The following excerpt is from Tales from the Nation’s Archive: Raya and Sakina’s Men: A social and political history, the late Salah Eissa’s vast and discursive study of the lives and the worlds of the notorious serial-killers Raya Bint Ali Al Hammam and her sister Sakina, and their husbands Hasballah Saeed Maraei and Mohammed Abdel Aal.
Raya and Sakina and their husbands were arrested in Alexandria in early 1921 on suspicion of murder and it soon became clear that they had been responsible for the disappearance of a number of women in the neighbourhood of Labban where they ran an illegal (unlicensed) brothel. They were thought to be guilty of the robbery and murder of at least seventeen women, many of whom had worked for them as prostitutes. They were hanged in 1921.
Public attention focused on the sisters: the combination of their gender and the violence, sexual promiscuity and general unashamed degradation of their lives generated a fascination which fed into the many films and plays that dealt with their murders.
Having unearthed the huge case-file produced by the murderers’ enlightened and sympathetic police interrogators, Eissa produced a deeply affecting and accessible reconstruction of the famine-stricken, colonized Egypt of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and a catalogue of histories that are overwhelmingly painful to read.
A popular history, it contains no footnotes or references, and there are moments when, reaching outside the period in question, Eissa very occasionally produces assertions of questionable historical accuracy, and I’ve removed here a few lines on the history of fatwana.
This passage introduces a character, the Alexandrian hustler Orabi Hassan, who would come to play a central role in the lives of the four killers, and also one of their subsequent victims, Nadhla Aboulleil, though the events here precede the killing spree.
A brief note about the terms used:
fituwa (pl. fituwaat)
sabwa (pl. sabwaat)
magdaa (pl. magaadeh)
These terms all describe types and grades of local strongmen or, as the passage describes, gangster. Etymologically all of them circle around meanings to do with youth, virility and courage, both physical and moral. All of them—or related terms—are still in use. In popular usage, fituwa is still used and understood with the full and equivocal range of meanings described here in the text, though with stronger overtones of criminality than the other two, which in various guises reference physical strength and positive, largely moral, standards of “manliness”, decency and honesty. The word fatwana refers to institution itself, or the codes of the fituwaat, as well as, in other contexts, the qualities that might be attributed to them.
Miallim, which occurs in the names of some of the fituwaat mentioned here, is another honorific, exactly equivalent to “master” (of a trade) but often used in the sense of “boss”.
Gallebeya is a mainly collarless robe with an open neck, worn indoors or out.
Taghreeba is a word with strong historical resonances. Originally the literal term for “a westering”, it also means “estrangement”, and it is the term used to describe the westerly progress of the Banu Hilal tribe from the Hejaz and Nejd regions to North Africa in the eleventh century, an historical movement that forms the basis of the oral verse epic known as Taghreebat (or Seerat) Bani Hilal. In the context of the passage it describes the move from rural areas of Egypt to the urban centres, a mass displacement under pressure of poverty and famine, and one that continued throughout the twentieth century. The overtones of epic endeavor and reach, of risk and hardship, are apt.
Irqsous here is a chilled drink made from liquorice root.
Orabi Hassan, the first of his new neighbours that Hasballah got to know in Maskoubiya, was a short-statured young man with black hair, honey-coloured eyes and light-brown skin. At the time—that is, in 1917—he was twenty-five years old, more or less the same age as Hasballah, and was, also like him, a Southerner. He had been born in Abnoub Al Hamam, a village in the governorate of Assiut, where he spent his childhood until, in early adolescence, the taghreeba propelled him northwards to Alexandria in search of a livelihood, just as it would thousands of Southerners.
He was later to recall that he and his siblings had inherited four feddans of land on the death of their father, but that he had ceded his share to his mother and younger brothers, who worked it and lived off it, and would supply him in exchange with grain and ghee. But no effort was made to establish the veracity of these claims and they do not seem to match with the life he led in Alexandria. There, operating as fituwa, flaunting his physical strength, boasting of his courage and under the appellation of Orabi Al Suwameiey (a reference to the Assiut village of Al Suwamei whose inhabitants were bywords for bravery and were related to the Bani Samei, one of the Arab tribes which settled in Egypt), he would tell anyone who challenged his credentials that merely by lifting the staff in his hand he could shut a street down from end to end: pedestrians taking shelter in doorways, not a shop door staying open…
Orabi Hassan came to join the ranks of the fituwaat just as they were passing out of history. By this period the state had achieved a firm grip over the country’s major centres. Every city was divided into eight administrative districts and each was home to a police headquarters, referred to as “the eighth”. Some of the duties that were now the responsibility of the police had traditionally been the prerogative of the fituwa—protecting the inhabitants of the districts where they held sway from attack or abuse by the residents of neighbouring districts, and settling commercial or marital disagreements or problems arising from inheritance—in exchange for which they exacted levies on local traders and residents, which were calculated according to income. The setting up of the eighths did much to reduce their influence, although being based on customs and conventions with depth and resilience of their own, it was not entirely eliminated.
