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Building a national case in interwar Egypt: Raya and Sakina's crimes through the pages of al‐Ahrām (Fall 1920)



In November 1920, the Alexandria police arrested two sisters, Raya and Sakina, along with their husbands and others, and charged them with the murder of seventeen women. At the end of a trial held in May 1921, the judges sentenced to death six members of the gang, yet it was Raya and Sakina who monopolized public attention as the first women sentenced to death in the Egyptian secular justice system. A century later, they are still alive in the Egyptian collective memory, which has turned them into a long‐lasting criminal myth and remembers them as former prostitutes, madams, and female murderers. Previous studies seem to see the myth as resulting from the supposedly exceptional character of the case. This paper is a first step toward exploring how this exceptionality was constructed and how it took on a national dimension after the announcement of Raya and Sakina's arrest. The focus is on al‐Ahrām, the main national daily newspaper at the time, which covered the issue systematically, providing information on the investigation while building the case in national terms. A micro‐historic approach to al‐Ahrām will enable a deconstruction of exceptionality through comparison with a precedent. An analysis incorporating both the precedent and Raya and Sakina's case will lead to a first hypothesis about the longevity of Raya and Sakina's case and the disappearance of the precedent from the Egyptian collective memory. This perspective offers insight into the connection between the press, public morality, and nation‐building in interwar Egypt, linking textual and extra‐textual realities and shedding light on the local aspects that make the nation. Indeed, the organization of al‐Ahrām in the provinces may be seen as a key factor in revealing what attracts national attention and what remains confined to a local dimension.
Building a national case in interwar Egypt: Raya
and Sakina's crimes through the pages of al-Ahr
(Fall 1920)
Elena Chiti
Stockholm University
Elena Chiti, Department of Asian, Middle
Eastern and Turkish Studies, Stockholm
University, Sweden.
In November 1920, the Alexandria police arrested two sis-
ters, Raya and Sakina, along with their husbands and others,
and charged them with the murder of seventeen women. At
the end of a trial held in May 1921, the judges sentenced to
death six members of the gang, yet it was Raya and Sakina
who monopolized public attention as the first women sen-
tenced to death in the Egyptian secular justice system. A
century later, they are still alive in the Egyptian collective
memory, which has turned them into a long-lasting criminal
myth and remembers them as former prostitutes, madams,
and female murderers. Previous studies seem to see the
myth as resulting from the supposedly exceptional charac-
ter of the case. This paper is a first step toward exploring
how this exceptionality was constructed and how it took on
a national dimension after the announcement of Raya and
Sakina's arrest. The focus is on al-Ahr
am, the main national
daily newspaper at the time, which covered the issue sys-
tematically, providing information on the investigation while
building the case in national terms. A micro-historic
approach to al-Ahr
am will enable a deconstruction of excep-
tionality through comparison with a precedent. An analysis
incorporating both the precedent and Raya and Sakina's
case will lead to a first hypothesis about the longevity of
Raya and Sakina's case and the disappearance of the
DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12607
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and
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© 2020 The Author. History Compass published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd
History Compass. 2020; :e12607. 1of13
precedent from the Egyptian collective memory. This per-
spective offers insight into the connection between the
press, public morality, and nation-building in interwar Egypt,
linking textual and extra-textual realities and shedding light
on the local aspects that make the nation. Indeed, the orga-
nization of al-Ahr
am in the provinces may be seen as a key
factor in revealing what attracts national attention and what
remains confined to a local dimension.
In November 1920, in the Labban district of Alexandria, the police discovered the corpses of seventeen women.
They arrested around twenty people, including two sisters, Rayy
a and Sukayna 'AlīHam
am (henceforth Raya and
Sakina), and their husbands. Originally from Upper Egypt, Raya and Sakina had worked as prostitutes in Kafr Zayyat,
in the Delta, before running clandestine brothels in Alexandria. The inquiry linked most of the Labban murders to ille-
gal prostitution, while stating that money was the motive: Raya and Sakina invited every victim to one of their
houses, under the pretext of meeting an affluent man or buying something, then the male members of the gang suf-
focated the woman, stripped her of her jewels, and buried her body under the floor. At the end of a trial held in Alex-
andria in May 1921, the judges sentenced to death Raya and Sakina, their husbands, and two other men. All were
hanged the following December, yet it was Raya and Sakina who monopolized public attention, being the first
women executed by the Egyptian secular justice system and, it seems, the first criminals to have their pictures publi-
shed in the Egyptian press. Even today, Raya and Sakina are seen as the first female murderers driven by the desire
for economic gain and not by emotional behaviour as in crimes of passion. Theatre, cinema, and TV appropriated the
characters and people still talk about them. Yet this popularity has not inspired a deep academic interest. In 1997,
the Egyptian journalist Yunan Labib Rizk regretted the lack of historical works on Raya and Sakina (Rizk, 1999).
Twenty years later, the increase in quantity remains unimpressive. Moreover, the studies that do exist adopt an
internal perspective. Apart from the notable work by Nefertiti Takla (2016), they place themselves within the case.
While shedding light on important aspects of itthe role of men ('Īs
a, 2002), part of the press coverage (Lopez,
2005), or its negative aura (Boyle, 2016)they seem to take its exceptional character for granted.
