“Benha Criminal Court has sentenced a housewife and her lover to death, having found them guilty of murdering her husband, a 40-year-old mechanic called Mohamed Ahmed, so they could continue with their illicit romance without any interruptions.”
“A 21-year-old worker was fatally stabbed twice, in the neck and chest, by the man who'd just stolen his mobile.”
“A worker was caught trying to smuggle hashish and hallucinogenic pills to his friend in Tanta Prison.”
These are a few examples of the daily column by a man named Hugh, a British expatriate who for almost seven years has written almost exclusively about crime for The Egyptian Gazette. I had kept up with the columns, partly because I read so much crime writing in Texas, and partly because the concept seemed so weird that I figured there must be a story behind it. One night several weeks ago, I met a young British man who, by sheer coincidence, was a family friend of Hugh’s. He agreed to set up a meeting.
Hugh speaks quietly, wears black-framed glasses and carries a dusty black suitcase reminiscent of traveling salesman in the same hand as a woven crammed with Arabic newspapers. He has lived in Egypt for seventeen years, and is one of three foreign employees at the newspaper, which is owned by the state. Every day, he takes the metro from his home in the posh suburb of Maadi to the office downtown. He collects the day’s crime news from Arabic papers and translates the ‘best’ bits into English for his own column the next day. “What do you choose?” I asked him. “Murders, mostly,” he responded, “I also generally like sob stories…sad stories of kidnapping and such.”
Crime writing is a bizarre niche of journalism. Those who practice it might be seen as heartless or macabre or just shameless (as seen recently with the British phone-hacking scandal), and yet news of horrible acts of theft, kidnapping, rape, and murder hold an undeniable pull on the broad mass of readers. We want to see the murky depths of human frailty and cruelty translated from the cold tone of police reports to something spicier.
Hugh’s knowledge of individual cases is endless. Throughout our conversation at a small sweets and tea shop in the tree-lined neighborhood of Zamalek, he peppered in story after story from Egypt, as well as England and the U.S. “There was a man in Aswan who killed his mother” “There was a body found in a chimney in Bristol” “A girl committed suicide by jumping onto the train tracks.”
In addition to the daily blotter, Egypt has had as many big, spectacular cases on the order of OJ Simpson or Casey Anthony as any other country. In 2008, Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a real estate mogul and politician whose net worth was estimated at 800 million dollars, was charged with the murder of his Lebanese girlfriend, a pop star named Suzanne Tamim. He had paid a former police officer 2 million dollars to kill her in Dubai, where she was living with another man, an Iraqi kickboxing champion. The story had intrigue, glamour, money, and sickening violence, which made it a huge sensation in the Egyptian press. Hugh recalled most of the details three years later.
But for the most part, Hugh’s stories are about small, unremarkable crimes with just a dash of the peculiar. He relishes in the details, and in person speculates on how crimes get pulled off, and if they don’t, why the criminal didn’t think he would fail. Hugh laughed telling us the story of kidnappers who had arranged a meeting place to make the exchange of a young child for vast amounts of cash, who hadn’t thought about the possibility that police might arrive at the same rendezvous point. Looking at his articles online later, I found stories of bribes in the leasing of fish farms (“A Fishy Deal in Aswan”) and a stabbing over excessive use of a horn in traffic. Sometimes there is no crime committed but simply a freak accident that seems to fit the bill, as when a street in Port Said caved in suddenly, causing water mains to burst and entire blocks to flood. “That sinking feeling,” was Hugh’s title.
With huge numbers of expatriates and tourists, there is a surprisingly large market for English language news. The Egyptian Gazette, as far as I can tell, is the only English language paper to feature substantial amounts of news about crime. The paper now competes with a huge amount of English coverage in Egypt, both in print and online, state-owned and independent, and from my own anecdotal evidence, it seems to be the one of the least-read.
But it is by far the oldest, founded in 1880 by five British men living here, one of whom went on to be Managing Editor of The Times of London. It boomed throughout the period of British occupation, but found its highest circulation during World War II, when British troops were stationed throughout the country. After the war, circulation dropped and the evening edition was turned into a weekly, called The Egyptian Mail, which still comes out on Tuesdays. In general, the paper has been eclipsed by the growth of Al Ahram’s online edition and the proliferation of independent English papers in the mid-2000’s.
It is perhaps this British history that explains some of the language and style one still finds among the articles. Words that would make an American smirk, like “scurrilous,” and “skullduggery” and “discomfiture” and “lass,” can be found in many of the articles.
I asked Hugh if he thought crime had been up in the last year, since Mubarak left power, and many policemen had left the streets. “I think there’s been a lot more auto theft,” he told me. “They smuggle the cars into Gaza through the tunnels.” He smiled, and looked quizzical. “I wonder if they take them apart or get them all the way through in one piece,” he said. He pondered for a moment, then moved on to another story.