The Mingrelian Conspiracy: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #9

The Mingrelian Conspiracy: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #9

In the Cairo of 1908, the city lives—and dies—by its café culture. But for all restaurant businesses, then and now, the protection rackets pose a problem. And the city’s cafés ...

About The Author

Michael Pearce

Michael Pearce grew up in the (then) Anglo-Egyptian Sudan among the political and other tensions he draws on for his ...

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Chapter 1


‘Once upon a time there was a woman called Rice Pudding and—’

‘One moment,’ said the Chief of the Secret Police: ‘Rice Pudding?’

‘Yes. And one day she was sitting at her window—’

‘Rice Pudding?’ said the Chief of Police warningly.

‘It was a long time ago,’ said the storyteller defensively.

‘Very well. Proceed.’

‘And suddenly she saw, down in the street below, a dervish looking very important and wearing round his neck a huge necklace made of the spouts off clay water jars strung together like beads. “What do you have for sale?” she called down to him. “Names,” he said. “How much does a name cost?” “A hundred piastres.” Now—’

‘Perhaps you could just tell me,’ suggested the Chief of Police, ‘where you had got to?’

‘He had got to the bit,’ said one of the bystanders helpfully, ‘when she had lost her new name and a blind man had found it and tied it up in a sack—’

‘Hey!’ said the storyteller angrily. ‘Who’s telling the story? You or me?’

‘And was just about to carry it up the stairs—’

‘When Mustapha cried out,’ said the constable excitedly, unable to keep quiet any longer.

‘Mustapha?’ said the Chief of the Secret Police, who was having difficulties.

‘From inside the café! I heard him!’

‘Mustapha is the man who was injured?’

‘That’s right, Effendi! While we were listening to the story.’

‘And I heard the cry,’ said the constable. ‘Oh, Effendi, it was a terrible cry! So I rushed at once into the café—’

‘No, you didn’t!’ objected someone.

‘Ahmed, are you looking for trouble?’

‘I’m only saying you didn’t rush in. You stayed right where you were.’

‘We all did,’ said someone else. ‘It was a terrible cry.’

The crowd was pressing forward, eager to help.

‘And then Leila called for help!’

‘And we all rushed in—’

‘Led by me,’ said the constable swiftly.

‘And found Mustapha lying there.’

‘Right!’ said the Chief of the Secret Police. ‘So we’re not in the story now; we’re in what really happened?’

‘Yes, Effendi, that’s right. And there was Mustapha, lying in a pool of blood—’

Owen sighed. ‘What really happened’ was always a relative matter in Cairo. There had been, for instance, no pool of blood. The proprietor of the café had had his legs broken, which was the usual penalty for noncompliance when the gangs made their initial request. He glanced back over his shoulder.

‘Where is Mustapha now?’ he asked.

‘Upstairs, Effendi. The hakim is with him.’

‘Right. Well, I am going in to have a talk with him. In private. So you can all go home. There’ll be nothing for you to see. No more excitement.’

He knew, however, that his words were wasted. The crowd would stay on in the hope of further drama at least until he left and probably long after.

‘Keep them out,’ he said to the constable. ‘I don’t want any company.’

‘Right, Effendi!’ said the constable, taking out his baton with alacrity. When Owen had arrived, the first thing he had had to do was clear the café of all sightseers, which meant the whole neighbourhood. They were all now packed in the street outside, which was jammed from one end to the other.

The constable stationed himself in front of the entrance and swung his arm.

‘Oy!’ said someone indignantly. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

‘That’ll teach you, Ahmed!’ said the constable, grinning.

Owen gave him a warning look and then went inside. The café had obviously started life as a traditional Arab one and there were still stone benches round the walls with low tables in front of them and a rack of hose-stemmed bubble pipes in one corner. An attempt was being made, however, to take it up market. The central part of the floor was occupied by standard wooden European chairs and tables and scattered around were various European fixtures and fittings: a large gilt mirror, for instance, which might have strayed out of an East London pub. The density of the chairs and tables, and the fact that the café could afford a storyteller, suggested that it was popular. Just the kind of place, thought Owen, to attract the attention of the gangs.

A flight of stairs led upwards to the family’s living quarters. In one of the rooms Owen found a cluster of people around a rope bed on which a man was lying. He had his trousers off and a man in a dark suit and fez was bending over him. A woman, unveiled, was wiping his face with a cloth.