Instead of reading Raya and Sakina's actual or supposed uniqueness as the effect of an inherent exception-
ality, this paper seeks precedents for what seems unprecedented, before studying how this exceptionality was
constructed. Drawing inspiration from Elliott Colla's deconstruction of another notable first time(Colla, 2009),
it takes exception as the result of a historical process. The question it raises is not why, but how Raya and
Sakina attracted national attention. While a broader project will study the process up to the present day, the
focus here is on the women's encounter with the public before the May 1921 trial. This emerges through the
pages of al-Ahr
am, the main national newspaper at the time, which covered the case systematically starting with
the discovery of a woman's bones in Alexandria on 13 September 1920. For two months, the newspaper had
no news to reveal. Between 17 November, when it announced Raya and Sakina's arrest, and 11 December,
when it gave a detailed summary of the case, al-Ahr
am treated the subject extensively, sometimes with more
than one article per day. Its reports were published as faits divers, along with marriages, thefts, and other
crimes, but were announced three times on the front page, at a time when al-Ahr
am comprised four pages in
total. The space devoted to the story decreased afterwards, before reaching new peaks in May 1921, in con-
nection with the trial, and in December 1921, with the execution. Most of the articles were written in Alexan-
dria and sent to Cairo for publication. Although it was founded in Alexandria in 1875/1876, al-Ahr
am moved its
2of13 CHITI
main office to Cairo in 1899. In 1920, it was a Cairo-based newspaper, but it maintained a privileged link with Alex-
andria, where it had an office and permanent employees (Utm
an, 1995). The prominence of Alexandrian articles
within it points to a wave of national attention that lasted for months. Other periodicals focused on Raya and
Sakina through scattered editorials, and even an interview with them,
but they did not treat the case systemati-
cally. This paper focuses on al-Ahr
am for it offers a daily coverage that stands out for its continuity and comprehen-
siveness from the time of Raya and Sakina's arrest. Indeed, al-Ahr
am provides information on the investigation
while building the case in national terms,
yet it has not been explored with these two perspectives in mind.
A micro-historic approach, through a close reading of al-Ahr
am with its multiple layers and threads, will help
move the case from exceptionality to exemplarity. While exceptionality takes a phenomenon out of its space and
time, making it incomparable, exemplarity leads to reconstructing its socio-cultural environment. A sensational case,
one which connects the judiciary realm with the broader public, can be seen as exemplifying processes that take
place in the society. The reactions it provokes disclose a set of dynamics that come together with particular force.
Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg, Giovanni Levi, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Partha Chatterjee have studied judiciary
cases from different epochs and regions of the world, elucidating how the collective is embedded in individualand
supposedly exceptionaltrajectories (Chatterjee, 2002; Ginzburg, 1976; Levi, 1985; Zemon Davis, 1983).
Chatterjee, in particular, provides insight into the local aspects that constitute or challenge the national during the
transition between the colonial and the post-colonial state (Chatterjee, 1993). This dimension is central to Raya and
Sakina. Indeed, by zooming out the case, I will deconstruct its exceptionality by comparing it with a precedent. By
zooming in again, I will analyse the coverage of both the case and the precedent and propose a first hypothesis about
the longevity of Raya and Sakina's case and the disappearance of the precedent from the Egyptian collective memory.
Despite common understanding, the case-study approach necessarily subsumes comparison. The term case,
borrowed from medical or criminological literature, indicates a phenomenon whose features stand out. As a result,
the experts tend to isolate it from the series of similar phenomena to which it belongs (Passeron & Revel, 2005). Iso-
lating a case is recognizing that it can be (re)placed in a broader context, where it brings a rupture. Its treatment as a
single unit implies a constant dialogue with neighbouring cases (Dumez, 2015). Raya and Sakina's exceptionality
turns on their being women perpetrators in crimes motivated by profit. This is considered a first time in Egyptian his-
tory. In reconstructing the cultural environment of the case, it is important to see whether similar cases were brought
to the public eye before or during the coverage of this one. Finding precedents for what seems to be unprecedented
is a crucial step in going beyond sensationalism (Chatterjee, 2002, pp. 97114).
Reading al-Ahr
am from this angle helps shed light on what surrounded Raya and Sakina's case before it
became the case. Indeed, a precedent appears, which also involved women perpetrators and an economic
motive. It made the headlines in the spring and summer of 1920, not long before Raya and Sakina came to
public attention in Alexandria. Along with his own wife and a third woman, one Mam
ud 'All
am, in the city of
Tanta, was charged with the murder of women. The newspaper described the trio as acting together in a gang.
The horrific character of their crimes, whose motive was linked to money and precisely to spoliation of
was constantly underlined.
The cases in Tanta and Alexandria share a similar context. Both series of murders came to public attention in the
phase of turmoil that followed the Great War, with the economic crisis that hit Egypt and the massive protests
against the British occupation that erupted in 1919 (S
alim, 2009; Chiti, 2017). Tanta and Alexandria, both located in
the Delta, were undergoing rapid population growth with the arrival of immigrants from the impoverished country-
side seeking jobs in urban manufacturing. The criminals and the crimes show common features as well. Both gangs
were composed of men and women and connected with an underworld of sex workers that was at the same time
CHITI 3of13
the target of the murders. All the victims were women, whose condition was particularly fragile in an epoch that saw
a violent decrease of incomes and jobs (Beinin & Lockman, 1998), the splitting of many families with the migration
from the countryside, and the proliferation of illegal prostitution (Hil
al, 2001). At least one of the women murdered
in Tanta was a sex worker herself, as were the majority of the victims in Alexandria, and their victim status did not
prevent the newspaper from condemning their immoral behaviour.
