“Pearce’s engrossing story successfully juxtaposes the volatile atmosphere of early twentieth-century Cairo against a tale full of culture, history, charm, humor, and romance. A fine addition to this excellent series”
Booklist Starred Review
The kidnapping of an innocent schoolgirl throws a glaring light on the tensions and injustices of pre-War Egyptian society in this absorbing historical mystery.
Cairo, Egypt, 1913. When schoolgirl Marie Kewfik is kidnapped, snatched away as she strolled through the bustling bazaars of the Souk, the Khedive insists that the Mamur Zapt, Head of the Secret Police, takes charge of the negotiations for her safe return. The Kewfiks are one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Egypt but, as the Mamur Zapt discovers, not everyone thinks it’s worth the trouble to secure the release of a mere girl. He also learns that there is more to Marie’s kidnapping than meets the eye – and the subsequent fallout will shine a glaring light on the dangerous tensions running through Egyptian society.
About the Author
Michael Pearce grew up in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. He returned there later to teach and retains a human rights interest in the area. He now lives in south-west London and is the author of the highly-acclaimed Mamur Zapt historical mystery series as well as the Seymour of Special Branch police procedural series.
Read an Excerpt
The Women of the Souk
A Mamur Zapt Mystery
By Michael Pearce
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Michael Pearce
All rights reserved.
The slats on the shutters were heavy with sand this morning. He opened and closed them a few times to shake the sand off. It was then that he noticed the girl. He went back to his desk. When he looked out again she was still standing there.
'That girl,' he said to his official clerk.
'Girl?' said Nikos.
'In the yard. How long has she been standing there?'
Nikos peered at her, as if seeing her for the first time.
'About a couple of hours,' he said indifferently.
'A couple of hours? Christ!'
Immediately he had said that, he felt guilty. Nikos was a Copt, and therefore a Christian. In Cairo, with its explosive mixture of races and religions, you didn't take these things lightly.
'Two hours at least!' said Nikos with satisfaction. He didn't believe in girls.
'But why? What is she doing there?'
'Waiting to see you.'
'Waiting to ...? Look – I thought I had given explicit instructions that no one —'
'She's only a schoolgirl,' said Nikos dismissively.
Nikos shrugged. There was no end to the Mamur Zapt's eccentricities.
'Tell her to come in!'
Nikos got up from his desk, huffily, and went out. A few moments later the girl came in.
'Captain Owen!' she said, a little nervously but determinedly, and not in Arabic nor in the usual French of the Egyptian upper classes, but in English.
'How can I help?'
'It is about Marie.'
'There,' said the girl. 'You don't even know about her!'
'Ought I to?'
'You're the Chief of Police, aren't you?'
'No,' said Owen. 'I'm the Head of the Special Branch. I deal only with political matters.'
'This is a political matter.'
'What exactly is the problem?'
'She's disappeared. And no one is doing anything about it.'
'Presumably it has been reported to the police? The ordinary police, that is.'
'Yes. And they told me to bugger off.'
'I'm sorry about that. They shouldn't have done that.'
She toyed nervously with the hem of her dress and now, he took it in, he saw that she wasn't wearing the traditional dark, full-length burka but a modern school girl's uniform. And no veil.
'You're at the Khedivial,' he said.
The Khedivial Girls' School, newly set up, was where the top civil servants sent their daughters.
'Yes. I'm in the seniors. What you would call the sixth form.'
This probably accounted for the poise with which she was addressing him. In Egypt at that time women did not normally address men directly but through a masculine intermediary, usually a male relative. And young girls did not address men at all.
'Perhaps I shouldn't have spoken to them the way I did,' she admitted, 'but I was so angry when they treated me like that.'
'How did you speak to them?'
'I told them to bugger off themselves and find me someone more senior.'
'They threw me out.'
'It is not a laughing matter,' she said. 'Just because I'm a woman. They treat women like dirt.'
'I'm sorry I laughed. I shouldn't have done. I meant to have expressed approval.'
