Sisters Without Mercy: Behind Egypt's Most Infamous Murder Case

The saga of Raya and Sakina, sisters who killed and robbed at least 17 women in early 20th-century Egypt, still inspires films, plays and books. Who were these women, and has the Egyptian public’s attitude toward them changed over the years?

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Oh, Alex, Alex – thus, fondly, do those who sing the praises of Alexandria, which lies on the shores of the Mediterranean, call her. And how the city has been praised throughout history. She has been an object of ceaseless yearning, for her distant and less distant past alike. And acclaimed for the splendor and magnificence of her public buildings, her gardens, her boulevards, her department stores and her luxury hotels, her pampering beaches.

Alexandria, city of cosmopolitan grandeur during the first half of the 20th century, glory of the Mediterranean elites, symbol of the liberalism and pluralism of modern Egyptian history. The city in which the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy was born, spent most of his life and where he produced his creative work; the city of the renowned Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, who dedicated many of his films to Alexandria with endless love; the city in which Chahine and the actor Omar Sharif and the Jewish director Moshe Mizrahi attended the prestigious Victoria College together; the city of the birth of the Jewish-French singer Georges Moustaki, the Greek singer Demis Roussos, the Jewish director of Italian origin Togo Mizrahi; the city in which the English writer and poet Lawrence Durrell lived and wrote, and to which he dedicated his monumental work “The Alexandria Quartet.”

It’s the city where a street is still called rue, uttered with lips puckered whistle-like and tongue folded over – and not, gutturally, shari’, like a street in Cairo.

In our era, too, Alexandria is a city of love and longing – whether for its Ptolemaic past and the great library that held all the writings of the Hellenistic world, or for its more recent past, with its human catalog of multiple communities and languages, religions and cultures.

But not all of Alexandria’s sons and daughters were able to enjoy the city’s magnificence and splendor. Not everyone remembers the European cafes, the bustling bars and the stardust that covered the city. Not everyone in Alexandria was a foreign national who benefited from the privileges that were granted under the aegis of British colonialism. And not everyone lived in the city’s European bubble, a bubble that was often completely oblivious to its surroundings, as described by the Alexandrian-born Israeli writer Yitzhak Gormezano-Goren in his novel “An Alexandrian Summer.”

The Nile, he writes, is too filthy for the foreigners, and “swarming with Arabs”; and as for the desert dawn, “that’s fine for Lawrence of Arabia”; these people know only minimal Arabic – for the servants usually speak French, and they liaise between their masters and the local folk. (An English translation of “An Alexandrian Summer” will be published in the United States in May 2015.)

Indeed, those local folk, or the majority of them, don’t necessarily recall Alexandria’s past with the same yearning as the city’s communities of foreigners and Jews.

True, Alexandria is burned into the Egyptian collective consciousness as a cosmopolitan resort city, open to all. But for the many thousands who lived in the city’s poor areas, such as Al Anfushi or Ras el-Tin, Alexandria was also a symbol of the economic and class disparity between the foreigners and the locals, and between the Egyptian elites who integrated into the life of the foreigners and the downtrodden majority. A large segment of the lower class who lived in the city of “cream and butter” during the colonial period could barely find a morsel of bread.

Squalor and murder

In such conditions, sociologists and intellectuals argue today, it is not surprising that Alexandria’s neighborhoods of squalor were a springboard for one of the most horrific series of crimes in modern Egyptian history: those of the serial killers – and sisters – Raya and Sakina, which riveted Egypt in the early 20th century and afterward inspired films, plays, television series and no few books.

It’s unlikely that there is any Egyptian – whether Muslim, Christian or Jew – who has not heard the story of Raya and Sakina. Not necessarily about the actual crimes they committed, but certainly about the movie thriller from the 1950s or the theatrical comedy of the 1980s, which were based on them. Egyptian parents have all but stopped using those names for their daughters; indeed, angry mothers used to threaten their children by saying that if they misbehaved, they would summon Raya and Sakina.

In the ‘80s, when I was a young boy in Israel, relatives returned from a visit to Cairo with a video of the play “Raya and Sakina,” starring the singer Shadia and the actress Soheir El-Bably. One of the funniest theater productions I’d ever seen, it was also punctuated by thrilling melodramatic elements. The fact that the play was based on a real case from Egypt’s colonial period left me uneasy. Not because of the humoristic treatment of a tragic episode (I was already familiar with the Egyptians’ “khifat a-dam,” meaning a lighthearted attitude toward any subject, however painful), but because it was the first time I’d ever heard of female killers, and serial killers to boot.

At the time, I was taking a course to improve my English at the British Council on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv. With me in the course was an Israeli playwright who was some years older than I, but we found subjects of common interest to discuss and often took coffee breaks together. With great excitement I told him about the marvelous play I’d seen on the video from Egypt.

