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Egypt 30 years… Nostalgia and police puzzles

The Orphans of Alexandria

The Orphans of Alexandria is a detective fiction set in the Alexandria cosmopolitan society of the 1930s. It is the first of a serie of 3 novels featuring the same central characters, but they can be read separately. The first two are published in Cairo by Beit al Yasmine, and the third is to be published soon.

The detective is Ibrahim, a young policeman fresh from upper Egypt, first generation of egyptian policemen, as the egyptian governments tends to replace british civil servants with local staff. However, Ibrahim works under a british hekemdar, John Tiring.

An hungarian millionnaire is found drowned in the greek club. He was engaged to a kurdish young girl, Evine, a ballerina who lives with her unmarried aunt, Teza, and their two orphan servants, Zumurrud and Moza. Eveen’s father was a pacha who died in the Sudan wars. The family, or what is left of it, had been rich but is now merely surviving in a decayed palace, though presenting themselves as « princesses ».

The two servants seem to hide a secret.

In the course of the research, Ibrahim falls in love with beautiful Zumurrud, but his mother definitely does not accept the idea.

Trying to find clues about the murder, Ibrahim finds that the two orphans hide a third one, a young girl who has been sold from the orphanage and badly abused by the man who used her as his sex toy.

He has yet to find out the possible link between that sad story and the murder.

Keeping away from the usual clichés about the much idealized cosmopolitan Alexandria, the story puts the stress on the details of every day’s life, the relationship between characters, and the effort to change one’s life without giving up loyalties.

Written in arabic, it is the first novel by Zeinab Zaza, and has been translated to french and published in Paris by DILAP (Les Orphelins d’Alexandrie).

Here are two extracts, translated from arabic by the author :

Extract one (the doctor at the police station)

At the police station, the Hekemdar, for once oblivious of time, was conferring with
Ibrahim and Doctor Aslanidis.
The latter seemed worried and annoyed. Look, he said wearily, raising his too white hands, my feeling is that it is not a natural death.

Tiring and Ibrahim waited for him to proceed. Aslanidis absentmindedly took a box of Coutarelli cigarettes out of his breast pocket, and the Hekemdar, sighing, offered him matches and opened a drawer to produce an ashtray bearing the famous blue and yellow design of Stella beer. Have one, said the doctor, suddenly aware of the disapproving long English face. You know, he added somewhat mischievously, cigarettes can be good for your health. Mental health, mind you. Never look down to mental health. Yes, I know. Every ignorant ass repeats the famous Latin sentence “mens sana in corpore sano”. We, Greeks, believe that the opposite is true as well. Try one.Thank you, the Hekemdar said with a polite yellow grin. I belong to the pipe’s party. By the way, about that corpore we have there…Yes yes. I don’t like the look of it, to tell the truth. Ibrahim, slightly disappointed by his not being invited to a smoke, though he would have declined, raised his eyebrows, only to show that he understood English, even when slaughtered by the Greek accent. Have one, said the doctor, reading his mind. I don’t like the look of that corpse.Thank you, Ibrahim replied. Are there luckier corpses, corpses with looks you – let’s say – prefer?But of course, my dear. What a question. This corpse was not sano at all. I like a corpse to be neatly dead. One cause, and basta. But here, we have two causes for death. Hit and drowned. Very unpleasant, really.

He was serious again: I fear we are having a case of murder. I cannot picture the man being hit at the back of his head while swimming. A random oar would have got him at the top of the skull. Not the back. And that random oar is most unlikely. What I can very well imagine is somebody coming from behind, hitting, and then dragging him, more or less unconscious, to the water.But who…Why…My dear Hekemdar, this is, fortunately, your job, not mine. But I don’t like it. Those are troubled times… If communities begin to quarrel again now…Communities? Ibrahim asked, interested. You mean it could be a political matter?Quite. You know, as we all know, there are a lot of old and new quarrels around this small dirty sea of all civilizations. And they all land here, on this shore, brought by the tide. Fascism, for instance. Or religious fanaticism. Or claims for independence. Or whatever. And the man was rich, which does not make it any easier. Anyway, your job; not mine.

Extract two (Teza)

Communities in Alexandria were a great building of families, firms and clubbing. They had not experienced yet how easily that building could be destroyed. Then, only individual virtue would save the human sparkle. Each human being could chose to become a stepping stone for another, regardless of family, confession or social status. Orphans, reaching for one another in a chaos. But here, in this slumbering Alexandria, she was only Teza, which meant “aunt” in Turkish, nobody called her by her name. Azad, the free. And these two girls who lived safely under her roof, the Orphans, were they suspected too? She remembered the day she went to the orphanage to get a cheap servant. The Greek woman had at first been quite amiable, though a little stunned by Teza’s outlandish appearance and accent. During the entire interview, she had not stopped sniffing with her long nose, as if trying to locate a dubious smell. Yes, she had said. They had a very capable young girl, not really attractive, but strong as a horse, and it would be quite a bargain for the Hanim to have her, because she was good at massaging. Massaging? Teza did not need any massaging…but yet it could prove useful, why not? Oh, and don’t be too startled when it happens, she has somnambular fits, but nothing important, really… The Hanim was obviously an understanding and merciful person… Then she had called for Moza, and Teza had grimaced at the name. Moza means banana in Arabic. Not exactly an elegant name. Moza was the oldest of the orphanage pensioners. They could not get rid of her because of her plainness and her strange ways. She scared people with her massive body and uncommunicative face. Teza had not been scared, though. She had immediately seen the wounded pride and the loneliness in the ageless sexless girl who came into the Director’s office holding the hand of a little girl with averted eyes, in a too large blue uniform. Both of them had their head shaven like prisoners. I will not go without Zumurrud. Her voice was low and there was something final in her tone. The headmistress tried to argue: Moza, please…You have sent Batata to Cairo and now she is lost.But… The little girl gripped Moza’s gown and raised wide desperate green eyes at Teza. No buts, Teza said in her most princess like tone. She was beginning to strongly dislike the sniffing woman at the directorial desk.I’ll take both. Let them get their things. Moza had stared at her; her look was blank, but Teza read it for what it was. It said: don’t think I’ll love you for this. I take notice that you’re not hurting me, which is good. But don’t believe it allows you to approach me. And the little girl is mine. She had felt interested. Moza was like a cat, she thought. She will allow me to feed her, but she does not want to be touched. And there was something of a dog too in her, regarding the child, that charming shy little Zumurrud. Madame Calkavouras, the headmistress, had reluctantly let them go, spitting at Teza’s back: We don’t give them meat, so they are not expensive to feed. Teza had stopped, turned to face the woman and said: They will eat just like my niece, the Princess. And thank you for your care.

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