She was silent for a moment. Then she said: 'I expect it's because of Zeinab.'
'You know about Zeinab?' he said, surprised.
'All the world knows about you and Zeinab!'
Owen hoped they didn't.
'You don't know how much we admire her, Captain Owen! To have the strength to go against everyone, to go your own way, to shape out a life for yourself! She is a model to us all!'
'All Egyptian women and especially the sixth form at the Khedivial.'
'She is an example of the New Woman. We know all about the New Woman, Captain Owen. We read the French newspapers daily, and occasionally the English ones, though I think they're feeble. Don't you, Captain Owen? They're so pompous, so ... male! The French ones are better. They are setting out the new styles. The New Women. Don't you think that's very important, Captain Owen? The world is changing and women are changing it. Or, perhaps, they will change it. And we will be at the forefront, Captain Owen, we won't be lagging behind!'
'I'm sure you won't but —'
'We are prepared to suffer. Like the suffragettes. We read the English newspapers too, and the thing is, you see, Zeinab has set an example!'
'Look, I'm not sure she would recognise herself in quite that role.'
'And we think you're very brave to go along with her to the extent you do. Of course we realise how difficult it must be for you. We do appreciate it, Captain Owen, believe me – actually, that's the reason why they sent me to see you. They thought that you were in a position to get something done and would be sympathetic. At first we thought of going direct to Zeinab but we thought that what with the baby and all that she's got enough on her hands already.'
'You know about the baby?'
'We're pretty well-informed. I must say, I don't think we should get on to the baby questions just yet, though. These traditional tasks should still take second place in Egypt, at least for the time being. But we've got to do something about Marie. It may already be too late. If she really has been kidnapped.'
'That is what we think has happened to her.'
'Have you any grounds for supposing this?'
'Oh yes,' she said, 'oh yes.'
Over her shoulder he could see Nikos looking at him reproachfully and tapping the big bundle of papers under his arm.
He ignored him.
'First, your name.'
'And you're at the Khedivial and Marie is one of your classmates?'
'What is her name? Her full name?'
'Kewfik. Marie Kewfik.'
And suddenly it became plausible. Kewfik was one of the biggest names in Egypt. There were Kewfiks at court, Kewfiks all through the government.
'What makes you think she has been kidnapped?'
'She hasn't been to school for over a week now and when we went to her home and asked about her, they wouldn't say anything.'
'Perhaps she's ill.'
'No. We asked her maid and she isn't ill.'
'Why wouldn't the maid tell us if she's just gone away? And why wouldn't Marie have told us? She tells us everything. She's a great chatterbox, and, anyway, you can't go away. Not in term time. It is one of the things the school is very strict about. When it started people were always drifting off, if they wanted to have a picnic or something like that. But the Head put her foot down and got the fathers to put their feet down. And the mothers, who had always been pretty soft, had to do what they said. Even my mother, who usually doesn't take any notice of what my father says. "I have to go to work every day," he said, "So why shouldn't she?"'
'And then one day Marie didn't turn up. You told the teachers presumably?'
'We have a roll call every morning and when Marie wasn't there, the teacher said: "Where is Marie?" and then she went off and reported it at the office and presumably told the Head because when she came back she said: "Forget about it! Got that? Just keep quiet about it!" So of course we knew that something had happened to her.
'Well, individually we asked all the teachers but none of them would say a thing. Well, then we asked the servants, because girls are brought to school, you know. But they wouldn't say anything either. And the worst thing was that they seemed scared. They weren't just keeping their mouths shut because they had been told to. They were actually frightened. They wouldn't say anything at all.
'I went to see the Head and she said it was none of my business, and that I was to keep out of it. So I said: "Is Marie all right?" and she said she hoped so. Well, that wasn't much of an answer, was it? So we asked around some more. We even went to the hospitals in case she had had an accident. And of course, everyone was talking to their parents and there was the same reaction everywhere, nobody would say anything. We got people to ask their fathers, and it was just the same. As soon as they heard the name Kewfik they just backed off. Not as far as my father had done, he is chicken-livered, but they just didn't want to hear!'