As for Alexandria, some Tanta articles rec-
ommended that the authorities ensure the safety of the country by neutralizing this evil gang that spread moral cor-
ruption (fas
adan) on earth and started committing murders after having satisfied satanic desires (tamattu' bi'l-
at al-shay
Coverage in both places put strong emphasis on the corrupt environment as a factor that
predisposed people to break the law. It constantly linked public order to public morality, building on a deterministic
view that accompanied the formation of modern nation-states (Foucault, 1975; Fahmy, 1999, p. 360).
Chronologically, Tanta came first. During the summer of 1920, it was labelled with the word qaiyya, which
covers, like the English case, both the judicial procedure and the judgement of public opinion. The complete for-
mula was qaiyyat ikthif
a,the case of women's disappearance.
It repeated itself in the headlines,
suggesting a narrative in progress and a readership following it. At the beginning of September, while Tanta's defen-
dants were on trial, an article read:
The public opinion (al-ra'y al-'
amm) in Tanta pays extreme attention to this case wishing that the judges
will deliver a just verdict against this gang that makes a fool of the public order (al-amn al-
as big as Tanta.
Not only was the size of the city emphasized, but the word
amm clarified the conception of public order and
public opinion as general entities, which could be perceived in Tanta but were conceived as nationwide. The newspa-
per implicitly framed the case in national terms, as a local offence against the whole state apparatus, and called for a
punishment to restore the state's material control and symbolic power. Both for Tanta and Alexandria, it claimed to
speak on behalf of the public interest, emphasizing the social function of journalism as the link between those who
govern and the governed(Hamzah, 2013, p. 100).
am itself compared Alexandria to Tanta. On 18 November 1920, the account from Alexandria stated that
the days showed us an event (
aditha) even more atrocious than the killings of women in Tanta.
In this way, it
made Tanta the model. Before Alexandria became archetypical, its degree of atrocity was judged against the stan-
dard of Tanta. Later, the investigation linked the two cases.
Some police officers conducted the inquiry in both cit-
ies, dealing in parallel with both threads and travelling to Cairo to report to national institutions.
The main
defendant in Tanta, Mam
ud All
am, claimed that a certain Mus
a, from Alexandria, was in charge of fixing his
The police brought All
am to Alexandria to be further interrogated,
accompanied by high-ranking repre-
sentatives of Tanta's police. Why, then, did the Alexandria case turn into a national myth, while that of Tanta was
forgotten, despite the common features and intertwined inquiries? An analysis of the coverage of each case will help
answer this question.
This paper highlights the multiple sources al-Ahr
am relies upon by reading the threads it displays. Deeply rooted in
Carlo Ginzburg's lesson (1994; 1986; 1976), this methodological frame is also indebted to Khaled Fahmy (1999) and
Liat Kozma (2004).
Both interrogated an allegedly uniform set of sources, such as the Egyptian police and court
records of the late nineteenth century, to shed light on the police organization, the state apparatus, and the people's
attitudes towards the two. Through a closer look at the different threads embodied in the same report, they could
isolate different voices. The approach is similar here, but with a different purpose. This paper does not aim to give a
4of13 CHITI
voice to Raya and Sakina, but to distinguish the voices that shaped their image as national anti-icons.
The tempo-
ral perspective is voluntarily limited, since the analysis of al-Ahr
am suggests that Raya and Sakina's negative aura had
spread well before their trial began in May 1921.
Between the article of 13 September 1920, reporting that parts of a woman's body had been found in the
Labban district of Alexandria, and that of 11 December 1920, which summarizes the whole case, al-Ahr
am presents
two main sets of articles:
1. The dispatches of the newspaper's main office in Cairo;
2. The accounts of the anonymous correspondent in Alexandria.
The main office's dispatches are not signed, as is the norm to this day. Generally short, sometimes very short,
they do not always bear a headline. The style is that of a classic khabar, the Arabic news genre, a third-person
description of the salient facts in a neutral tone, which seeks to inform and instruct (Mellor, 2005, pp. 104107). This
is how the readers came across a strange piece of news on 13 September 1920:
Labban's police found yesterday in Abīl-Dard
aStreet pieces of a woman's body and a skull separated
from it. They brought them to the hospital and reported to the public prosecutor. They started an
inquiry, but so far, the truth around this horrific crime remains totally unknown.
Of the categories of information, education, and entertainment that make up media coverage (Armbrust, 2009;
Briggs & Burke, 2009), the main office's dispatches correspond to the first two. While their informational purpose
seems dominant, value judgements appear, as in the term horrific(fa
īa), and take on broader significance when
additional elements are discovered in November. This time, the news comes from al-Ahr
am's special correspondent
asil al-Ahr
am al-khus
ī). Following the custom of the time, his accounts are not signed. They bear the name of
the city, Alexandria, and the date. They are generally long, complex, and multi-layered, in line with the style of a
al, the Arabic essay genre, a prose text providing opinions on societal issues (Ayalon, 1995, p. 180; Mellor, 2005,
p. 105). However, they blur the boundaries between its subcategories, switching from editorial to news analysis to
diary within the very same piece. They mention and sometimes directly quote different kinds of sources, which
inform different threads:
1. a third-person narration;
2. a first-person narration; and
3. the police statements.
