True Crime: A Murder in 19th Century Cairo

This post is inspired by the series called “History, Tell your Story”, based in Alexandria. One volume of their work has been published in Maher Sherif’s Yadawia series of handmade books

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This group of Egyptian scholars are particularly interested in tracing the stories locked in old books and archives both in Egypt and across the world. These archives of the late 19th and early 20th century have been put to use by scholars such as Khaled Fahmy and have helped to conceptualise old ideas like ‘cosmopolitan Alexandria’.

More than this, resources like court records and police reports also contain some legitimately fascinating stories of people’s lives. The British National Archives in Kew, for instance, contain a treasure trove of stories that could come straight out of a noir thriller.

One such tale, buried in hand written court records from 1899 Cairo, is a complex web of murder, prostitution and deceit which I will tell you now…

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There is simply too much material to reproduce the original sources but to give you an idea of what they look like this is one page from the casefile, signed by Raph Borg, the consul in Cairo at the time.

The incident in question occurred on a Monday evening, 22nd August 1899. A 20 year-old tentmaker called Ali Sulayman and his 18 or 19 year old friend Mamhoud el Okr were walking around their neighbourhood and talking together until 2 A.M. They had known each other since youth and had often sat and talked in the cafe but this was the first time they had taken a walk together.

As it was late, Ali suggested they go home to bed. According to he, though, Mahmoud was keen to keep the night going and insisted that they both head to Abd al-Khaliq street, where the “brothels of European women” were located. Ali happily went along and when they got to the street they quickly found a door with two women sitting outside. The two young men invited themselves upstairs.

What happened once they had climbed the stairs would be the subject of considerable debate. Soon afterwards Ali left the brothel, without his shoes, running for home. Following the commotion a police officer turned up on the scene to find Mahmoud bleeding in the doorway, stabbed in his chest. He also found a Maltese man, Giovanni Zammit, with a wound on his head and a blade in his hand.

By around 3 A.M. the surgeon Mohammed Amin Seoudi had been called to the police station to treat the wounded Mahmoud. By this time his gallabeya was soaked with blood but he was still conscious. There was one stab wound in his abdomen and two on his forehead. The accused, Giovanni Zammit was also at the police station with knife wound on his own forehead.

Mahmoud’s condition was serious and he was taken to the Qasr al-Aini hospital, where he was examined by a surgeon called Stanley Batchelor at around 5:30 A.M. He was given chloroform and the wound was treated. For a while it seemed that he might recover but on Thursday morning he eventually succumbed to his wounds.

Giovanni Zammit was put on trial for his murder and, at the trial, several different stories of the events of that night were told.

Ali, his childhood friend, gave his witness statement and it is the first to appear in the file. According to him, the two young men, after going upstairs, had agreed the sum of two francs for the services both women. When they got to the girls’ rooms they had been asked to pay the sum in advance, which they refused, and, when the women insisted on the matter, they said that they would just leave. At this point, the women, who didn’t like that answer very much, asked them just how they planned to get away. Then they grabbed hold of Ali and Mahmoud and the accused, Giovanni Zammit, appeared from behind a door with a knife and stabbed Mahmoud. Ali fled as fast as he could, leaving his shoes behind, and did not stop running until he had reached home. Later, he was picked up by a police officer and taken to give a statement.

The two women who were working that night, Giuseppina Ghilli and Maria Santis, also gave statements but they differed considerably from Ali’s. They confirmed that they were sitting outside the brothel, whose mistress was Santina Coppola, and that all the houses on that lane were brothels.

When Ali and Mahmoud arrived, apparently drunk, they went upstairs with Giuseppina and Maria. Giuseppina went with Mahmoud and Maria with Ali. Giuseppina said that when she had finished her business with Mahmoud he claimed not to have any money on him. Giuseppina, therefore, said that his friend would have to pay her. Mahmoud refused this and, grabbing Giuseppina by the body, struck her in the face, causing her to bleed. The commotion brought Ali and Maria into the room.