'So then you went to the police?'
'We would have gone before but the Head said, "Just keep right out of it! Right out!" So we did. I did. But then when nothing seemed to be happening and Marie still wasn't there, I decided to go myself. I thought I would insist on talking to the Head of Police, that funny old Scotsman, who's quite nice when you talk to him. But they wouldn't let me talk to him, and, well, you know the rest of the story. Maybe I shouldn't have spoken the way I did, but somebody's got to do something, haven't they?
'At the beginning we thought she might have caught scarlet fever or something, and that the school might be closed, and we could all stay at home. I even went round to the Kewfiks' house, I often go there, I'm a friend of Marie, and I thought I might ask her mother directly, but when I got there I could hear her crying in an inside room. It was awful! I knew there must be something very wrong, so I didn't like to ask.
'And then one of the girls said: "You know why they're not saying anything? She must have been kidnapped and they're negotiating the ransom and everyone has been told to keep off."
'We thought at first that this was just schoolgirl talk, but she insisted. She said she had once been involved in something like this, actually, she hadn't been but you know how girls like to make it big. A cousin of hers had disappeared and everyone had been told to keep quiet about it while the police were conducting their investigation – but, actually all the time the family were negotiating a ransom. The police didn't want anyone to talk about it. The family didn't, but the kidnappers panicked and one day her cousin was found with her throat cut.
'That's what she said, anyway. It was probably all talk, but you can imagine how it made us feel! And we thought that there might be something in it, because there seemed to be a general conspiracy of silence. People were refusing to answer our questions, and the clinching thing was her mother crying! It was awful!
'So I decided to get to the bottom of it, and – well, you know, I thought of going to Zeinab first because she's a woman and would understand. But then we thought we shouldn't do that because she's got so much on her hands and someone suggested why not go direct to you? You couldn't be totally stupid if you're married to Zeinab. Of course, you may not actually be married, but that is no concern of mine, as our Head would probably say, and I accept it's not my business, and, anyway, we're all pretty broad-minded in the seniors, in fact, we believe in freedom in such things, a woman should be free to make up her own mind – but meanwhile, there's poor Marie. Heaven knows what is happening to her! You will help us, won't you, Mamur Zapt?'
These things happened in Egypt; not as often as in the past, but too often and they were not easy to handle. If you gave in and paid the ransom, it would encourage others to do likewise. But if you held out – and it was very difficult for a family to hold out – what often happened was that the kidnappers panicked and killed the unfortunate whom they had seized. Whatever you did was wrong. The police hated such cases.
And it was entirely possible that this was what had happened. The Kewfiks were a rich family and a prime target.
And if it had happened, what would follow was exactly what the schoolgirl had described: a thick veil of silence would fall over everybody.
Owen was too old a hand, however, to assume on a schoolgirl's word that it was the case. He would do some checking first. He sat her in a comfortable chair, passed her a glass of water from the earthenware jug which stood perpetually as in all Cairo offices on his desk, gave strict instructions to a sulky Nikos that she was on no account to be disturbed, and went next door to a phone where he could speak confidentially.
The first person he phoned was McPhee, the Chief of the City Police.
'Yes, it's true,' McPhee said at once. 'Kewfik's daughter has been kidnapped. We've not seen a note yet but it's pretty clear that's what has happened. The matter is complicated by the fact her father has had a stroke and is out of it all completely. His brother is handling everything.'
'So there are negotiations?'
'The beginning of. We haven't got far as yet.'
'The beginning is always the most difficult.'
'Part of the problem is the brother, the girl's uncle, Ali Fingari,' said McPhee. 'He is quite elderly – the senior brother – and I'm not sure he is the man for this.'
'Could you take over the negotiations yourself?'
'I'm not sure I'm the man, either,' said McPhee.
He was, unfortunately, almost certainly right. He was honest, decent and utterly straightforward, admirable qualities in themselves but not at all helpful in Cairo.