At some points, the third-person narration resembles the dispatches of the Cairo office. It privileges factual
information in a neutral tone, yet it is more detailed, aiming to be complete. It refers to different informants, from
members of the police to the public prosecutor and from city dwellers to victims' relatives. At other points, the style
shifts to that of the omniscient narrator in a novel. Without acknowledging his sources, al-Ahr
am's correspondent
gives small details that only an eyewitness could have seen. This all-seeing perspective applies to pieces of informa-
tion that are more entertaining than factual: all the suspects were brought to the police station in chains and they
all were weeping, women and men.
In this way, the correspondent builds up the atmosphere. Sometimes he
addresses the reader in the second person, to highlight previous episodes or new findings. The third person may shift
to the first without interruption, as if the omniscient narrator turned into the author of a diary, who is both an eye-
witness and a participant-observer, if not a character in his own story. The eyewitness position guarantees the truth-
fulness of the whole account: I went to the house where the corpses are and saw some policemen.
CHITI 5of13
correspondent often uses the verb to see(ra'a) before he concludes that therefore he can describe(yumkinu-n
an nas
:ifa) what he saw. At the same time, he positions himself as a reporter in the middle of the action, describing
the phases of his own work:
In yesterday's account, I wrote all the news I collected before the last finding. Then I added that one,
still vaguely seeing it as an ordinary event. Today I looked for further details and came across surpris-
ing information.
He takes stands as someone who is both in touch with the city dwellers' feelings and capable of keeping a dis-
tance from them:
The public (al-jumh
ur) accuses the secret police, and many people claimyet, it is a groundless claim
that some of its members did know what was going on in Raya's houses and turned a blind eye in
exchange for favours they obtained for covering things up. As for myself, I do not say anything like
that. I simply say that the secret police showed an incredible weakness.
While admitting an unintentional flaw in the performance of the police, the correspondent never questions their
good faith. Among his sources, he privileges the police statements, which are not summarized, but directly cited. Rec-
ognizable through quotation marks, they are introduced by declarations such as before I switch to my personal
information, I transcribe hereafter the official police statement (bal
agh al-b
ulīs al-rasmī).The first one is followed by
a further reminder: This is what was reported today by the police news bulletin (nashrat akhb
ar al-b
the police statements are written and official, conceived of as press releases. The correspondent's attention to
avoiding any confusion between them and his own findings suggests the will to pay respect to the police as an insti-
tution. While the assertions of individuals within the police are parts of his narration, the police statements consti-
tute a text within the text.
The self-posturing of the correspondent, as a mediator between the city dwellers and the authorities, may be
seen as a marker of the institutionalization of journalism, which was gradually moving from individual endeavour to
collective enterprise (Ayalon, 1995, p. 226). The emphasis on the new and the surprising in the news seems to justify
scoop-hunting as a social task to inform and mobilize(Hamzah, 2013, p. 101). The stylistic features of the articles,
where both information and opinion are given in a literary style, blur the distinction between khabar and maq
al, ulti-
mately shifting toward taqīq,journalistic investigation, seen as the practice of tracking the news on the ground,
from more than one place and more than one source, verifying it, and relating it in an enjoyable manner (Adham,
1985). These aspects point to the emergence of an ethical and professional awareness that accompanied the evolu-
tion of journalism in interwar Egypt (Temimi, 2018).
The accounts, multi-layered and multi-faceted, of the Alexandria correspondent are an archive within the archive,
which reveals the construction of the case in national terms. The very existence of these accounts points to a con-
nection between Alexandria and Cairo, where al-Ahr
am's main office was located in 1920. This connection took
shape in institutional terms: The newspaper kept a distance from the people accusing the police and handled the
police statements with care. Beyond the attitude of the correspondent, this points to a characteristic of al-Ahr
itself. Since its launch, al-Ahr
am had been conceived as an official medium. Its founders, the Syro-Lebanese brothers
Salīm and Bish
ara Taql
a, had not only obtained the Khedive's authorization to publish
but had also built a network
of contacts within Alexandrian and Cairene institutions, which lasted under the British occupation. On the other
6of13 CHITI
hand, the bond between the police and al-Ahr
am is a sign of the development of the press in the aftermath of the
Great War (Armbrust, 2009). The police themselves opened up to the press. Their statements addressed an external
readership that was composed of journalists and adopted their very language. Their informational goal was not
divorced from a taste for entertainment, as evidenced by the small details that built suspense up until the
A notable example of this entertaining character is the description of an incense smell coming from Raya's house,
which arouses an officer's suspicion and pushes him to dig under the floor until he finds the corpses.
At the same
time, olfactory perception points to hygiene and medicine (Corbin, 1986). It is science in the service of the nation,
since it stands for the capacity of the well-trained officer to analyse his sensorial experience and display an arsenal
of modern knowledge to ensure the public order (Fahmy, 1999). Al-Ahr
am's accounts from Alexandria bear
frequent references to scientific methods so as to prove Egyptian institutions' reliance on fact-based, empirical
data. The account of 20 November shows two photographers taking pictures of the corpses (yus
u al-juthath
af), while an architect draws the plans of the houses (al-muhandis yarsum al-man
azil) and the forensic
doctor, coming from Cairo, will carry out the autopsy and medical check (al-tashrīwa'l-kashf al-
The representatives of the police and the judiciary also appear in the public space. They come from Cairo
to inspect the crime scenes or interrogate the suspects, before going back to report to national institutions.