At this point, according to Giuseppina’s testimony, Ali and Mahmoud started to fight, speaking in Arabic, which she did not understand. Quickly, another women working at the brothel, Catina Gozzelu, came in and tried to break up the fight. The two men then both began to attack her, which caused her to throw a glass at Mahmoud, striking him on the forehead. When she had realised what was going on, the mistress of the brothel called the police. Ali had time to escape, taking one of Giuseppina’s bracelets with him, but Mahmoud was taken in by the police. Giuseppina swore that no-one else had entered the room except her Ali, Mahmoud, Maria and Cativa. She added that she did had not seen Giovanni Zammit that night, though he, a married man, did come to the house once or twice a month. She said that he knew the mistress quite well.

Maria Santis’ testimony echoes Giuseppina’s. She said that her and “Peppina” went up with the two young men and that, after she had finished with Ali, she heard Giuseppina’s voice shouting, “come Maria because he is killing me”. She came in to find Giuseppina with a bloody nose. She also confirmed that Ali and Mahmoud began fighting and arguing in Arabic, which she could not understand either and that Catina came in and struck Mahmoud with a tumbler. She denied that she had ever seen Giovanni Zammit before they all arrived at the police station, nor could he have come in to the room without her seeing. She had only been working at this particular brothel for eight days so it is quite possible that this was the first time she would have seen him.

Catina Gozzelu’s story also supported the stories of the other two. She had been sitting outside the brothel, as the local ghafeer (policeman) had told them to close up for the night, when she heard screams coming from upstairs and came to break up the fight. She confirmed that she had thrown the glass at Mahmoud and also denied that she had seen Zammit that night, though said that he was a regular at the house.

This is the evidence that is in the file. Giovanni Zammit does not seem to have given a statement or, if he did, it was not preserved.

The court’s eventual summing up of this complicated case is highly unsatisfactory. They consider the stories of Ali against those of the women who worked in the brothel and conclude that “the weight of evidence is in favour of the accused; and the court therefore dismisses the charge and directs the accused to be discharged.” They seem to have accepted the version of the story given by Giuseppina, Maria and Catina, who swore that they did not see that accused and that the stabbing must have happened in the scuffle between Ali and Mahmoud.

This version of events, though, leaves a lot to be answered.

It is true that Ali’s testimony does raise a few questions. He is clearly very keen to make himself come off well. He insists that it was Mahmoud’s idea to go to the brothel and makes sure to have the disagreement occur before they have done any business. Why, in that case, did he have his shoes off? Why was Giuseppina in her negligee (if she was telling the truth about that)? The a mild disagreement like the one that Ali described does not seem enough to get you stabbed and he was probably playing it down significantly.

Still, the defence has even more holes.  Firstly, the women must be claiming that Ali stabbed Mahmoud but they would surely have noticed when it happened. Secondly, their story about the tumbler does not tally up at all with the surgeon’s report, which said that “the shape of the wounds [on the forehead and abdomen] shows they were made by one and the same instrument”. He must have been stabbed in the forehead but summing up of the court does not mention this discrepancy between the women’s report and the surgeons.

Nor does it mention the third, and most crucial, hole in the story of the events that the women give: the fact that Giovanni Zammit was caught by a policeman with a bloody knife in his hand, coming out of the brothel. The women all claim not to have seen Zammit but he was arrested on the scene.

It is of course hard to be certain of anything. My interpretation of events is that there was probably some kind of altercation between the four about payment and it is likely it got violent. Giovanni Zammit was then called in to solve the problem. He was often at the brothel and was, apparently, a friend of the mistress. It is very possible that he was there as muscle for situations such as this. Perhaps Ali and Mahmoud were making problems or being violent but it still seems pretty clear that Giovanni Zammit stabbed Mahmoud that night and it led to his death. Why that wasn’t clear to the British court is a mystery.

Court records like these are full of curious sociological details. It is interesting to see that the brothels were clearly very regulated, as Catina’s statement noted that the Ghafeer came past them at around 2 A.M. to tell them to close down for the night. The nationality of the women (Italian and [?] Maltese) also shows that cosmopolitan Egypt was not all big villas and cocktail parties. The underground could also be very cosmopolitan (this is a point made by Khaled Fahmy among others). Also it is intriguing to note none of the women could speak Arabic and, judging from the marks they gave as signatures, nor could they write any language.

However, beyond historical interest, these papers also reveal that some amazing, if rather gruesome and depressing stories, are lying trapped in the British court records of Egypt.


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