Furthermore, the fituwaat and their followers, unlike the police, lived in the community; they knew who people were and were able to harm them (or to protect them from harm) much more rapidly and effectively than the police. And because the low numbers and competence of the government forces prevented them establishing complete control over cities thronging with residents and problems, Egyptians generally preferred (and still do, perhaps) not to involve their rulers in any aspect of their daily lives: they neither trusted nor respected the laws these rulers promulgated and the institutions they set up, preferring their own customs and traditions and social formations—however unjust or crooked—to the evils that followed from government interference in their affairs.
And though the police on occasion clashed violently with the fituwaat, and even brought some to trial and secured prison sentences, they tended to confine their efforts to the more serious street battles that broke out between gangs, those which led to fatalities. Even in the case of public murder the police encountered difficulties proving a case against the killers due to the problem of securing eyewitness identification in the course of violent combat in which large numbers were involved, with heavy staffs and clubs raining down on all sides. Not to mention the fact that the combatants themselves, the fituwaat and their followers, saw any attempt to involve the government in their disputes as dishonourable, something resorted to by cowards too weak to exact revenge for themselves. And as for local residents, non-combatants, they were accustomed to withdraw from the battlefield as soon as violence broke out, in fear of their safety; if for whatever reason residents found themselves unable to leave the battlefield, fear of the fituwaat usually prompted them to claim they had seen nothing and knew none of the men who had been fighting.
By the outbreak of the First World War, most urban districts in Egypt’s major cities—Cairo and Alexandria in particular—were still under the control of the fituwaat. Every working-class neighbourhood had one or more such individuals, who enforced their authority over residents, extorted payments and monopolized the management of affairs that came within their jurisdiction. The interference of other fituwaat in their affairs was regarded as an act of aggression to which they were obliged to respond to deter, to preserve the esteem in which they were held, and to safeguard what they considered the rights associated with their title, which they had either inherited from their fathers or taken by force from the previous incumbent in battle, leaving the former fituwa defeated, or dead, or else left to withdraw and retire.
In Cairo, the Bab Al Luq district was divided up between a pair of fituwaat, Abdo Al Geyashi and Morgan Al Saqqa while Abu Tagen and Hassan Al Aswad controlled Al Nasiriya. Others who gained notoriety at this time include Hassan Gamous, the fituwa of Al Hanafi, Ibrahim Atiyya from Al Husseinaya, Afifi Al Qird of Boulaq, Mahmoud Al Falaki in Bab Al Khalq, and the fituwa of Al Kahkiyyin, Mahmoud Al Hakim. In the historic neighbourhoods around Al Azhar and Al Hussein three fituwaat operated: Hassan Kasla, Badawi Al Allaf and Fahmi Al Fishawi, founder of the famous café on the outskirts of the Khan Al Khalili market which bears his name and remains open to this day. It was not unusual to find women among their ranks: Aziza Al Fahla—Aziza “the bull”—was the fituwa of Al Megharbaleen. Her nickname hints at a woman of extraordinary physical strength and she ran her district with the help of her son Mohammed.
The fituwaat were just as powerful in the working-class neighbourhoods of Alexandria. Every neighbourhood or district had its resident “Abu Ahmed” (the term by which Alexandrians referred to their fituwaat) and sometimes more than one. At this point several were famous throughout the city, such as Zaghloul, the fituwa of Anastasi (one of the neighbourhoods where Raya conducted business), Abu Khatwa, the fituwa of Ras Al Tin and Sayala, and Salayo, the fituwa of Labban. They dressed differently from their counterparts in Cairo: whereas the Cairene fituwaat tended to wear a gallebeya, with a thin cotton scarf, or laasa, wrapped round their skullcaps, the Abu Ahmeds of Alexandria sported the sirwal—loose cotton breeches gathered at the waist and lower leg and ballooning in the seat—with a traditional embroidered waistcoat worn beneath a collared jacket, and a tarboush on their heads. They were known for rolling the ends of their moustaches into points and fixing them in position with a cream known as kosmaateek and for keeping their tarboushes cocked at an angle.