When a criminal connection is found between Tanta and Alexandria, they start going back and forth. The
nation-state powerfully stands in these accounts as an undisputed entity, whose territorial control is uniform all
across the country, from the capital city to the most remote settlement in the countryside. The prosecutor
sends the chief of the Labban police station (ma'm
ur qism al-Labb
an) to Kafr al-Zayyat, north of Tanta, to search
the house of Raya and Sakina's mother.
He summons to Alexandria Sakina's mother-in-law and her husband's
first wife from the village of M
a, near Asyut in the South.
Through this nationalization of space, time is
also nationalized and made uniform. The references to clock time grow considerably in number when the corre-
spondent talks about representatives of national institutions. Thus, the forensic doctor is expected from Cairo
at exactly 11.30 a.m.,
the public prosecutor leaves for Cairo on the train at 6.00 p.m.,
and, after pursuing
the inquiry in Alexandria, Tanta's police officers go back on the 3.30 p.m. train.
Accompanied by precise indi-
cations of time, the train appears as the modern transport par excellence: public, rapid, and reliable. Its constant
presence makes it the obvious way to link institutions on the national scale, which it physically helps shape. In
this uniform Egyptian space-time, the readers from different regions can recognize themselves as members of
the national community (Anderson, 1983; Chiffoleau, 2014; Mitchell, 2000).
Yet the state, with its institutional apparatus, is not the only actor of the emerging Egyptian nation. The gen-
eral public (al-jumh
ur) and public opinion (al-ra'y al-
amm) are also part of the game. Both the Alexandria corre-
spondent and the Cairo office take them into account. The dialogue between the press and these external voices
is close and complex and should not be portrayed as a dichotomy. This emerges in particular from the accounts
of the Alexandria correspondent. While treating public opinion as an enlightened actor with a positive influence
on society, he sees the public as a collection of individuals whose action may be futile or chaotic and even dan-
gerous. He seems to equate the public (al-jumh
ur) that blame the police
with the city dwellers that spread
rumours about the crimes:
in Alexandria different stories (qis
:) are told [], but many of them are pure specu-
lations and some involve a lot of talking (kathīran min al-mul
at wa'l-riw
In several cases, he states
that, despite the rumours, nothing new has emerged based on reliable sources.
He even reports a short state-
ment from the Alexandria Governorate inviting people to keep calm, since the inquiry did not reveal anything
new on the women's killings that the public (al-jumh
ur) should know,
both regulating and acknowledging the
power of the public. The public emerges in this way as a body to be guided, monitored, and controlled, one
whose groundless talking is opposed to the scientific results of the inquiry.
However, scientificity does not seem to apply to all rumours. While downplaying rumours about the police, the
correspondent publishes those regarding the suspects and builds on them. He even speculates about the total num-
ber of victims based on the number of women missing in Alexandria.
Despite the arrest of both men and women,
CHITI 7of13
he focuses on the latter, in particular Sakina and Raya AlīHam
am. While the first police statements mention their full
names, as tenants of the houses where the corpses were buried, the correspondent opts for the form Raya and
Sakinaand talks about their partners as Raya's husbandor Sakina's husband. Raya and Sakina become central in
every account, not only linked to prostitution and murder in an impersonal way, but to the scary darkrooms, similar
to gravesor caverns, where they accomplished their satanic acts.
Well before the end of the police inquiry,
let alone the court case, Raya and Sakina are presented as the chiefs of the cruel gang that murdered Alexandrian
women. Their fame grows with every new detail, whether proven or not. On 22 November, not even a week after
their arrest, the correspondent reports that some dwellers (abn
aal-balad) circulated a song about Raya and Sakina
and some printed another local chant (nashīd baladī), sold for 5 millim per copy.
Like the feuilleton novels published
in the Egyptian newspapers, including al-Ahr
am, Raya and Sakina's feuilleton captivates the public, both educating
and entertaining them through accounts of the crime.
The police and the judiciary also appear in al-Ahr
am's coverage of the Tanta case, yet the public is hardly perceptible.
No rumours or songs are mentioned, no voices of city dwellers as individuals, so that we only find remarks on public
opinion (al-ra'y al-
amm). We knowfrom the Alexandria correspondentthat Tanta was the standard against which
Alexandrian crimes were measured at the beginning.
We see the same correspondent shifting the standard to Alex-
andria one week later.
After the discovery of elements potentially linking Tanta and Alexandria, we follow the
developments from the Alexandrian perspective. On the one hand, this is due to a hierarchy between the two cities
on a national scale. Tanta goes to Alexandria and not the opposite. Both the officials and the officers move to Alex-
andria when they investigate the two cases side by side. Alexandria is the main city after Cairo, while Tanta is one
big city among others.