‘You wouldn’t listen, would you?’ she said.

The man ignored her. The doctor saw Owen and straightened up.

‘Another one,’ he said.

‘Just the legs?’

‘A smack or two in the face.’

‘They broke my nose,’ the man on the bed said, putting up his hand to feel his face. ‘The bastards!’

The doctor inspected him critically.

‘It’ll be all right,’ he said, ‘when the swelling goes down. Your mouth will want some repair work, though. A couple of teeth have gone.’

The man felt gingerly inside his mouth with one finger and then sat bolt upright.

‘It’s the gold one! Leila, look in my mouth. It’s the gold one, isn’t it?’

The woman wiped the blood away and peered.

‘It looks like it,’ she said.

‘Then where is it?’

‘It’ll be on the floor somewhere.’

‘Go down and look for it! At once! Before any of those other bastards finds it and makes off with it!’

The woman hurried out of the room.

‘Bastards!’ said the man, lying back.

Owen moved forward.

‘How do you feel?’ he asked sympathetically.

‘Bad!’ said the man, without opening his eyes.

‘I’ll come and see you tomorrow,’ said Owen, ‘and we can talk more. But there’s something I need to know quickly. The men; what were they like?’

The man was silent.

‘You must have seen them,’ insisted Owen.

The man looked up, as if registering his presence for the first time.

‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘I saw them, all right.’

‘Recognize any of them?’

‘No. As soon as I saw the clubs I knew what I was in for, though.’

‘Can you give me a description?’

‘What’s the use?’ said the man.


‘Sudanis, you mean? Well, it might have been. We’ve got enough around.’ He reflected a moment, then shook his head. ‘It all happened so fast.’

‘Were they wearing galabeeyahs? Or trousers?’

Some of the gangs were westernized. It might help to narrow the field.

‘Do you know,’ said the man, ‘I can’t remember. I really can’t remember.’

• • • • •

‘Another one who won’t talk?’ The army major pursed his lips. ‘We need to take a tougher line.’

‘It’s the only way.’

The speaker was new to the committee. Paul, in the chair, raised his eyebrows.


‘Shearer,’ said the major, introducing. ‘Just joined us. The Sirdar thought he might be useful. Experience with Arabs. The Gulf. Knows how to handle them.’

‘Bedouin?’ said Paul. ‘I think you may find the urban Egyptian a little different, Captain Shearer.’

‘They’re all the same.’

‘I bow to your experience. And how long is it that you’ve been in Cairo?’

‘I arrived last week,’ said Shearer, flushing slightly.

‘It’s true, though,’ insisted the major. ‘They are all the same. Stick a knife through you as soon as look at you. I mean, that’s what this meeting is about, isn’t it? Stopping them getting hold of guns.’

‘It’s true that we have reason to suppose that some of the money the gangs collect through their protection rackets finds its way to the purchase of guns,’ said Paul.

‘Well, there you are, then. And we know who they’ll be used against!’

‘Armed uprising,’ said the third member of the Army team loyally.

‘Armed uprising?’ said Owen incredulously. ‘Do you know what the scale of this is?’

‘Bloody vast,’ said the major.

‘Infinitesimal. There are less than a dozen gangs and fewer than twenty men in each. Two hundred men. Out of a population in the city of eight hundred thousand!’

‘If there are so few,’ said the major, ‘why don’t you get on top of them?’

Paul sighed.

‘Operating in a city is not quite like operating against a few armed tribesmen in the desert,’ he said.

‘There I have to disagree with you,’ said the new man, Captain Shearer. ‘I think some of the lessons we’ve learned in the Gulf are very applicable in Cairo.’

‘Quite right,’ said the major approvingly.

‘What had you in mind?’ asked Owen. ‘Machine guns?’

‘Not quite that,’ said Shearer. ‘Although I do think you shouldn’t underrate the part machine guns could play in dealing with mass disturbance in the squares. No, what I was thinking of was armed patrols on the streets—’

‘There’s hardly a need for that,’ said Owen. ‘It’s a peaceful city.’

‘People getting their legs broken?’ said the major. ‘I’d hardly call that peaceful.’

‘You’ve got to see it in proportion.’

‘The trouble is,’ said Shearer, ‘the proportion can very soon change if you don’t stamp on this kind of thing at once.’