To all appearances the traditions and customs of fatwana were still in effect. The fituwa was the commander of the neighbourhood’s army, its standard-bearer and defender of its dignity, and his victories over the fituwaat of neighbouring areas brought pride to his neighbourhood and its inhabitants. His courage and strength, his ability to see off threats and bring ruin to the envious, made him the representative of his neighbourhood, which was transformed into a small nation, its population fiercely partisan—loyal to him and opposed to their neighbours, the subjects of foreign powers. Their sovereign independence had to be protected from the interference of these foreigners and attempts by their fituwaat to destroy it and absorb them into their spheres of influence. When the neighbourhood was insulted by a foreign state (say, when a foreigner attacked one of its residents, or flirted with one its women, or encroached on their rights) the victim would take his complaint to the local fituwa. The fituwa would first attempt a diplomatic solution, meeting with the fituwa of the neighbourhood where the aggressor lived, informing him of the complaint and giving him an appropriate period of time to look into the matter and issue an acceptable verdict: ordering the return of the seized property or funds, or that an apology be made to the victim, or the payment of a fine. The plaintiff’s fituwa might participate in the investigation as the victim’s representative. If the other fituwa refused to fulfill his obligation and discipline the aggressor, then the plaintiff’s fituwa was within his rights to do this himself and force the return of what had been taken, even if this led to the outbreak of war between the fituwaat and the nation-states they led.
Alongside his role in managing the neighbourhood’s foreign policy and military strategy, the fituwa also oversaw the management of his subjects’ internal affairs: breaking up disputes, extorting payments and exacting levies on goods.
At this date, fituwa gangs were still pyramidal organizations, with the fituwa at the apex: he was the sole ruler, the possessor of absolute power, whose views and commands went unchallenged. No one elected him or told him what to do: he had either inherited his authority or seized it through his physical strength and courage, at risk to his life, and anyone who might want to challenge this authority or revoke his fealty had to prove that he was the stronger and braver.
After the fituwa himself came the first rank of his followers, the sabwaat. The sabwaat participated in the planning of battles and led detachments during their raids; the equivalent of a high command in modern armies. Next came the magaadeh, the footsoldiers in time of war, who fought with a long wooden staff called a nabbout and blades. Collectively, the sabwaat and magaadeh were known as mashadid, “the devoted”: they were the fituwa’s right-hand men, who backed him in all circumstances and remained fiercely loyal. Next, in third place, came the maqateei, the “flotsam”, who attended on the fituwa and his mashadid in their homes, arranged their drinking and drug-taking sessions, and ensured a festive atmosphere during their celebrations by providing a steady stream of jokes and witticisms and stories.
Orabi Hassan was not a member of any of these ranks. He was considerably lower down on the ladder.
But we would be doing Orabi Hassan an injustice if we did not take into account the extent to which the traditions of fatwana had declined by this period. One symptom of this decline was the eagerness of many fituwaat to relinquish their Egyptian citizenship and replace it with the nationality of one of the fifteen European countries whose subjects were beneficiaries of foreign privileges in Egypt. Some applied for the nationality of ancestors who had been citizens of the Ottoman Empire as formerly Ottoman states became colonies of European countries. Moroccans, for instance, were now regarded as French. Others tried to apply using forged documents (a relatively simple process in those days) in order to enjoy all the rights and guarantees that came with foreign status, the most important of which was that the Egyptian police would be unable to touch them. Before arresting any foreigner the police were obliged to inform the relevant consulate. The consulate would then send a representative to be present at the arrest. This would give them greater scope to outmaneuver Egyptian judicial procedure on the grounds that they were under “foreign protection”.