However, the distinction between local and national is also an ideological construct. While Alexandria was
considered a sensitive site by Egyptian nationalism, due to its high number of European residents, Tanta was less
exposed to foreign penetration. As Hanan Hammad shows, the struggle over women's virtue was put forward as
a nationalist manifesto, in opposition to the moral decadence of colonial occupation, which allegedly brought
alcohol, gambling, and brothels to Egypt. At the same time, in cities like al-Mahalla al-Kubra, where Egyptian cli-
ents were the first and almost the only consumers of prostitution, the condemnation was more nuanced, for the
issue never took on the dimension of a clash between colonial influence and national interests (Hammad, 2011;
Hammad, 2014).
The same can be said of Tanta in comparison with Alexandria. National puritywas at stake in Alexandria, while
local flexibilitycould apply to Tanta.
In the former, Raya and Sakina appeared as the perfect representation of
the anti-women raised under colonial occupation, at ease in an underworld of hashish, alcohol, and prostitution that
was seen as criminogenic. In Tanta, the women of the gang, who were rarely mentioned by their own names,
appeared as the man's accomplices and were acquitted. As Nefertiti Takla shows (2016), the judges in Alexandria also
thought that Raya and Sakina were mere accomplices, not the main perpetrators. But the court trial was held in May
1921, while daily press coverage demonizing Raya and Sakina had started in November 1920; this is a factor that
could have affected the verdict.
In addition to the administrative and ideological hierarchy between Alexandria and Tanta, a professional
aspect must be considered, both through and beyond textual analysis. Al-Ahr
am's articles from Tanta immediately
reveal a distinct kind of figure in the newspaper's ranks. No correspondent writes from Tanta but a wakīl,anagent
or representativeof the newspaper.
He reports to the Cairo office, in a style similar to that of the Cairo office.
Short and neutral, written in the third person, his dispatches privilege factual information over entertaining details.
The reader can hardly feel any suspense, even before salient events.
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Lacking the atmosphere, the Tanta dispatches stand as a story without a plot. Moral remarks are there, but
they are explicitly formulated, sometimes by addressing directly the judges or the police on behalf of public
opinion. Not only the style, but the self-posturing differs. While the Alexandria correspondent went, saw,
searched, and verified, the agent in Tanta does not use any of these verbs. He simply reports, treating the
news as a one-dimensional feature, without mentioning its sources and questioning its truthfulness. This atti-
tude may be seen as a marker of a different organization within the newspaper. Whereas we do not have
enough clues to infer the identity of this agent, the sources allow us to formulate a hypothesis about how he
worked. He was probably not in charge of tracking the news on the ground by going around in person and even
less of following a thread, as that of a specific crime case. As Ami Ayalon (personal communication, 14 October
2017) points out, the Tanta agent could have been a bookshop owner or a businessman who also happened to
serve as the newspaper's agent. He may have written from his workplace or reported what he had found because
he happened to be around. While al-Ahram's office in Alexandria was big enough to appoint correspondents spe-
cializing in different topics, specialization could hardly have been present in Tanta. Most likely, its agent was in
charge of multiple tasks, from reporting to distributing the newspaper, or collecting the subscriptions.
In the aftermath of the Great War, the status of journalist underwent substantial change (Armbrust, 2009), such
as its transition from intellectual (adīb) to professional (Temimi, 2018). Journalistic writing was gradually becoming a
task performed by individuals paid to do it, rather than an amateur occupation. Like every transformation, this was
not linear over time or uniform nationwide. A national newspaper such as al-Ahr
am was not equally organized, man-
aged, and written across the entire country. The lesser impact of the Tanta case on the Egyptian collective memory
may also be due to this practical aspect. The organization of the coverage in Tanta produced short dispatches that
were less apt to feed a national myth than the rich Alexandria accounts. Moreover, the lack of specialization of al-
am in Tanta may have been among the reasons that made the newspaper weaker when facing institutional pres-
sure than it was in Alexandria. Several articles, for both cities, mention the requests of the police to keep secret some
developments in need of further verification.
While this seems to have had a huge effect on Tanta dispatches,
which are almost cut after such requests, the Alexandria accounts keep their length and style. They build on sources
outside the police and the institutions, exploiting the network of the correspondent, who kept tracking information
and rumours and combining them into a literary plot. This was not possible for the agent in Tanta, who most likely
had to deal not only with other news, but with several other tasks at the same time. While going national in Alexan-
dria, al-Ahr
am stayed local in Tanta.
Studying two French criminal cases sharing the same features, Yvan Jablonka asks himself why one was forgotten
while the other had a huge national impact. He realizes that in the first case the victim was found at the wrong
place, in an area falling in-between two media-coverage zones of neighbouring regions (Jablonka, 2016). The news,
though briefly reported by some journalists, never became a case, yet no intrinsic feature prevented it from being
seen as a disrupting element in a series of more ordinary murders. Coincidences, often a blank space in historical
research, should be taken into account as much as possible, for they constitute an integral part of historical reality
(Esch, 2002). By asking ourselves howmore than whywe came to see a given case the way we do, we may
uncover important elements of it and its environment.
Jablonka's view applies to Tanta. Its murders, similar to those of Alexandria in many respects, occurred at the
wrong place. In 1920, a national newspaper such as al-Ahr
am continued to be written, in some provinces, by people
who had several responsibilities besides reporting. As a result, the Tanta agent covered the murders through short
dispatches that gave general information in an impersonal tone. In contrast, the Alexandria correspondent wrote, day
after day, Raya and Sakina's feuilleton: a multi-faceted, entertaining story that plays with the suspense in a literary
style. Indeed, in interwar Egypt, the journalist was becoming a professional figure. Yet this change did not happen at
CHITI 9of13
the same time and in the same way nationwide. Localizing the national, apprehending it in its provincial dimensions,
is a necessary step in historically grounding the study of national phenomena. It may unveil the persistence of old
practices where we tend to emphasize the new ones, enabling a deeper understanding of the continuities that lie
behind any rupture and a useful shift from exceptionality to exemplarity.
