The subject of countless films, plays and miniseries, the brutal and gruesome murders carried out by a group of Egyptian thieves headed by two sisters — Raya and Sakina — in British-ruled Egypt during the years following World War I, has enthralled generations of Egyptians and Arabs.
Their story, particularly the fact that women led the gang, has inspired the imagination of writers and filmmakers for decades. Some have portrayed the 17 murders carried out by the gang, over three years starting in 1919, in an accurate fashion, whereas others have taken inspiration from the facts to spin off their own stories. When news of the murders and the fact that two sisters led the gang came to light over 80 years ago, Egyptians were left horrified that so many murders were allowed to take place without the authorities being able to apprehend those responsible.
Raya and Sakina were originally from Upper Egypt and had settled in the Al-Labban district of Alexandria. Their gang consisted of their husbands — Hasaballah and Abdel Aal — along with two other men — Orabi and Abdul Razik, who were employed by them as bouncers at the brothels where the women operated in Alexandria (Egypt at the time was under the rule of the British government, which had legalized prostitution and alcohol). Raya and Sakina’s victims were always women wearing a significant amount of jewelry.
Prior to coming to live in Alexandria, Sakina was a young prostitute working at a brothel where she met Abdul Aal. The two eloped and came to live in Alexandria. Meanwhile, Raya was married to Hasaballah, who was the brother of her dead husband (it was a common tradition in Egypt at the time for a widow to marry her dead husband’s brother). Hasaballah was a thief and hashish smuggler, falling foul of the authorities in Kafr Al-Zayyat, Hasaballah and Raya were banished from there, and so settled in Alexandria where Raya and Sakina opened a series of brothels.
The gang’s first victim was Hanim, Raya’s neighbor, who had bought some new jewelry, which provoked Raya’s jealousy. Following the murder, Raya went to fetch her sister Sakina, who was elsewhere at the time. When the two sisters arrived at Raya’s home, Sakina found her husband and brother-in-law, along with Abdul Razik and Orabi, digging a grave. Sakina then turned to see Hanim’s body lying open-eyed beneath a bench and was about to scream when Raya threatened to do the same to her if she uttered a word. Sakina was handed a share of the booty, which amounted to three Egyptian pounds.
The gang made a perfect working squad in which each one had his or her own duty. Raya would go to the market and entice women wearing the most jewelry to visit her home, saying she had cut-price items on sale. At home, the gang would give their victim drug-laced drinks, which would make the woman feel dizzy. Hasaballah would then hold a towel over the victim’s face to suffocate her, Abdul Aal would hold her feet, Orabi and Abdul Razik would hold the victim’s hands behind her back, while Raya and Sakina would hold the other parts of the body down.
The first missing person report that came to the police was filed by the mother of 25-year-old Nazla Abou Al-Lail, who was wearing gold wristlets, a silver anklet, gold earrings and two gold rings when she went missing. After this, a man reported how his sister called Zanouba went to the market, met Raya and never returned. A young 15-year-old girl reported how her mother, a poultry woman, went missing. This report was followed by that of a man, whose 50-year-old wife called Fatma Abd Rabou went missing. She had 54 pounds on her, 18 gold wristlets, a couple of gold bracelets and a pair of earrings. The next victim was a kerosene seller, who was living alone in Al-Labban.
Missing reports came in continuously one after the other. A Sudanese woman reported her daughter Fardous missing in mysterious circumstances; she was wearing 60 pounds worth of jewelry, gold bracelets costing 35 pounds, earrings and a gold necklace. Police were successful in finding out where Fardous had gone before she went missing. Sakina’s name was mentioned and she was brought in for interrogation. However, she denied all allegations and threw police off her track.
It was only when the owner of a house, which was previously rented by Sakina, reported to police that he had discovered the remains of a woman while digging the floor to repair a drain. Sakina was arrested and interrogated, but she firmly denied any involvement.
A short while later, a police officer noticed how Raya would scent her house daily with incense. When asked about it, she replied that her house would smell since she operated a brothel, and that her customers would drink alcohol and smoke. The officer grew suspicious, especially since she was Sakina’s sister, and reported the incident to senior police officers.
A senior police commissioner visited Sakina’s home and noticed that floor tiles in a certain part of the house were newer than others. The commissioner ordered the tiles be removed, at which a heavy stench rose from below. Police officers then arranged for the floor to be dug and discovered corpses of two women and remains of a third.
Police then decided to search all of the houses that Raya and Sakina had previously lived in and found the remains of a total of 17 women. Most of the women could not be identified, suggesting they were prostitutes or runaways.
Raya confessed before Sakina and tried to push the charge away from her husband. Meanwhile, Raya’s nine-year-old daughter tried to push the charge away from her mother and on to her aunt. Nevertheless, the police were able to secure confessions from all involved and built a picture of how the gang operated.
On May 16, 1921, Chief Magistrate Ahmed Bek Mousa passed the death sentence against Raya, Sakina, Hasaballah, Abdul Aal, Orabi and Abdul Razik. A goldsmith called Ali Muhammad Hassan, who would purchase jewelry from the gang, was sentenced to five years in prison, while Raya’s daughter was placed in an orphanage. She died a few years later.
Raya and Sakina’s brutal murders were not the only ones taking place in Egypt at the time. There were many more serial murderers on the prowl in the turbulent British-controlled Egypt of that day. However, due to the fact that two women were the ringleaders of a gang of brutal thieves, Raya and Sakina’s crimes became prominent. They were the first women in Egypt to be sentenced to death.
While the British authorities were busy quelling public resentment at Britain’s occupation of Egypt, general law and order had declined, like many colonized parts of the world, allowing Raya and Sakina and other criminals the opportunity to carry out crimes without being apprehended. In turn, the legacy of Raya Sakina continues to live, captivating people across the Arab world in films and plays.