New Internationalist

Cognac and horse sweat

Issue 437

Maria Golia steps into the ornate parlour of a keeper of secrets

Illustration by Sarah John
Illustration by Sarah John

In the course of research I met a man known as a specialist in the investigations surrounding a series of lurid murders that occurred in 1920. Sisters Raya and Sakina bint Ali Hamam were prostitutes who lured innocent girls to their apartments in a red light district of Alexandria and, with the help of their husbands/pimps, robbed, killed and buried 17 victims beneath the floorboards. I needed an original photograph of the sisters and Mahmoud X was said to have some. His flat was out by the pyramids, in a block of nondescript 1980s apartment buildings beside what was once a tree-lined canal, now flattened and filled to widen the street.

I found the address, and entered a mirror-lined vestibule carpeted with dusty animal skins, mostly sheep and goat. Bouquets of plastic flowers sprouted from vases in every corner; Islamic slogans in gilded calligraphy and photographs of sheikhs and Mecca covered the walls. An elevator opened, emitting a puff of incense, its interior so smoky I could hardly see the man inside who beckoned he’d take me up. We stood in this private cloud for several storeys, until the elevator doors parted to reveal a massive door of heavy carved wood, embedded with brass slats, chunks of turquoise, silver ashtrays (yes, ashtrays) and, so help me god, a faux diamond brooch. Above it was a small bust, presumably of my host, in stone.

Beyond this door was a hallway leading to yet another door, a large circular one covered in arabesques of hammered coins, like something you’d pass through to enter Captain Nemo’s boudoir or Ali Baba’s cave. I was left alone in the study: more animal skins, a stuffed tortoise, trophy heads of antelope and gazelle, and a chandelier of antlers hung with ostrich eggs of varying size – and the pièce de résistance, a large 3-D portrait of the creator of this ambience in several shades of bronze. Finally the man himself entered. Mahmoud was not unattractive, bearded, around 50 and shorter than I. He shook my hand and offered the formulaic greetings. The phone rang and he positioned himself behind an immense desk and began jotting something down with an outsized gag pen a foot and half long. Wondering how I had landed here, I remembered, uneasily, my mission to obtain the likeness of two of Egypt’s most notorious serial killers.

Mahmoud told me he’d written an as-yet-unpublished book about Raya and Sakina, a stack of some 600 loose pages we went through one by one. There were several chapters about prostitution in Egypt, which was once licensed and taxed, owing to the un-Islamic ethic of the monarchy back then, he explained. The killers gave their victims cognac (the book had illustrations of old newspaper ads for cognac) but the sisters, he affirmed, added horse sweat to the drink to make their victims drowsy or horny or god knows what. Mahmoud replicated the recipe, obtaining horse sweat from a stable near the pyramids and mixing it with brandy. He photographed but did not drink it, he assured me (it looked like a frothy Coca-Cola). His oeuvre also contained numerous pictures of diseased genitalia. ‘That’s what you get when you allow prostitution,’ he said.

We spent several hours going through the manuscript, which focused frequently on physiological faits divers, like how hanging causes erections in some males. Mahmoud described these phenomena without a trace of innuendo, nor was he coldly clinical so much as giddily engrossed, like a kid dissecting his first frog in science class. I met his son, coincidently a quiet, slender child in Adidas who wanted to go out and play soccer and was told he’d have to wait. I also met his wife, who seemed depressed as she listlessly fried what smelled like the entire world’s stock of garlic in a lovely albeit poorly ventilated kitchen.

Finally I got the picture I was after and after a polite interval took my leave, thanking Mahmoud warmly and silently congratulating myself for behaving decorously throughout one of the stranger encounters of my life. I recalled how non-judgmental Egyptians tend to be with eccentrics like Mahmoud, and was pleased to have adopted their equanimity. I also recalled that the Raya and Sakina saga was reinterpreted for the stage, not as a thriller, as it might have been in the West, but as a slapstick comedy that proved wildly popular and still circulates on TV.

Maria Golia is the author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt.

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