I am indebted to Ami Ayalon for his inputs on al-Ahr
am in the interwar period. I thank Sonia Temimi for sharing her
chapter with me before it was published and the journal's anonymous reviewers for their stimulating remarks. I also
thank Nefertiti Takla, Efi Avdela, Frédéric Abécassis, Francesca Biancani, Angelos Dalachanis, Didier Inowlocki, Malak
Labib, Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen, Jon Nordenson, Gunvor Mejdell, and the late Madiha Doss for the enriching dis-
cussions on the case. This paper is dedicated to Madiha's memory.
The author declares that there is no conflict of interest that could be perceived as prejudicing the impartiality of the
research reported.
Elena Chiti
Tawfīq Mufarraj, Fīsijn Rayy
a wa-Sukayna,Al-Muqta
af, 1 December 1921.
The analysis of Al-Ahr
am is meant to be the first step in the study of Raya and Sakina's mythologization. According to the
Egyptians whom I questioned between 2015 and 2016, in Cairo and Alexandria, the longevity of the myth nationwide is
mainly due to the cinema. After a few decades during which the story was transmitted through local or family networks,
the cinema restored its national prominence. Naguib Mahfouz co-wrote a movie entitled Raya w-Sakina (1953), which is
still mentioned as the trigger of Raya and Sakina's revival. Despite the freedom it takes with historical facts, the movie
claims to be based upon Al-Ahr
am's accounts of the epoch.
am, 6 June 1920.
Cf. also Lopez, 2004.
am, 20 November 1920.
Cf. Al-Ahr
am, 5 June 1920; 16 June 1920; 1 September 1920.
am, 3 September 1920.
am, 18 November 1920.
Cf. also Takla, 2016.
am, 23 November 1920; 25 November 1920.
am, 7 December 1920.
am, 8 December 1920.
For a similar method applied to literary sources, cf. Marilyn Booth (2007).
The expression is taken from Shaun Lopez (2005).
From 30 November on, Al-Ahr
am published editorials on Raya and Sakina written by Egyptian intellectuals. These were
signed, for the identity of the authors was important, as prominent voices on the national scene. They provided not infor-
mation but moral guidance, and the presence of their pieces testifies to the national attention the case had already
am, 13 September 1920.
am, 17 November 1920; the italics are mine.
am, 18 November 1920.
am, 17 November 1920.
10 of 13 CHITI
am, 28 November 1920.
am, 18 November 1920.
Acquiring the official permit was not an obvious procedure (Ayalon, 1995, p. 4243). In the period which saw the growth
of both colonial penetration and Egyptian nationalism, intellectuals issued clandestine periodicals, such as Al-Tankīt wa'l-
tabkīt, launched in Alexandria by 'Abdallah al-Nadīm in June 1881.
am, 18 November 1920.
am, 20 November 1920.
Cf. Al-Ahr
am, 25 November 1920.
am, 3 December 1920.
am, 26 November 1920.
am, 20 November 1920.
am, 25 November 1920.
am, 8 December 1920.
am, 29 November 1920.
am, 25 November 1920.
am, 22 November 1920.
am, 28 November, 30 November, 1 December.
am, 1 December 1920.
Cf. Al-Ahr
am, 20 November; 22 November 1920.
Cf. Al-Ahr
am, 19 November; 20 November; 22 November 1920.
am, 25 November 1920.
am, 18 November 1920.
am, 25 November 1920.
I took the expression national purityand local flexibilityfrom Hanan Hammad (2011).
am mentions its agents (wukal
a') in its very first issue on 5 August 1876. Over the time, they are encouraged not to
be lax in sending reports of the events that take place in their vicinity. On the agents, cf. also Ayalon, 2016: pp. 123-153.
Cf. for Tanta: Al-Ahr
am, 20 November; 30 November; 1 December 1920; for Alexandria: Al-Ahr
am, 26 November;
1 December 1920.
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Elena Chiti is a historian. She is associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Stockholm University and
research associate at Laboratoire de Recherche Historique en Rhône-Alpes (LARHRA). She is interested in cul-
tural productions as sources to explore identity-making in times of social and political turmoil. She is currently
engaged in a study of Egyptian criminal figures from 1920 until today, investigating the construction of public
morals in connection with nation-building and national belonging.
12 of 13 CHITI
How to cite this article: Chiti E. Building a national case in interwar Egypt: Raya and Sakina's crimes through
the pages of al-Ahr
am (Fall 1920). History Compass. 2020;18:e12607.