Inevitably, the price the fituwaat paid for this protection was their standing among their fellow Egyptians, and the role in society that these gangs had evolved to fill and from which they derived their status and power. Where once their countrymen had regarded them as a citizen militia whose strength was employed to protect weak and poor Egyptians from the callousness and excesses of the rich and powerful (Egyptian and foreign alike) they were increasingly regarded as mercenaries working on behalf of the foreigners, their strength now deployed in conflicts between foreign communities and to defend foreign interests at the expense of the very Egyptian interests they had once served. When local courts issued rulings which the foreign communities regarded as infringing on their interests, they would mobilize their fituwaat, covered by “foreign protection”, to use the strength and influence they and their mashadid commanded, in order counter the decision and prevent it being implemented.
Strong links soon developed between the foreigners and the fituwaat. These relationships were particularly strong in the case of the Abu Ahmeds of Alexandria. The foreign communities here were more populous and influential and the fituwaat began to work with a European criminal underworld which had emigrated to Egypt to engage in crime and import new, hitherto unknown varieties of illegal activity, such as organized pickpocketing in the street and on public transport, selling adulterated liquor and cocaine smuggling. The fituwaat lent their physical strength and influence in the community to protect these activities from Egyptians who either sought to muscle in on these businesses or to protest them on moral grounds. They blocked attempts to report such activities by preventing Egyptians testifying against them in court and in some cases were tempted to participate in trade that the previous generation of fituwaat had refused to countenance.
Mahmoud Al Hakim was a perfect example of this burgeoning intermarriage between the fituwaat and the European underworld, and of the decline that had affected the traditions and status of the fituwa. Though he and his brother Abdel Hakim, or Abdo, were Egyptians by birth and had lived in Cairo their whole lives—they had even inherited the title fituwa from their father—both did everything they could to obtain French citizenship through their Lebanese ancestry. And no sooner did they receive their papers than the French consulate was obliged to intervene to rescue them from an escalating series of crises. The sense of security afforded them by their foreign protection persuaded them to first attempt a purge of the other fituwaat in Al Kahkayeen, and then to challenge fituwaat in other neighbourhoods in an attempt to impose their rule over the whole of Cairo.
The role played by the fituwa in Egyptian social life had contracted, its most visible manifestation the protection of wedding processions. It was a venerable tradition that the bridegroom walk in procession from the neighbourhood where he lived to his bride’s neighbourhood, then return home with her, passing through all the adjoining neighbourhoods on the way, as a public declaration of their marriage. Once the date of the wedding had been set, the groom would set out in the company of close relatives and friends to visit the home of the local fituwa, invite him to attend the celebration and voice their hope that he might be so generous as to lead their wedding procession, so that it could be under his protection and safe from attack. The groom would also take the opportunity to present the fituwa with a gift that reflected the standing of both men.
When the date arrived, the fituwa would attend the celebration in the company of his mashadid. Once they had eaten supper with the other guests the procession would set out, the fituwa at the head with his sabwaat and magaadeh, all wearing open-chested gallebeyas that displayed embroidered waistcoats and with silk laasas looped round their skullcaps, while their hands held heavy staffs and looming nabbouts. Behind them all came the groom amid a crowd of friends, and then the remaining guests, and in this fashion the procession moved from street to street and from one neighbourhood to another, songs and paeans to the groom rising up from its ranks, and stopping from time to time whenever they encountered the fituwaat of the neighbourhoods they passed through.
Whenever they came to the border of a new neighbourhood the local fituwa and his mashadid would come out to meet them. He would halt the procession, offer greetings and, addressing the fituwa that led it, he would invite the happy gathering to come and dine at his house. At this, a scripted dialogue ensued: the procession’s protector and leader would offer his apologies, explaining that they had already eaten at the groom’s, and the local fituwa would then repeat his invitation, insisting they accept. Insistence and apology would be batted back and forth until things became heated, both sides exchanging harsh words: the local fituwa claiming the refusal was an insult to the people of his neighbourhood and the fituwa of the procession taking his persistence as an affront to his dignity. Before the argument could turn to actual violence, the two men would engage in a stick-fight in front of the procession: a demonstration of skill in honour of the happy occasion which would conclude in a draw. The procession would be allowed on its way, until it came to the next neighbourhood boundary, at which the same scenario would be repeated in the minutest detail.
With the collapse of the traditional underpinnings of fatwana, this wedding ritual was transformed from an expression of the fituwa’s largesse (i.e. ensuring that the residents of other neighbourhoods could partake of the celebration) and a ritual honouring “foreigners” who crossed the borders of their neighbourhood, into something else entirely. It now became a means of extortion.