To my disappointment, he took the information in his stride. In fact, he even guffawed a little: “You know, it’s based on Jean Genet’s play ‘The Maids,’” the playwright told me confidently. “But it wasn’t a one-off murder,” I shot back, in defense of my killers, “the women were serial killers.” However, he stuck to his guns and insisted that it had to be an Egyptian adaptation of the French work.

I wasn’t able to verbalize my feelings toward this approach: the unfounded arrogance, the disdainful gaze of the older person (him) at the youngster (me), the look the Tel Avivian gives the provincial guy from Bat Yam, the gaze of the man of the world (who had nevertheless come, like me, to improve his English) toward the kid from the periphery, of the Ashkenazi looking at the Mizrahi.

I was unable to articulate the anger seething within me. But I knew it was there. My parents, who had told me that the events had in fact taken place in Alexandria, suddenly seemed to me like patsies who were foolish enough to believe an Egyptian urban legend that was actually derived from a case that had occurred in the land of our yearnings, France. If only to prove the matter to the playwright (which I never did, of course), I decided to check out the story.

Well, the story of Raya and Sakina is unrelated to Genet’s “The Maids” or to the case of the infamous Papin sisters, on which Genet’s work is loosely based. It’s true that, like the Egyptian case, the French incident also stirred a major furor and inspired many novels, plays and films. But whereas the case of Christine and Lea Papin involved a solitary event – they murdered their employer and her daughter in Le Mans, in 1933 – the events involving Raya and Sakina went on for two years, from 1919 to 1921, and resulted in the murder of at least 17 women.

Sex, hash and murder

Raya and Sakina Ali Hammam were born to an indigent family in a remote village of Upper Egypt. Information about their early years is scant, as was discovered by the Egyptian journalist Salah Issa, who published an Arabic-language book about the case in 2002.

Raya was apparently born in 1875 and her sister some 10 years later. Their father vanished; nothing is known about him. The sisters grew up with their mother and elder brother, Abu al-Ala. The mother is said to have been a highly egocentric woman who was unable to bestow love on her children, and the brother was a ne’er-do-well who had a hard time finding a job.

The sisters worked off and on, in cafes or selling roasted vegetables, and they probably sometimes joined their mother in robberies. Sakina, the younger sister, occasionally sold her body for fruit and vegetables. The family moved about a great deal before it settled in the village of Al-Zayyat, in the Nile Delta.

After marriage and divorce, Sakina fled the village with a lover. In the city of Tanta, north of Cairo, she left her partner, worked for a few months as a prostitute and finally took off with a new lover to Alexandria in 1913. Three years later, after having been widowed, Raya also arrived in Alexandria with her new husband, Hasaballah – her deceased husband’s brother – and a daughter, Badia. Sakina, for her part, also had a new paramour, Muhammad Abdel-Aal.

With the outbreak of World War I and the economic crisis that struck Egypt’s cotton industry – the country’s main branch of employment, in which the partners of Raya and Sakina both worked – the two couples decided to establish secret public-houses in their homes. Such venues were widespread in Egypt’s big cities, where visitors drank liquor and smoked hashish; some also had prostitutes.

The sisters later insisted that their places prohibited prostitution and immoral behavior, but such activity apparently did take place as they looked the other way. To avoid problems with the neighbors or other people who disapproved of such establishments, the two couples joined forces with a pair of local thugs for protection.

They prospered during the war, but afterward things began to spiral downward, amid the rising national agitation in Egypt. Its peak came in the form of a popular uprising, in March 1919, which called for independence and the ouster of the British, and was marked by strikes and a general curfew. The couples’ economic situation deteriorated and they started to steal food. Hasaballah was caught and imprisoned, and then his wife, Raya, was also incarcerated for six months. The group scouted around for a new line of disreputable employment and hit on the idea of murdering women who wore gold jewelry which could then be sold.

At the time, the average Egyptian woman did not deposit her money in banks but invested in gold jewelry, which they wore on the neck, arms and ankles. Such women were the sisters’ prey. The two wandered about in the market and lured women to their homes in the Labban neighborhood, near a police station. Some of the women were acquainted with the sisters and a few considered themselves their good friends.

The sisters would get the victim drunk, one of the men would stuff a wet cloth in her mouth and the other would then suffocate her. The men then removed the jewelry from the corpse and the sisters took the loot to a goldsmith (who apparently knew what was afoot). The proceeds were divided equally among the ring’s members.

Stench of death

In the course of a year, from November 1919 to November 1920, women disappeared in Alexandria without a trace. The gang buried the bodies in the homes of Raya and Sakina. The police were inundated with complaints about missing persons. Raya and Sakina were questioned a number of times, as people claimed that the victims had last been seen in their company, but the two outwitted their interrogators.

