fell under the jurisdiction of his governorate. There were 16 crates which were said to contain the inspector's furniture. However, when Admiral Green opened some of these crates, he found them to contain antiquities. He immediately went to Khatatba to phone Dr Oriani and ask him to come to Wadi Al-Natroun. Together, he and Oriani opened the rest of the crates, after which Green suspended Habib from office and initiated investigation proceedings.

The admiral went on to say that after making an inventory of the contents of the crates, the items were shown to some Bedouins who had worked in the excavations so that they could direct the antiquities authorities to the sites from which they had been removed. Green went on two or three occasions to personally inspect these sites.

Because this testimony was so damning, especially given the added weight of the status of the witness, Habib's attorney, Shawkat El-Toni, did all in his power to impugn it. Not only did he challenge the evidence Green cited but also attempted to disparage the character of the witness himself. Green, he said, was a mere soldier in the British forces and had only obtained his high position as governor of the Western Desert through dubious means.

The rest of the charges against Habib and his co-defendants did not take up nearly as much of the court's time. When the two contractors were asked whether they in fact had paid LE150 to Habib, they responded in the affirmative. The second, however, was careful to add that the money was not a bribe to Habib but rather payment to a certain Wadie Effendi for his efforts in mediating between him and the Bedouins. As for the charge of having receiving a bribe from a contractor who wanted to use imported gunpowder, Al-Ahram reported that there was no evidence to substantiate the charge.

On 24 May 1938 Al-Ahram announced the court's ruling on the Ameriya case. All defendants were acquitted with the exception of one: Wadie Girgis. The former chief clerk of the Eastern Division was sentenced to a year in prison with hard labour, a fine of LE61 and the repayment of the LE30 he had embezzled.

Al-Ahram was clearly surprised by the outcome of the trial, which lasted 170 sessions and which produced 2,500 pages worth of documentation. How was it, it wondered, that the defendant who had been charged with 26 counts was let off entirely while Girgis, who initially appeared as a witness for the prosecution, ended up as the only party found guilty? Ultimately, the results can only be chalked up to circumstances in the "other Egypt," where the network of personal relations and the ease of concealing evidence made it almost impossible to make an accusation stick. Little wonder that many newspapers described the trial as the "murky case".

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 763 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Ramadan Focus | Features | Heritage | Living | Sports | Cartoons | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map