‘Armed patrols?’ said Owen. ‘For God’s sake!’

‘From what I’ve seen,’ said Paul, ‘especially on the nights after they’ve been paid, it’s the soldiers who are responsible for half the trouble!’

‘I won’t deny there’s been the odd spot of bother recently,’ said the major defensively.

‘Actually, sir,’ said Shearer, turning eagerly towards him, ‘that rather supports the point I was making last night.’

‘Oh, yes?’ said the major vaguely.

‘About unifying the policing of the city. The need to deploy more Military Police and bring security under a single command, preferably military—’

‘What are you suggesting?’ said Paul. ‘Putting Cairo under military law?’


‘Or are you merely saying that since the Army is responsible for most of the criminal violence that there is in the city, it should do something about it?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that—’

‘He’s right, though,’ said the major doggedly. ‘There ought to be a crackdown.’

Paul began to gather up his papers.

‘Well, thank you, gentlemen. It’s always a pleasure to hear the views of the Army. And most helpful to have a new contribution! I’m sure you’re right, Captain Shearer, we all have much to learn. I’m afraid you’ll find, though, when you’ve been here a little longer, that the situation in Egypt is not quite as straightforward as you suppose. Nor is Egyptian police work.’

• • • • •

No, indeed. To start with the question of what the British were doing in Egypt anyway: they were there, they said, by invitation of the ruler of Egypt, the Khedive, to help him sort out the country’s chaotic finances. True, the invitation had been nearly thirty years before and they were still there; but then, the finances were very complicated. True, too, that their help now extended very widely. There was a British adviser alongside every minister. There were Englishmen at the head of the police and the Army. And the British Consul-General was always there to advise the Khedive. But then, it was hard to separate finance from the general running of the country, as the Khedive soon sadly discovered.

It was true, however, that a number of people in Egypt, and most certainly the Khedive, had come to feel that the help was no longer necessary. But then, as Nationalist newspapers frequently observed, a growing number of Egyptians felt that the Khedive was no longer necessary either.

The situation was indeed not straightforward. Egypt had in effect two governments, the formal one of the Khedive and the shadow one of the British administration. In these circumstances a certain dexterity was required of administrators.

It was particularly required of the Mamur Zapt, a post traditional to, and peculiar to, Cairo. Broadly, Owen was responsible for what was coming to be known as security. In England the nearest equivalent was Head of the Political Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department. In Egypt the Mamur Zapt was traditionally thought of as Head of the Sultan’s Secret Police. There was now no Sultan and, as a matter of fact, no Secret Police either; but views were slow to change.

Owen was, then, answerable for security. But answerable to whom? It was a question asked frequently by the Khedive and occasionally by the Consul-General and Owen never quite found the right answer. Khedive and Consul both agreed, however, that his duties should be carried out so discreetly as not to cause trouble. Owen was in favour of this, too, very much so, only it was not always easy to achieve in this city of sixty nationalities, most of whom were always at each other’s throats, one hundred and twelve different ethnic groups, ditto, two hundred plus sects of a variety of religions, even more ditto, and growing Egyptian nationalism. Not to mention the fact that there was not one but three legal systems, each with its own courts, among which agile criminals could slip with eternal impunity.

No, indeed, policing in Egypt was not straightforward, thought Owen, as he sat benignly in a café at that corner of the Ataba-el-Khadra where the Musky debouches into the square. That stupid meeting with the Army had taken up so much of the morning that he had been obliged to go back to his office in the afternoon, which, at this time of the year, very few people did. Throughout the morning the heat built up so that, despite the closed shutters and the whirling fans, by noon everybody was wilting. They clung nobly on till about one o’clock, or, in the case of the British, eager to demonstrate both the heaviness of their workload and their superiority to the elements, two o’clock, and then thankfully packed it in for the day and went home for their siesta. Owen could never sleep during the day and usually went to the baths at this time to have a swim while the pool was empty. Not infrequently he then went back to the office and stayed there until the twilit hour when the day suddenly cooled and all the cafés came alive. Then he headed for a nearby one, along with half the population of Cairo.