Mahmoud Al Hakim and his brother Abdo adopted it as a way to extend their influence. They would lie in wait for wedding processions throughout the capital and when one passed they would walk out in front of it with their mashadid, force it to stop, then demand that the family of the groom pay them protection money if they wanted to proceed unharmed. And although the groom and his family were usually inclined to accept these conditions, preferring to maintain the peace, they found themselves trapped between the hammer of Al Hakim and the anvil of their local fituwa, who would refuse a demand which he saw as an attack on his own standing as leader and protector of the procession. Since no one could be allowed to transgress against him in any way, a fully-fledged battle would soon break out around the procession, nabbouts raised high in the air, among them Hagga Fatima—the name Mahmoud Al Hakim gave to his own staff—the great knob at one end filled with molten lead. Skulls were shattered, ribs snapped, and the groom would spend his wedding night in the emergency room.
But regardless of whether they were victorious or whether they were beaten, every young man in Cairo knew that the safe conduct of his wedding procession depended on Mahmoud Al Hakim and his mashadid receiving their payment. In addition to the sum they were expected to give their local fituwa, grooms started to send Al Hakim the money before the procession set out to ensure it wouldn’t be held up.
It would be unreasonable to have expected that Al Hakim’s attempts to extend his control would not encounter resistance from the city’s other fituwaat; they did. Violent battles ensued, resulting in dozens of casualties, ending with some submitting to Al Hakim’s terms while others held out to the last breath. The principal rebel was the fituwa of Souq Al Silah, a great giant of a man and hugely strong called Al Miallam Abdel Ghani, who led a gang of some of the toughest sabwaat and magaadeh in the city and who saw himself as a more worthy candidate of leading the capital’s fituwaat. The war that broke out between the two sides was finally decided by a fatal blow from Hagga Fatima which struck Abdel Ghani on the head. Witnesses reported an audible crunch as the blow landed.
The Egyptian police asked the French consulate permission to arrest Mahmoud Al Hakim at his home, where he’d returned following the end of the battle. And after a delay, which gave the suspect sufficient time to conceal incriminating evidence and to coach witnesses who swore that he had been with them dozens of kilometers from the site of Abdel Ghani’s murder, they consented. Al Hakim denied the charge and alleged that it was the commander of the Darb Al Ahmar police station who had ordered his men to beat Abdel Ghani to death then frame him for the killing, thus getting rid of two birds with one stone. The French consulate insisted that Abdel Ghani’s corpse be disinterred and reexamined by a French doctor, whose report when it came directly contradicted that of the Egyptian forensic examiner. It stated that the direct cause of death was excessive consumption of alcohol; the blow which stove in his skull was said to have occurred after death.
Mahmoud Al Hakim treated his release from detention as a signal that he could continue to bully whomever he chose and freely lay about him with Hagga Fatima: an invitation to treat all laws with contempt, including the code of fatwana. The chief of police’s efforts to persuade the French consulate to expel him from Egypt, on grounds of the threat he posed to public safety, came to nothing and the foreign protection he enjoyed and his increasing influence and power attracted the attentions of hashish, cocaine and heroin smuggling operations, which were mostly made up of foreigners. He began to assist them in bringing the drugs into the country and distributing them to mid-level dealers, and the profit he made at this trade prompted him to establish a vast, three-storey café for users of hashish, heroin, cocaine and other narcotics. Addicts and users flocked to the café as one of the securest venues available to them, for though it carried on its trade in full view of the officers and men of the Darb Al Ahmar police station, not one of them was able to raid the place without first obtaining permission from the French consulate, and on those occassions that they did manage to get permission and make their raids no evidence was ever found that its owners were engaged in illegality.
With the old fituwa groupings breaking apart and their remnants allying themselves with criminal organisations which exploited their muscle and reckless courage to commit crimes both petty and serious, it was only natural that pretenders came to fill the void they left in the community—men with no connection to the traditions of fatwana, who held no standing in its system of ranks and promotion—imposing their authority on those around them for no other reason than that they possessed a degree of physical strength and a certain aptitude for risk.
