December 25: Remembering Salah Eissa

Egyptian author and journalist Salah Eissa died two years ago today, on December 25, 2017, at the age of 78:

Eissa was born in 1939, in a village in the Daqahliya governorate, and started his career as a short-story writer and journalist. He was best-known for his activist politics and his skill in documenting the lives of historical figures, most particularly Egypt’s most infamous serial killers, Raya and Sakina.

Last year, just a month after his death, Karma Publishing House issued a new edition of Eissa’s classic Raya and Sakina’s Men. The book unfurls a history of the two Egyptian sisters who reputedly killed 17 women between 1920 and 1921. The two were sentenced to death in May 1921. Although the book has not yet been published in English translation, an excerpt of Raya and Sakina’s Men appeared, in Robin Moger’s translation, in Youssef Rakha’s Cosmopolitan Hotel.

Eissa wrote a number of other historical works, including The Men of Marj Dabiq, The Trial of Fouad Serag-Eddin, and The Princess and the Effendi. In addition to his historical works, Eissa was often critical of the Egyptian government, and was detained and imprisoned by authorities several times.

From the opening of the excerpt of Raya and Sakina’s Men, translated by Robin Moger:

Orabi Hassan, the first of his new neighbours that Hasballah got to know in Maskoubiya, was a short-statured young man with black hair, honey-coloured eyes and light-brown skin. At the time—that is, in 1917—he was twenty-five years old, more or less the same age as Hasballah, and was, also like him, a Southerner. He had been born in Abnoub Al Hamam, a village in the governorate of Assiut, where he spent his childhood until, in early adolescence, the taghreeba propelled him northwards to Alexandria in search of a livelihood, just as it would thousands of Southerners.

He was later to recall that he and his siblings had inherited four feddans of land on the death of their father, but that he had ceded his share to his mother and younger brothers, who worked it and lived off it, and would supply him in exchange with grain and ghee. But no effort was made to establish the veracity of these claims and they do not seem to match with the life he led in Alexandria. There, operating as fituwa, flaunting his physical strength, boasting of his courage and under the appellation of Orabi Al Suwameiey (a reference to the Assiut village of Al Suwamei whose inhabitants were bywords for bravery and were related to the Bani Samei, one of the Arab tribes which settled in Egypt), he would tell anyone who challenged his credentials that merely by lifting the staff in his hand he could shut a street down from end to end: pedestrians taking shelter in doorways, not a shop door staying open…

Read the rest.