There were, he had long ago decided, two stages. In the first, people woke up from their siesta, stretched themselves and thought that a little air would do them good. They went out into the street and found by some strange coincidence that everyone else was doing the same. They strolled along together, every few steps stopping to greet acquaintances, until the sun dropped below the minarets and suddenly the thought struck them how pleasant it would be to step aside for a moment and take a little coffee in one of those tiny cafés that, conveniently, cropped up every few yards in Cairo. Indeed, Cairo seemed at times one continuous café. They would sit there chatting and watching the world go by— since most of the tables were outside—until the time came for dinner, when they would rise, shake hands with the entire café, and depart.

The second stage followed immediately afterwards, when people would arise from their evening meal, feel the need for a breath of air, go outside and in no time at all finish up in a café, where they would remain for the rest of the evening. Life in the hot season was best lived out of doors, Cairenes were naturally sociable people, and the café world took over.

There, if you sat long enough, you would meet everyone you wanted to see. Take that fat Greek, for instance, about to drop into a chair a few tables away; Owen had been wanting to talk to him for days.

He waved a hand. The Greek came over and joined him.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Checking out possible places.’

‘It’s a bit hit-and-miss.’

‘You get a feel.’

‘Any particular feels?’

‘Well—’ said Georgiades, looking round evasively for the waiter.

‘I’ve been thinking. Maybe the best chance we’ve got is catching them at the start of the process. You know, after the first visit.’

‘After they’ve left their visiting card? It’s a bit late then, isn’t it? People might be even less inclined to talk.’

‘At least we’d have something to go on. Now, in fact, there was a place yesterday—’

‘Jesus!’ said Georgiades, scrambling up. ‘It’s Rosa!’

A very young, thin slip of a girl was standing beside them, arms akimbo, eyes blazing.

‘I thought you were supposed to be meeting me?’

She gestured towards a pile of packages on the pavement.

‘On my way! I was on my way!’

‘You were sitting here. He spends all his time these days,’ she said to Owen, ‘sitting in cafés.’

‘I was working!’ protested Georgiades.

‘In a café? Since when is sitting in a café work?’

‘It’s what all the bosses do,’ said Georgiades. ‘As soon as they get anywhere, that’s what they do. Sit down in a café all day.’

‘Yes, but you haven’t got anywhere yet.’

‘I’m anticipating,’ said Georgiades.

Owen felt the need to intervene on his behalf.

‘It’s my fault, really,’ he said. ‘I caught his eye—’

‘He was going to sit down anyway,’ said Rosa. ‘Before he saw you. I was watching.’

‘You were watching?’ said Georgiades. He turned to Owen. ‘Hey, she ought to be in this business, not me!’

‘Why don’t you join us?’ suggested Owen. ‘You must be tired after carrying all that lot. Tell you what, you sit down and have a cup of coffee, and I’ll pay for an arabeah to take you home.’

‘Well—’ said Rosa, weakening.

But only for a moment.

‘Take us both home,’ she stipulated. ‘I don’t want to carry all these damned packages up the stairs. Besides,’ she said generously, ‘he’ll be tired after all this work he’s been doing.’

Owen held a chair for her. Rosa sat down, pleased. She had a soft spot for Owen. In fact, she told herself, she might well have decided to marry him, not Georgiades, at the time of the wretched business of her father’s kidnapping, had she not known about him and Zeinab. Rosa stood rather in awe of Zeinab, not because she was a great lady, the daughter of a Pasha, no less, but because she had somehow solved, or seemed to have solved, the problem of being an independent woman in a man’s world. She took Zeinab secretly as her model. Zeinab, for instance, would have made no bones about sitting down in this café, populated as it was entirely by men. Rosa sat and lifted her chin.

She could only, Owen thought, be about sixteen even now. She had married Georgiades (and this was exactly the way to put it, since he had not had much say in the matter) when she was only fourteen. Rosa had sworn blind that she was fifteen, although her parents had been equally convinced that she was fourteen. Fourteen was, in any case, quite allowable in Cairo and Rosa had received unexpected support from her grandmother, who was a little vague about when she herself had married but thought it was young and thoroughly approved Rosa’s following tradition. This was exactly what Rosa had no intention of following. Her grandmother would certainly not have approved of her sitting here; which made it, of course, all the more enjoyable.

‘He really is working, you know, when he’s in these cafés,’ said Owen, determined to do his best for Georgiades.

Rosa nodded, and then thought. She was as sharp as a knife, an implement which she had threatened to use on Georgiades if she caught him straying, and it didn’t take her long to work out that two and two make four.