CHITI 13 of 13
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This roundtable on women and crime was inspired by a discussion at a CUNY Dissections Seminar in April 2021, where Gülhan Balsoy presented her work in progress on Ottoman crime fiction in the early 20th century. The focus of her paper was a popular murder mystery series called The National Collection of Murders , which had been published in Istanbul in 1914. The protagonists of this fictional crime series were a mother and daughter known as the Dark Witch and the Bloody Fairy, who led an underground criminal gang living in a secret subterranean world beneath the city of Istanbul. While reading her paper the night before the seminar, I could not help but notice striking parallels between this fictional Ottoman murder mystery and the sensationalized media coverage of a 1921 Egyptian serial murder case, popularly known by the name of its alleged perpetrators, Raya and Sakina. In both the fictive Ottoman story and the Egyptian media coverage of a real crime, two sets of female relatives were presented as the respective leaders of a criminal gang that stole luxury goods from respectable families and turned their homes into human slaughterhouses. In both cases, the female gang leaders used “superstition” to deceive and trap their victims while continually outwitting the police, all against a backdrop of illicit sex.
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The article examines bandit myths from a socio‐historical perspective, as part of the socio‐cultural reality of present‐day Egypt. It engages in the semiotics of banditry encouraged by Stephanie Cronin by taking a first step towards a social semiotics analysis of Rayyā and Sakīna, the two Egyptian female criminals par excellence, arrested in 1920 and executed in 1921. I will argue that Rayyā and Sakīna's criminal myth is currently being resignified in terms that can be conceived of as social banditry. Ethnography, press, and broadcast sources help to highlight two different recent shifts towards bandit myths, linked respectively to national and local circulation.
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This is a re-uploaded text after adding Chapter 3
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What if the war started in 1911? The outbreak of the Great War seen from Alexandria. This paper aims to contribute to a better understanding of the outbreak of the Great War in the Arab-Ottoman world, by analyzing the ways it was perceived in the city of Alexandria. Perceptions are reconstructed through a study of Alexandrian Arabic literary sources of the time. An approach through the city enables abandoning the anachronistic framework of the nation and giving the imperial horizon the relevance it deserves. This also helps to rethink the chronology. In fact, the weakening of the Ottoman Empire was seen with anxiety, not only since 1914, but after the Italian invasion of Tripoli in 1911. This colonial occupation of an Ottoman province seems to be the real turning point. The ineffectiveness of intra-Ottoman solidarity, in an Egyptian province which was also under foreign occupation, led to a brutal disillusionment. It is not only the imperial horizon, but the world order that loses its meaning, generating the perception of entering into the war.
Thirteen chapters on fin-de-siecle Egypt tackle an important but relatively neglected decade in its history, as the editors’ introduction argues through an assessment of previous scholarship. Chapters consider the overarching impact of a British colonial administration through policies and practices such as statistics-gathering and infrastructure building as well as attempts to control prostitution. Institutions and ideologies of modernity and reform are represented in chapters on education, fiction-writing, history writing and its translation, the press as a vehicle of historical consciousness, and political memoirs of a rising class of professionals. How Egyptians drew from and critiqued European institutions is a concern of several chapters, as well as concerns with gender issues, minority rights and the role of historic minorities such as Jews. Egypt’s heterogeneous population is also seen through chapters on its Greek community, Coptic activism and reform, anarchism, and the different agendas of local actors in the country’s far west. Together these scholarly studies show the decade as one of enormous though often quiet intellectual, political and institutional activity.
In a brief historic moment, printing presses, publishing ventures, a periodical press, circulation networks, and a mass readership came into being all at once in the Middle East, where none had previously existed, with ramifications in every sphere of the community's life. Among other outcomes, this significant change facilitated the cultural and literary movement known as the Arab 'nahda' ('awakening'). Ayalon's book offers both students and scholars a critical inquiry into the formative phase of that shift in Arab societies. This comprehensive analysis explores the advent of printing and publishing; the formation of mass readership; and the creation of distribution channels, the vital and often overlooked nexus linking the former two processes. It considers questions of cultural and religious tradition, social norms and relations, and concepts of education, offering a unique presentation of the emerging print culture in the Middle East.
This chapter tells the story of the 1920 Alexandria serial murders, the “Raya and Sakina” murders, and argues that they played an important role in constructing the notion of an Egyptian national culture in 1920s. The discovery of seventeen bodies buried under the floors of houses in Alexandria's al-Liban neighborhood engendered the first major media sensation in modern Egyptian history, and literally hundreds, if not thousands, of chapters related to the case appeared in the press in the months after the discovery of the first bodies. The Raya and Sakina serial murders attracted national attention, and the great number of Egyptians who followed press coverage of the murders underwent a re-examination of gender, class, and national identifications. Though usually discussed in the post-1952 context, as early as 1920 the beginnings of a “mass-mediated” popular culture began to percolate through Egypt based on notions of acceptable public behavior.
This chapter examines the struggle between colonial authorities and national resistance over illicit sexuality, specifically prostitution, and public morality in the first years of the British occupation. It traces expressed anxieties concerning prostitution and sexuality in the popular press, literature, medical writings and laws in the late nineteenth century. Although the presence of prostitutes in Cairo and the Egyptian provinces was anything but new, Egyptian nationalists considered regulating health inspection and registration of prostitutes shortly after the British invasion debasement brought about by foreign influence and the Egyptian defeat. Male Egyptian nationalists demonized and victimized prostitutes, but never saw them as working women. Male nationalists saw female sex-workers a symbol, a metaphor, and a symptom of broad socio-political concerns. Egyptian intellectuals shared colonialists’ concerns over health, security and social order and overlooked women’s work and rights of prostitutes as sex-workers.