Excerpt

The Lady of Zamalek

Ashraf El-Ashmawi, translated by Peter Daniel

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Lady of Zamalek, by Ashraf El-Ashmawi and translated by Peter Daniel. Based on the real-life murder of the prominent businessman Solomon Cicure in his Nile-side villa in 1927, this is the story about an accomplice who has escaped the gallows, who is determined to make his fortune.

“fools gamble With things they don’t own, even though the first thing they’ll lose is their life.”—Abbas Mahalawi

The gardener had left the gate ajar as planned. We entered one after the other like house cats familiar with their home. Then we sped through the garden like ghosts. Ernesti pulled some large socks out of his bag and signaled for us to slip them over our shoes to silence our footsteps. Eduardo, the Italian butler, assured us that he had drugged the large guard dogs, as well as Cicurel and his wife. He had slipped a barbiturate into the dinner he had served them and had seen them eat it. They’d be sleeping like the dead now and wouldn’t awake before noon, he said. After dinner, when he took his leave, he’d made as though heading out the front gate. Then he ducked into the little hut where they kept the guard dogs and waited for us. Ernesti bent down to pick up a small key hidden under a doormat in front of the back door to the basement and opened the door. We slipped inside and scurried through a corridor leading to another door. On the other side, we crept up a flight of stairs and entered the villa proper.

I found myself in a reception room as vast as Cairo central train station. The ceiling soared at least eight yards above our heads. From it hung a chandelier the size of a camel. The soft gleam of polished surfaces and contrasting shades of plush upholstery created a splendid harmony. The old walls were completely covered with large paintings—so many that I could barely make out the color of the walls behind them. Everywhere you turned there were dozens of bronzes, gilded antiques, and items of pottery in subtle bluish glazes. There were oriental rugs of all sizes, the smallest large enough to car- pet our entire house in Mahalla Marhoum with enough left over for the animal pen. Yet, despite all this luxury, the place felt gloomy. Almost like a graveyard. Thin cracks zigzagged up and down the columns like field snakes.

I was the only one turning around in circles and gaping at the ceiling. The others were focused on our destination: the safe in the master bedroom. Why it occurred to me right then and there to ask about that obese man with the red suspenders whom I’d seen with them in the nightclub is beyond me. Maybe I’d imagined he’d meet us there or that it was he who had left the key under the doormat. Whatever the case, they were taken aback by my question and exchanged nervous glances.

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“Did you know him before that?” Ernesti asked. “No. No, of course not,” I stammered.

Ernesti grabbed my shirt, flashed a blade, and pushed his face into mine. “He was going to do the dirty on us, so we did what we had to do.”

The way he spat out those words made my blood run cold. He released his grip, keeping his suspicious eyes glued on mine. Then he turned and followed the others to Cicurel’s bedroom, where the Jewish safecracker had begun to work on the lock, using an implement shaped like a car crank. I heard Ernesti’s hacking cough. Soon afterward, I heard a muffled cry for help, then some scuffling. An agitated man began to shout in a language I knew very well from my days at Don Bosco. He cursed and threatened. Soon he started to plead and beg. Then came a bloodcurdling cry, a soft thump, and silence.

I was still outside the bedroom. I’d been hoping to pocket something light, but the antiques were all too bulky and heavy.

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I rushed into the room and saw an elderly man in light blue silk pajamas lying on his back on the floor. A dark stream of blood flowed from a slash in his neck and had drenched his chest. He’d been stabbed several times. Blood was gushing out of wounds in his side and belly. His eyes bulged in abject terror, as though frozen on that final vision of the knife that had slaughtered him.

The men stood in half circle looking down at Cicurel’s corpse with stunned stares. He was of sturdy build despite his age. The knife lay nearby on the floor, seemingly ownerless, covered with the old man’s blood. Jonah stood stock still, holding that large crank-like instrument. Cicurel’s wife was still sound asleep. Her beautiful, delicate face was serene, absorbed in a dream far away from this bloody scene. Yet, for a moment there, I thought I saw her move.