'Are you thinking of taking a hand yourself?' said McPhee hopefully.
'No, no. I'm involved only tangentially.'
'A pity,' said McPhee. 'These things are not for me.'
'They're not for anybody really. It's a pity about the uncle.'
'He's an ex-soldier. One of the old school. A bit of a martinet. Which doesn't help in the present situation. He has the whole household running around, but they're only running in circles, and he's no help at all to poor Mrs Kewfik.'
'You've spoken to her?'
'She's more or less collapsed. It's as if he's blamed the incident on her, for not bringing her daughter up properly. As if it's her fault.'
'For negotiations of this sort you need to be a bit supple.'
'Supple,' said McPhee, 'is what he definitely is not! My guess is that he talks to the negotiators as if they were his private soldiers. His to command.'
'That will get him nowhere.'
'Worse than that,' said McPhee. 'Think of how it might turn out for the poor girl at the end of all this!'
It was the kind of remark that endeared McPhee to Owen. It drove other people mad. It was generally said that McPhee was too tender-hearted for his own good. He should have been put out to pasture years before.
He was certainly different from the usual colonial policeman. Most of them were ex-soldiers. McPhee had his uses, however. He was able to talk to elderly Egyptian women, a skill which very few people possessed. An old dear talking to old dears, his friend Paul had once said unkindly. But sometimes you needed people like that. Such as now, when it might be handy to have someone who could talk to Mrs Kewfik and bypass the martinet brother.
Owen went back to his room, where the girl was still sitting. She looked up at him hopefully.
'It is as you supposed,' he said gently. 'Your friend has been kidnapped.'
'Oh!' she gasped, and shrank back visibly.
'The good thing is she is still alive. Not only that: they appear to have opened negotiations and while they are continuing Marie should, I think, be safe.'
She sat for a moment taking this in, then she said: 'Who is conducting the negotiations?'
'On Marie's side, her uncle.'
'That is a pity,' she said. 'I don't think he likes Marie.'
'Is that a personal thing?'
'I don't think he likes women generally. But he certainly doesn't like young girls like Marie. He thinks they are too forward, immodest. I spoke to him once, just to ask if he had seen Marie – we were in the Kewfiks' house, it's a big one and I didn't know my way around, and had lost her – and he glared at me as if I had done something awful, just by speaking to him. He didn't answer, just walked straight past, and I'm pretty sure he's like that with Marie. Once she spoke to him about something minor and he snapped at her and then complained to her mother. I heard all this and was amazed! I don't think there is anything personal in it, it's just the way he is with women.'
'It ought not affect the negotiations anyway.'
She seemed doubtful, however.
'It may be taken out of his hands,' Owen said.
'That would be best.'
She stood up, then hesitated.
'Do you think it would be all right if I sent Mrs Kewfik a letter, saying we were all thinking of her?'
'I don't see why you shouldn't. Although, of course, no one is supposed to know.'
'I needn't say anything about the kidnapping. I can just say we're sorry Marie's been away and hope she comes back soon.'
'That would be best, I think.'
He thought for a moment.
'Could the letter be sent through some neutral person, who wouldn't raise the uncle's hackles?'
Although her English was good, this was a new one on her.
'Make him cross.'
'Anything makes him cross! But I know what you mean. I can send it through Aimée's mother. She's great friends with Marie's mother.'
'That sounds a good idea.'
She put her hand out.
'And thank you very much, Captain Owen. It has been very kind of you.'
'Not at all.'
'The thing is she must still be alive.'
'And where there's life,' said Owen, 'there's hope.'
'I know that one,' she said.
She had hardly left the room when Owen heard his phone go in the outer office. It was from the Consul-General's Assistant who was a particular friend of Owen's. They worked closely together and between them managed to forestall a lot of problems which would otherwise have landed on the Consul-General's desk. As possibly now.
'Gareth,' said Paul, 'have you heard about Kewfik's daughter?'
Excerpted from The Women of the Souk by Michael Pearce. Copyright © 2016 Michael Pearce. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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