The mystery was solved only by chance. After Sakina had to leave the place she was renting, her blind landlord decided to install water pipes, and began digging, in anticipation of the arrival of the plumbers. He was soon overwhelmed by a terrible stench from the ground, and when his shovel encountered something hard he groped around in the earth and realized he was holding human bones.

In short order the police arrived at Sakina’s new place and then went on to Raya’s home, which stank of powerful incense, with which she tried to cover up the smell of the corpses. The foursome was arrested, together with the goldsmith and a few other women who were suspected of involvement in the whole affair.

The investigation lasted a few months, with the suspects each accusing one another of committing the ghastly deeds. In the end, it was Raya’s 10-year-old daughter, Badia, who incriminated them all. She had often watched through a crack in the wall and knew what her parents were doing; They threatened that if she opened her mouth she would suffer the same fate as the victims. A year after their arrest, the court sentenced all of the group to death by hanging. On December 21, 1921, a woman was executed for the first time in modern Egyptian history – in fact, not one but two.

However, even the sisters’ death did not put an end to the cycle of victims. There was one more case, and some would say it was the most horrific of all: Badia, Raya’s daughter. During the trial she was placed in a hostel, and three years later she died in a fire that broke out there. Some surmised that a relative of one of the victims set the hostel ablaze to avenge the mother’s deeds.

Case of transparency

As in the later case of the Papin sisters in France, the story of Raya and Sakina is also one of those news items that entered the realm of popular culture and became a source of and inspiration for works in a variety of media. In the French case, besides “The Maids,” the story was the basis for, among other works, the Claude Chabrol film “The Ceremony,” for Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story “Erostratus,” and for an early essay by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. “The Papin Sisters,” by Rachel Edwards and Keith Reader, originally published in 2001, appeared three years ago in Hebrew translation.

Despite the differences between versions, the fact that the two maids were utterly transparent to members of the bourgeois class was crucial to all these tellings; it was not by chance, some argue, that the sisters tore out the eyes of their employer and her daughter.

As for the sisters from Alexandria, a theatrical comedy, “The Affair of Raya and Sakina,” by the Egyptian playwright and comic Naguib el-Rinahi, was staged while the trial was still underway. In 1953, Saleh Abu Seif directed the film “Raya and Sakina,” a thriller starring the Jewish actress Negma Ibrahim as Raya, a role that made her famous. Two years later, a comic film, “Ismail Yasin Meets Raya and Sakina,” directed by Hamada Abdel Wahab, was released. In 1983, another comedy about the case, directed by Ahmed Fouad and starring Younis Shalabi and Sharihan – whose faces will be familiar to many Israelis – played in Egyptian movie theaters.

But the most successful, most beloved and most famous adaptation of the story is the one that prompted my interest in the subject: the play “Raya and Sakina,” starring singer Shadia in her first stage appearance and the talented actress Soheir El-Bably. This is the play that the Israeli playwright refused to believe was an original Egyptian story.

Taken together,the works show the evolving attitude of the Egyptian public toward the story of the two sisters. Unlike the case of Adham al-Sharqawi, a brigand and murderer who operated in Egypt during the same period and achieved the status of a local Robin Hood in the popular imagination, the case of the two murderesses initially embarrassed the Egyptians. Women in Alexandria danced and celebrated outside the prison on the day of the sisters’ execution.

For years, Raya and Sakina were perceived as betrayers of the “bread and salt” relations of friendship – a supreme value in the Egyptian society. In time, however, after they were portrayed as evil in some works and as tragicomic figures in others, Egyptians began to realize that the Raya-and-Sakina phenomenon had parallels throughout the world. The awareness dawned that not only baseness and heartlessness led to the women’s murder spree, but that other factors were also instrumental, some of them personal and personality-driven, others social, economic and historical.

Thanks to the investigative book by Salah Issa and to a dramatic series that ran on television during Ramadan in 2005, based on the transcripts of the interrogations in the case, Raya and Sakina are now perceived as also having been victims themselves.

As shown in the book and the series, the combined effect of the conditions of they endured – a loveless childhood, exploitation by family members and then by the men in their lives, together with their dire economic straits and the political and social situation during the British occupation – drove and motivated the two women’s criminal behavior. They continue to be presented as morally depraved women, further corrupted by a sense of power, but no longer through the misogynist prism that linked their masculine appearance and their facial ugliness to their acts, or that referred to the sexual habits of Sakina.

This past Sunday marked the 93rd anniversary of the sisters’ execution. This is obviously not a date that anyone notes or singles out. Not even in Egypt. Certainly not as part of the memory of Alexandria’s cosmopolitan splendor. But that is where it happened. In the Labban neighborhood, near the police station. Under occupation, when people didn’t want to see the locals.