As to which of them killed the old man, I puzzled over this as I observed them from my place near the door. But there was no time to linger. Ernesti ordered me to be quick and collect as many items as I could carry from the safe, including papers. As I set to work, he and the safecracker began to bicker. From their mutual reproaches, I gathered that Jonah had used too much force while cracking the safe. Since Cicurel had been drugged, he hadn’t felt the need to be quiet. According to Ernesti, it was the noise of the lock breaking that woke Cicurel up. Maybe the old man hadn’t eaten enough of the drug-laced food or he had fed it to his wife. Dario refused to take the blame. He shot back that it was the Greek driver’s fault because of that asthmatic coughing fit that echoed through to the farthest corner of the villa. Whatever the cause, Cicurel had slept lightly enough to wake to his worst imaginable nightmare and die at the hands of some of the closest people around him.

Eduardo and Marco were busy grabbing whatever they laid their eyes on. They worked so quickly and recklessly that jewels and coins slipped through their fingers, as though they were scooping water from the sea.

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We stripped the safe of its contents. It was large, but not as large as we’d expected. Some of the shelves were empty. Others held documents or stacks of bills that looked like thousands but turned out to be several hundreds. There were some items of jewelry that belonged to the dead man’s wife. I managed to help myself to some items without the others seeing: a small ring with a blue stone set in diamonds and a small bundle of ten-pound bills. Below those lay a white envelope with a green palm tree embossed on its upper right corner. The envelope bulged with what I thought must be more cash. All these items I concealed in my ample pockets and inside my shirt while the others were fretting over what to do with Cicurel’s body. Eventually they decided to lay it out on his enormous gilded bed. Then we hightailed it out of there, with Ernesti pausing only to place the key under the doormat where he’d found it. Zamalek was as tranquil as when we had arrived. Its residents were still asleep, unaware of what had just befallen their famous neighbor and oblivious to the five phantoms that streaked out of that wealthy neighborhood, weaving this way and that between the dense trees and shrubbery, making rustling sounds like bats stirred from their nests.

The others wanted to meet at the bar the following day at midnight so we could divvy up the spoils away from prying eyes. I objected. I told them I planned to quit the bar job and leave Cairo until things cooled down, so I wanted my share right away. They refused. After huddling for a whispered conversation, they decided we should meet up somewhere safer. They chose Dario’s apartment in Shubra and gave me the address and phone number. Then they scurried off, each in a separate direction. It took me half an hour to flag down a passing taxi on Zamalek’s main street at that early hour. I told the driver to take me to the train station.

I spent several hours in the station cafeteria musing on the fortune concealed in the folds of my clothes. I pulled out the white envelope. Instead of money, it contained some papers. A quick flick through them had me immediately intrigued. I must have read them at least three times with growing astonishment. Then I smiled, and that smile expanded until I almost laughed out loud at those useless partners of mine. How stupid they all were! Right now they were probably plotting how to kill me the following night. I felt the gall rise in my throat and spat on the floor next to the table. I signaled the waiter and ordered a cup of strong tea and lit a cigarette. I pictured the body of the Jewish business magnate and the blood-drenched bed where they laid his body. Then I homed in on the smooth, ivory face of his wife and pictured how it would contort in horror when she awoke to find her husband lying next to her in that state. I shook my head to dispel that tragic image and began to order my thoughts and make my calculations.

I took the first train to Tanta at seven a.m. But a couple of minutes before that I phoned the police from a public phone booth. I told them about the murder, supplied some details, and gave them Jonah Dario’s address in Shubra and his phone number. I took the occasion to remind them he was the famous safecracker, wanted by the police for years. Then I slammed down the receiver. I was dripping with sweat from the fear that the officer would insist I identify myself.

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I ran to the platform, hopped aboard the train, and began another trip back to Mahalla Marhoum. I watched the large factory at the edge of town give way to palm trees and fields. I yawned, closed my eyes, and settled back in my seat for a short nap, but not before folding my arms tightly over my belly in order to guard my newly discovered source of wealth which, as of that day, was waiting just for me.

Life had changed back home in the village. As soon as I stepped through the door, I learned that my father had absconded with his second wife, the dancer. He followed her to the mulids, weddings, and celebrations she performed at in neighboring villages. Then they vanished altogether. Some months later, the village mayor informed us that they had settled somewhere in the Buheira district but we never were able to find them. I bought five small plots of land from different farmers in the area—about a quarter of an acre in all. Then I built a large house next to our old one, and which I turned over to our animals though, sadly, poor Hasawi, my father’s old donkey, had died.