Orabi Hassan was one of this new breed. He did not inherit his status as a fituwa from his father, nor had he taken it with muscle or nabbout. He had not risen through the chain of command from magdaa to sabwa. He was not even a native-born Alexandrian to whom the rank of fituwa was traditionally restricted, but rather a poor Southern immigrant who had prevailed in the internal disputes and fights that flared up between the Southerners of Farahda Street where he lived. Having won standing in his own alley he quickly branched out into neighbouring lanes and alleys and, because power is a relative affair, and because the area itself—one of the “sheikhdoms” administered by the Labban police station—was populated by poor and vulnerable Southern migrants who tended not to engage in battles with those more powerful than themselves, Orabi’s power took on an aura much greater than its true size: propaganda rather than actual power. He became known for being thuggish and threatening until his reputation and attitude secured him what he was after from those who were too weak to object or put up a fight.
Orabi Hassan himself may well have a clearer understanding than anybody of the true extent of his powers. Prudently, he forbore from entering into disputes with those more powerful than himself, even those that matched him, and never even considered challenging Miallim Salama Salem Salabo, the fituwa of Farahda and Labban—not even the miallim’s sabwaat or magaadeh. And because he was too cowardly to practice his insolence against the rich, who valued their wealth and had followers to protect themselves and it, he restricted his depredations to the weakest in society, those so reduced by poverty that they had abandoned the sense of self-worth that would push them to stand up to his aggression, or individuals who had lost the familial or geographical networks which could mount a defense on their behalf.
Another category of victim were those who engaged in activities that were either illegal or which were looked down upon by wider society; people no one was predisposed to defend. If a café was serving adulterated alcohol, Orabi and a group of his friends would make a dramatic entrance, at which the owner would take fright and hurry to serve them himself, bringing them unadulaterated drinks and the best food he had to offer. They would drink as much as they pleased and then leave without anyone presenting them with the bill, because if they did then Orabi and his men would make it widely known that the café served adulterated alcohol to its customers, and might even resort to violence, smashing windows and chairs and barrels of booze. If the place was a hashish den, the gang would enter and smoke. The owner would be unable to protest or refuse them anything in case they caused a row, which would bring the police and the arrest of everybody on the scene. Unlicensed brothels they would treat with the impunity of those who knew for sure that nobody would stop them. They would sleep with any prostitutes they chose and then depart without the woman asking them for the price of her body or the brothel owner demanding a fee for the room they had occupied.
Orabi Hassan was, in short, a cottage-industry fituwa, one of dozens who operated among the poor and who took advantage of the collapse of the institution of fatwana to claim the role for themselves. If not for this decline, they would have been completely unqualified: they claimed a strength they did not possess to make a living at the expense of the most deprived and oppressed in society.
Because of his long familiarity with the trade, Orabi Hassan was the first to realise that the new tenants in the alley next to his were running an illegal brothel. He did what he could to make himself known, first to Hasballah and then to Raya, and the day soon came when he was invited into their home. Within minutes of his arrival—as part of a plan that had been agreed on in advance—Nadhla Aboulleil walked in.
Nadhla Aboulleil was a light-skinned, spare young woman of medium height with close-set eyes, and though not especially beautiful her slender build drew attention at a time in which most Egyptian women tended to plumpness. She was, in addition, a cheerful woman, always smiling, which lent her a special appeal not lost on the young men of Bab Sadra where she had been born, and amongst whose lanes and alleys she had lived her whole life.
She was sixteen when she married for the first time but the marriage had lasted just two years, ending in divorce after she had failed to satisfy her husband’s desire for a child. She returned to live with her mother in Ragheb Basha Lane, but did not remain there long, for as soon as news of her divorce spread through Bab Sadra three young men began competing for her attentions.
The first of these was Abdel Rahim Mahmoud, a Southerner, who in summer wandered the streets selling irqsous and in winter, along with the majority of his fellow rural migrants, worked in the distinctively Southern version of the import-export trade. In his case, this involved travelling back and forth between Alexandria and Umm Douma (his home village, part of the administrative district of Tahta in the Sohag governorate) to sell what foreign goods he had managed to find in the markets of Alexandria and with his takings buy up tins of ghee and honey to take back and sell in Alexandria.
The second was Orabi Hassan himself, who at that time worked as a porter with the customs authority as well as running an import-export operation similar to that of Abdel Rahim, only with less enthusiasm and considerably more adulteration and theft in his dealings. Though Orabi was some five years younger than his rival he was, as the neighbourhood fituwa, better known and more glamorous. Both men were married at the time.