‘It’s protection, is it?’ she said. ‘The cafés?’

Rosa knew all about the protection racket. Her family had a business. They dealt in such things as lacquered boxes, old jewellery, Assiut shawls and ancient Persian amulets. One day the gangs had called.

‘You’re going about it the wrong way,’ she said. ‘Sending him round the cafés. They’ll be too frightened to talk. You’ve got to be able to offer them something.’

‘We are offering them something: defence.’

Rosa shook her head.

‘It’s too risky,’ she said. ‘You might catch the gang, you might not. If you don’t, and they’ve talked to you, then they’re in trouble. Why take a chance?’

‘Because otherwise they have to pay. And go on paying.’

‘You ought to go about it in a different way. Don’t let them think they’re talking to you. Why don’t you have him go round pretending to sell insurance? Insurance against loss? They’ll all be interested in that. They’ll want to know what it covers. It would at least get them talking. And then he might be able to lead them on. He’s good,’ said Rosa, looking unforgivingly at the pile of packages beside her, ‘at leading people on.’

• • • • •

Owen sent them off in an arabeah, the universal one-horse cab of Cairo, and settled down to wait for the bill. You could wait a long time for that and meanwhile his eyes wandered relaxedly over the scene in front of him. The Ataba-el-Khadra was the meeting place of two worlds. The Musky led straight up from the Old City and you went down it if you were a European wanting to visit the bazaars, or came up it if you were a native intending to visit the shops in the European quarter or, more likely, catch a tram. The Ataba was the terminus for most of Cairo’s tram routes and at any hour of the day or night the square was full of trams, native horse-drawn buses, arabeahs and camels bringing forage for the horses. It was also full of street hawkers selling brushes (why?), ice-cream, lemonade, water, sponges, loofahs, canes (no young effendi from one of the big offices was properly dressed unless he carried a cane), hats (the pot-like tarboosh of the Egyptian) and sugar for instant consumption. The two biggest industries, however, were selling pastries and selling Nationalist newspapers. Cairenes, lacking confidence, perhaps, in their public-transport system, believed in stocking up before embarking on a journey. But they also believed in not making a journey at all but just sitting around, and when they sat around, they liked to sit in a café and read scurrilous Nationalist newspapers. Just behind the Ataba were the big offices of Credit Lyonnais and the Mixed Tribunals and beyond them the headquarters of the Anglo-Egyptian Bank, and the countless young men who worked in them were all avid Nationalists.

Owen looked around at the crowded café and thought: if other cafés, why not this one?

He knew the proprietor of the café and beckoned him over.

‘Tell me, Yasin,’ he said. ‘Do you pay protection?’

‘Not yet,’ said the proprietor.

‘Is that because they have not asked? Or because you have not agreed?’

‘If they asked,’ said Yasin, diplomatically but evasively, ‘I would reply: I need no protection, for the Mamur Zapt sits every night at my tables.’

• • • • •

The first stage of the café evening was coming to an end and at several tables people were standing up and shaking hands. It was time to be firm about that bill. Or perhaps, just before he left, an apéritif?

‘How about an apéritif?’ said a familiar voice, and Paul dropped into a chair beside him.

‘I reckon you owe me one,’ said Owen, ‘after that meeting this morning.’

‘Bloody awful, wasn’t it? It’s high time the Army went on manoeuvres. Preferably at the bottom of the Red Sea.’

‘What’s all this business about unifying the policing? I don’t like the sound of it.’

‘It won’t get anywhere. The Old Man will kill it dead.’

Paul was one of the Consul-General’s aides and frequently, as this morning, chaired meetings on his behalf.

‘Will he, though? If they really push?’

‘They’ll only get his back up. He’ll see it as trespassing.’

‘Yes, but—’

‘It won’t get anywhere. At the end of the day, the Old Man’s a politician, and the one empire politicians will really fight for is their own. You can go back to sleep.’

Paul sipped his apéritif.

‘All the same,’ he said reflectively, ‘on something like this it might be best if you didn’t.’

‘The gangs?’ Owen was surprised. ‘I really don’t think, Paul, you need worry too much about the guns. It’s pretty small—’

‘Guns?’ said Paul, so steeped in the ways of the city that he considered himself a born-again Cairene. ‘Who the hell cares about guns? It’s the cafés I’m thinking of.’

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