Every morning I would take a trip to the main town nearby in order to buy the newspapers. I mostly followed al-Lataif’s reports because that newspaper covered the case more thoroughly and it published larger pictures of the accomplices. I learned all their full names for the first time. Ernesti turned out to be Anesthi Christo and the two Neapolitans who had wanted to dispose of me in the Nile were Eduardo Grimaldi and Marco Dagaro. I felt that their biographies, as related in the crime pages, couldn’t possibly be true. The reports certainly exaggerated the amount of stolen goods. They said that the stolen jewelry alone was worth six thousand Egyptian pounds! My tiny share was carefully hidden at the bottom of the long chest I used as the base for my mattress at home, and which was secured by a large lock. Al-Ahram related the shock and horror of Cicurel’s neighbors in that tranquil western neighborhood of Zamalek. The newspaper also lauded the efforts of the police, who were able to apprehend the criminals less than twenty-four hours after the incident, and while they were still in possession of the stolen goods.

One paragraph made my blood freeze. It spoke of a fifth suspect called “One-Eyed Abbas,” who was still at large. I couldn’t sleep for days. I frantically followed the news of the police’s efforts to apprehend that “culprit,” whom the four suspects claimed had committed the theft and murder all on his own. They protested their innocence. All they did was to buy stolen goods from him when he sought them out in Shubra.

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At last, after a fretful week, I could relax again and chuckle at their naivety. When police failed to track down “One-Eyed Abbas,” they marched the four of them into the defendants’ dock. They had grasped at a straw to save themselves from the hangman’s noose, which had been dangling before them like a pendulum ticking off the final moments of their lives, and it had slipped through their fingers. I roared with laughter as I folded the newspaper, lit a corner with a match, and watched the flame grow and spread until it consumed their photos.

Their trial passed quickly in a large courtroom in the National Criminal Court in Bab al-Khalq. There would never be a fifth defendant, not even in absentia. I became the “anonymous other,” as the public prosecutor referred to me, since the police were never able to identify me. I did find it strange that the defendants never revealed the existence of their sixth accomplice, the obese Egyptian with red suspenders. It would have been pointless in any case. The beautiful, delicately featured widow surprised everyone in the courtroom: she had been awake all the time, just as I had suspected for a second. She testified that, in fact, there were five intruders. She had identified the four defendants after their arrest. The police put them not just in one, but in three lineups with dozens of similar-looking people and had them change their clothes each time. Each time, she singled them out with ease. You might have thought that she had personally interviewed them for the heist. What came as an even greater surprise was that Cicurel had a daughter called Nadia. All the while, that night, she’d been sleeping in a room in the western wing, on the other side of the villa. I’d had no idea she even existed. She hadn’t dined with her parents that night so she hadn’t had a bit of the drugged food. Yet she never awoke despite all the commotion. I scoured the newspapers to learn more about her, but to no avail.

According to the news reports, the Jew, Jonah Dario, who had dual Egyptian and Italian nationality, was one of the two men who had stabbed Solomon Cicurel. He stabbed him first with a knife and then with the pointed end of that crank-like drill. Ernesti (or “Anesthi”) the Greek had finished him off.

I kept two clippings with photos of the villa from the out- side, one taken from the street corner where it was located in Zamalek, next to the Nile. I folded them and tucked them into my wallet as souvenirs.

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Six months later I came across a news item that reported that the defendants had been executed after the court of cassation had rejected their appeal. That was the day I decided to take my sister Zeinab back with me to Cairo. She was the one person who could bring me within reach of Solomon Cicurel’s real fortune. We had been nowhere near it that night. There were also his stores, his villa, his cars, his cash . . . and maybe even his wife.