Nadhla favoured Abdel Rahim over Orabi, maybe because he was more pragmatic and less violent, and maybe, too, because his first wife and their children lived in the South, whereas Orabi’s wife stayed with him in Alexandria. Keen perhaps to avoid the complications and problems that could arise from living, not only in the same city, but in the same neighbourhood as her durra, or co-wife, she accepted Abdel Rahim’s proposal.
The engagement did not last. This time it was Nadhla who broke it off when she came to realise how incompatible they were. She was an Alexandrian girl, raised in a relatively liberated environment and happy with the lifestyle to which she was accustomed, whereas Abdel Rahim, like every Southerner with strong views on tradition and a distaste for all things associated with women and their lives, sought to impose his authority on her. She was not to leave the house without his permission or show herself to strange men, and there was the callous way he treated her. Nadhla, who had been deprived of a father’s care and tenderness early in life, longed (as she was later to confide to Sakina) for a husband who would treat her gently and with affection, who would spoil her and be careful with her dignity and honour. And perhaps it was for this reason, too, that she refused the advances of Orabi Hassan after breaking off her engagement, despite the fact that in a moment of unguarded emotion he declared that he was prepared to divorce his wife if she would marry him. But Nadhla seems to have decided that Southerners with their rough ways were not husband material.
And so it was that the third suitor won her hand and she ended up marrying a young neighbour of hers, an Alexandrian by the name of Ibrahim Saeed, who made his living as a cart driver. She went to live with Ibrahim in a single room in Geneinat Al Ayouni, in a building owned by a thirty-five year old widow by the name of Fatima Bint Ali Al Metwalli, known to all as Battouta. Her husband had left her with children and not much money, and she soon persuaded the very Abdel Rahim Mahmoud who had formerly been engaged to Nadhla to take her hand in marriage.
Though Ibrahim was calm and kind-hearted, the carefree and capricious Nadhla (“lighthearted” as Sakina was to call her) soon began to feel that he was not the man to fill the void in her heart. She started to regret breaking off her engagement with Abdel Rahim and turning down Orabi. Her husband’s gentle temperament came to seem like indifference, his kindness like passivity, an impression exacerbated by the increasingly long periods he spent off work as a consequence of the multiple conditions and illnesses which he had contracted as a child. Furthermore, they had no children together which could have strengthened the marital bond. Nadhla was forced to go to work at the local market to support herself and her sick husband and once again her dreams of a stable family life were shattered. After a year of marriage she was responding to Orabi’s crude advances and had agreed to become his lover.
Though Nadhla Aboulleil was just twenty-four in 1917 when she first entered the house in Maskoubiya, by then she had been a married woman on-and-off for eight years and Orabi’s lover for four. She had gained a reputation as a skilled seamstress and the women of Maskoubiya and Farahda turned to her to sew their clothes and the underclothes of their husbands and children. And if they were happy with the standard of her work they would entrust her with their nightclothes and the gallebeyas they went out in beneath their black robes.
From the very first the apartment of Hasballah and Raya suggested itself as the perfect place for Orabi and Nadhla to hold their trysts because it was located halfway between their homes. Arranging a meeting was simple. Raya would send her daughter Badia—then seven years old—to Nadhla’s home two streets away to say that she must come immediately because a customer wanted her to work on some clothes. Nadhla would throw her robe over her house clothes and either accompany or follow Badia back to the house, where she would find Orabi waiting.
At first, it ate at Raya that she lacked the courage to demand compensation from Orabi Hassan for the services she rendered him, services that went beyond hosting his assignations with Nadhla to include offering him his choice of the women who worked at her establishment, or brokering introductions to women in the street whom he would then seduce. He paid for none of this. But she soon came to see that the benefits she derived from the association of his name with that of her house were of considerably greater value than the services she provided. His reputation in the area as a fituwa was enough to deter anyone who might be considering interfering in its running or informing the police, while his continuous presence on the premises scared off the type of patron who would enter a brothel, use its services, then either refuse to pay or pay less on the grounds that the goods were not up to standard, raising their voice in an implicit threat to expose the management if they did not comply. Previously, such behaviour would have been enough to send Raya scurrying to placate the customer and abandon her right to payment. When it became known that the house was under the protection of Orabi, the fituwa of Farahda, there were no more disturbances and everyone paid the price of the services and goods they had received without reluctance or bartering. If a customer was visiting the house for the first time and, unaware that it was under the protection of a fituwa and emboldened by alcohol, imagined that he could get what he wanted free of charge, a few words from Orabi would be sufficient to bring him to his senses and, suddenly sober, he would meekly hand over the money.
