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La dames sans merci
Muhammad Yusuf December 07, 2017
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The Empty Quarter, Dubai, is hosting the works of Egyptian photographer Habby Khalil titled ‘Raya and Sakina’ (Nov. 1, 2017 – Jan. 11, 2018). Raya and Sakina were two Egyptian sisters, considered Egypt’s most infamous serial killers. They, their husbands and two other men began killing women in the Labban neighbourhood of Alexandria in the early days of the 20th century.

The police were plagued by increasing reports of missing women and common details in the reports included the missing person’s sex (all were females). The women were known to be wearing gold jewellery, and were carrying large amounts of money.

Another detail was that many of the missing women were last seen with a woman called Sakina. Sakina was questioned several times, but managed to dodge suspicion.

On the morning of Dec. 11, 1920, however, a passer by discovered human remains on the side of a road; the body was damaged beyond recognition (except for its long hair) and was completely dismembered. At about the same time, another man reported finding human remains in his apartment, while digging to fix a water pipe.

The findings made it clear that murders had been committed. Investigation found that Sakina and her sister Raya had been renting houses at the time when the women and girls disappeared. They had murdered the women and buried the bodies right inside the homes they lived in.

They and their husbands were convicted and were sentenced to death. The sisters became the first Egyptian women to be executed by the modern state of Egypt.

Twelve corpses were unearthed from the seventeen murders committed. The trial revealed that the women would befriend the victims, take them to their homes, drug them by offering a drink, and then strangle them. They worked as a team, each with a specific task.

“One of the killers would clamp his hands over the victim’s mouth, another would grab hold of her throat, a third would hold her hands behind her back and the fourth would pin down her feet until she stopped breathing”, said a newspaper report.

Many a weird and shocking tale has come out of the land of the Caliphs. Alexandria, for those not in the know, also was where Cleopatra seduced Mark Anthony.

But never before had the city supplied any such story of barbarous cruelty and systematised loot. That women should have been the directing brain in such an uninterrupted campaign of butchery and wholesale theft and the fact that all the victims were women, made it all the more abhorrent.

The murders happened when Alexandria was entering the modern era; it resulted in major domestic dislocations and dystopic urbanism. Raya and Sakina had themselves fled from Upper Egypt to settle in a slum in Alexandria.

It is Khalil’s inspired imagination that he dresses up his subjects extravagantly. They pose, for all the world, like well paid models on a catwalk. But there is glittering menace in the compositions, the more frightening because the sisters are posed in such beautiful ways.

Their niqabs (face veils) and jewellery look like chains. The women, the photographs seem to say, are chained by the jewellery they stole. Their tight clothes accentuate their figures, making them look both seductive and evil. This is the glamour, some will say, that is found in evil. The stylisation of the women makes their deeds all the more foul.

If modesty lies in covering oneself, then the sisters are extremely modest. Their dress cannot be faulted: if at all, they can be accused of being too modest, since they are completely covered. But, as Shakespeare said, “one can smile and smile and yet be a villain”. Or, one can be covered and covered, and yet be a villainous.

There is stillness in the poses, like a foul deed has been done or is being contemplated.  If the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, then one can read much in Raya’s and Sakina’s eyes. They are always open, unblinking and confrontational.

The women are not coquettish; they mean business. If they were around in the new millennium, they could as well be dressed in pant suits.         

Like many sisters, they unconsciously mimic each other’s body movements, make up and clothes. They are tied to each other, and cannot escape each other. Even their abayas seem stitched up together. They are enclosed in the solidarity of an evil sisterhood.

In one image, a victim lies on the lap of one of the women. Though in real life only women were murdered, the photographer has ingeniously switched genders. He seems to say that the women could handle a man and thus heightens their negative strength.

The picture is almost like that of Madonna and Child. Only, the victim is being smothered to death. In another image, both sisters hold the hands of a man with their hands. This is a comment on power equations, since it is four hands against two. No prizes for guessing who is stronger here and the result of the one-sided struggle. The man, like the sisters’ real life victims, is only a fly to their spider.

One does not usually associate women, the gentler sex, with such brutality. (Remember, Jack is the Ripper, not Jane). So when women are involved in such cruelty, the terror is doubled. The photographer, by extracting terror from unexpected quarters, makes us recoil even now, though the actual events happened nearly a century ago.

The pictures are accessorised by coffins, cobwebs, spades and executioner’s robes or monk’s cowls, to enhance the creepiness. The talent of the photographer is that he makes us see the sisters from their point of view, not ours. He heightens their self-image and possibly their high opinions of themselves. We must be thankful he allows us have a peek into their world.

Trademarks include the use of camera to attract viewers to engage in a form of voyeurism. Shots are framed to maximise anxiety and fear - or even empathy. The viewers, torn between conflicting emotions, will leave the exhibition with open ended conclusions.  

Also on view is a video loop titled ‘Hapi’ – the god of flooding. The video - the first in a series of five - is about a god ‘Hapi’, previously the god of the Nile’s annual flooding and also the lord of fish and birds.

Historically, Hapi represents the fertility of the Nile. One of the most famous legends related to him is that of the ‘Pride of the Nile’, where a young virgin was chosen from among the most beautiful women in the land, and thrown into the Nile as a sacrifice, to prevent floods in the river.

The video depicts Hapi away from his home and his river. Uprooted, he is no longer who he was; his strengths have become worthless and meaningless. The change of time has affected his role: can he still be proud that a young woman is sacrificed to him?

He denies his role, but enacts it due to habit. But refusal to face reality does not change facts: he stands beside a bathtub, a metaphor for modern life, and dead fish lie around him. So, is he the giver of death or life? Once again, Khalil leaves us with open ended conclusions.

Khalid Shaban, who is project producer, said that he liked Khalil’s ideas. “He expresses many problems of Egyptian youth”, he said. “Through him, I hope to regenerate our treasures”.

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