Zeinab was the youngest of my three sisters. She was the only one who hadn’t married yet, even though, at the time, she was a year above marriage age in our village. Tongues had begun to wag about her husbandless state, which worried and pained my mother, and added to the troubles she’d had since my father ran off. Zeinab’s marital prospects weren’t great. Some might even have put them at zero, even though she had a nice “rinsed-out brown” complexion, as they say in our village, and was short and on the plump side, with ample thighs and full breasts. Yet there wasn’t a trace of beauty in her face, with its wide pug nose. But God did not leave that head with- out strengths. He blessed it with a sharp, intuitive mind that constantly amazed everyone, not least of all me. She was bold and resourceful. On the downside, she was too tenacious—she would never give up until she got what she felt was her due. Still, she’d been putty in my hands ever since she was a child. After graduating from the local kuttab and then elementary school, she begged our mother to persuade our father to enroll her in the Sultan Hussein preparatory school, which was near the village. My mother whacked her in the face, pelted her with curses, and snatched up a piece of dough she’d been kneading and flung it at her head. Then she collapsed in her chair and started to wail and slap at her own face as though she were at a funeral. That was when she decided she had to get Zeinab married off as soon as possible—“Even if the mayor’s mule or the neighbor’s donkey asks for her hand!” as she once said in a fit of rage. She was afraid Zeinab’s morals would go to the dogs if she continued with her schooling.

Being the only other person in the family who knew how to read and write, Zeinab was the only one who never swallowed my story about how I worked as a porter at the port in Alexandria and raked in a fortune selling smuggled goods to the British after the war. She tried to work out how I came into my sudden fortune, but her imagination at the time could take her no further than that I must have married some rich old dame who died on our wedding night, making me her heir. Once, she actually summoned the courage to test that theory of hers. I gave her an enigmatic smile and an answer that neither affirmed nor denied her question, leaving her scratching her head more than before.

I’ll never forget her reaction when I asked her to come to Cairo with me. Her eyes glistened with pent-up tears that she couldn’t keep from trickling down her cheeks. She flung her arms around me and hugged me as though I’d just returned from an expedition to a far-off land. The following day she started to waver. I could tell because she didn’t pester me for details about when we’d leave and how. She was desperate to break free of her mother, her sisters, and the whole of Mahalla Marhoum; she was like the eternal prisoner waiting for a miracle then when the opportunity to escape comes he needs someone to carry him. Fear had shackled her for so long, even though life at home was better since our father had absconded and I’d made us landowners. too!

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It took me three nights to sway her mind. By the time we crept out of the house at dawn, her last reservations had been conquered. So, when she noticed that questioning look in my eyes that asked, “Where’s your bag?” she gave me a playful smile and whispered, “Surely you’re going to buy me a set of city clothes. You won’t want me traipsing around Cairo in this old gallabiya!”

I left behind enough money, plus the deed to some fields, to ensure a decent life for our mother and two other sisters, even though they were married. Nor did I forget to leave an extra five-pound note in my mother’s purse, fulfilling the promise I’d made her the last time I left. With the first ray of sunrise, we silently shut the door behind us. I, at least, had no intention of returning.

After some careful apartment hunting, we settled in Imbaba on the west bank of the Nile. We could see Zamalek clearly from our small rooftop apartment. It didn’t look far away, but it was hundreds of miles out of reach at that point. We spent our first days strolling through the streets of Cairo. I made sure our feet led us nowhere near Emad Eddin Street and my former place of employment, the Rixos bar. But we did pay several visits to “Les Grands Magasins Cicurel,” which was not that far away. I bought Zeinab enough clothes to last her a year. What a change they made! Were it not for that slight limp of hers, which sort of spoiled the image, she could have really gone places. As she modeled a dress I had chosen for her in Cicurel’s dressing room, I had her remove her head covering. I contemplated her for a moment, then nodded and muttered, “Superb!”

Only her hair ruined the image I had in my head. It was too short and curly. I picked out a colorful silk scarf and, together with a white leather handbag and shoes to match, she was transformed into Zeinab the Cairene. Anyone who saw her for the first time would never imagine she had ever set foot in a dirt-poor rural village, let alone been brought up in one. On one condition, though: that she spoke as little as possible, as her etiquette teacher, M. Edmond, advised me. I was satisfied with the work he was doing with her. My main concern now was how to get back into that basement.

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“We’re going to the opera tonight. You’re going to have the most amazing experience of your life,” I said as I lit a cigarette and contemplated the strange way she walked in her new shoes.

“But we got to go to the Friday market, Abbas.” “Why?” I asked with some surprise.

“To buy a couple of hens and a pair of rabbits to raise on our rooftop!”

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From The Lady of Zamalek by Ashraf El-Ashmawi. Used with the permission of the publisher, Hoopoe. Copyright © 2020 by Ashraf El-Ashmawi.

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