This symbiotic relationship between the brothels and fatwana is one of the clearest indications that the institution was on its last legs. In his heyday, the fituwa was a protector of public morals, responsible for defending the honour of the young women of the neighbourhood where he held sway: any attempt to pursue them or speak to them in ways that violated their modesty was regarded as an attack on the “honour of the neighbourhood”. If the aggressor was from the same neighbourhood, the fituwa taught him a lesson that would make him think a thousand times before repeating such an assault. If a “foreigner”—that is, the resident of another area—he would inform the fituwa of the neighbourhood in question so that he could discipline the transgressor himself. The fituwaat frequently fought one another in defence of the honour of the women of their neighbourhood; rivers of blood were spilled for this cause.
As their influence declined and they abandoned many of their duties within the community, their focus on female honour gradually fell away until a newer breed of fituwa began to trade on that very quality and involve themselves in the management of brothels. In 1905 the Prostitutes’ Bill became law. It legalized brothels, regulated their activities and placed them under the protection of the police, and the fituwaat were forced to abandon their traditional hostility to these establishments and their habit of assaulting those that frequented them. Fituwaat began to make use of their services without payment. Next, they started to place the brothels under their protection in return for payment in kind or cash. And as the condition of the fituwa reached rock bottom, some of them found no shame in managing the brothels themselves and profiting off them. The levies which the fituwa imposed on these brothels became one of their most important sources of income and conflict over control of the various establishments one of the primary causes of the wars they waged between themselves.
When it came to the legal brothels, officially licensed to conduct these activities, the fituwaat had less leverage; the illegal trade—“secret prostitution”—was where they had a greater impact, because they were able to blackmail the men and women who managed and frequented the establishments, either with the threat of direct assault or by stirring up their neighbours against them. The brothel-owners would themselves be forced to turn to the fituwa to protect them from disruptive customers and the threats of other fituwaat.
Though fituwaat would justify their depredations against these houses by harking back to the golden age of their trade, when they had defended the honour of their womenfolk and acted as a bulwark for public morality, the exploitation and the receipt of protection money was their true aim in glittering slogans. Their technique for extorting brothels began with making threats against their clients, in order to drive custom away. If a business refused to pay Zaghloul, the fituwa of Anastasi Street in Alexandria where Raya’s first brothel (known as the House of Palm Leaves) had been located, he would simply sit down on a chair facing the alley in question. If he saw a face he didn’t recognize, he would know its owner could not be one of the local residents and was making for the brothel. He would physically accost the man and threaten him, and the customer would be forced to beat a retreat. If the fituwa who protected the establishment was unable to stand up to Zaghloul or take him on in combat, the brothel-keepers would have to pay.
This competition over brothel protection rackets led to the death of one of Cairo’s most notorious fituwaat, in an event that revealed the alarming depths to which the once proud traditions of the institution had sunk. His name was Mahmoud Al Falaki, the fituwa of Bab Al Khalq, a huge, brutal, terrifying man, who became distressed to discover that a retired fituwa was running an illegal brothel in Al Khaleeg Al Masri Street—what is today known as Port Said Street; an area which lay within the borders of his “state”—without paying him his due. He set up his headquarters in a café across the street, and with his mashadid began to accost all the customers they could identify either as they entered the building or left it, publicly humiliating them and threatening them with assault if they ever returned. The retired fituwa turned to Mahmoud Al Hakim, the fituwa of Al Kahkayin, to help him deal with Al Falaki. The two fituwaat met in single combat, a vicious battle in which Al Falaki initially had the upper hand, throwing Al Hakim to the ground then removing his sandal and beating him about the face. Al Hakim had no choice but to break the fituwa’s code which forbad recourse to trickery and assassination, and unsheathing a knife which he had strapped to his leg he stabbed Al Falaki repeatedly in the chest, belly and head. Al Falaki fell to the ground, lying motionless in a pool of his own blood, and within a few hours he was dead. Al Hakim, however, emerged from the affair unscathed: his foreign privileges protected him from the full extent of the judicial process and not a single piece of evidence was found against him.