The story of a notorious 1920s murder that stirred a media frenzy in Egypt and the United Kingdom. Involving two controversial characters and pitting two different cultures against each other, the case was much more than a simple crime of passion.
The time: 2 a.m. on 10 July 1923 — The place: The Savoy Hotel, London
Millionaire playboy Ali Fahmy stormed out of his French wife’s room followed by her little dog. Their hotel neighbours had gotten used to the couple’s constant fighting, but this time it was too much. A bell-boy was dispatched to politely ask them to keep it down. He had hardly left when he heard gunshots ring out, four times in rapid succession. He ran back and found the twenty-three-year-old Ali Fahmy lying in the hallway, soaking in a pool of his own blood.
Marguerite Laurient stood with a Browning .32-caliber pistol in her hand. Panicking, she ran towards her husband trying to revive him, but he had died instantly. The hotel staff quickly detained her until the police arrived and escorted the distraught woman into their vehicle amid a buzz of journalists, curious passers-by and shocked hotel guests.
It wasn’t long before Marguerite, or Maggie as she liked to be called, found herself in front of a judge and jury, with no choice but to confess. But somehow, instead of a murder trial where she was the culprit, Maggie found herself at the centre of a trial of culture in which the uncivilised oriental man became the main offender. Thanks to the compelling (often described as theatrical) performance given by Maggie’s top-notch attorney, Sir Marshall Hall (who was paid with her late husband’s money), the murderess was portrayed as the victim. Ali Fahmy was denounced as a ‘savage’ who treated his wife as an object, much like the rest of his ‘barbaric’ oriental race. He was also accused of demanding lewd sexual acts of a sadistic nature from his poor wife who was forced to comply under threat.
Armed with a brilliant lawyer and a jury that was all too eager to blame the primitive oriental without much questioning, Maggie was declared innocent and set free without being sentenced to a single day in jail. All in all, the trial lasted for only six short days.
What would normally have been an open-and-shut case—the murderess was caught red-handed, after all—turned into a media spectacle of extraordinary proportions. The public could not get enough of it and newspaper reporters swarmed to get the latest on every detail of the trial. Al-Ahram, Egypt’s premiere daily newspaper, covered every minute detail of the case and historian Dr. Yunan Labib Rizq recounts how some people inside the courtroom went to the extent of selling their seats to the multitudes clamoring to get in.
The newspapers, in their frenzy to report on the scandalous accusations made by Maggie against her late husband, complacently stereotyped all oriental men as barbarians in the image created by Maggie’s cunning lawyer. As the defamation spree continued in the English press, newspapers in British-occupied Egypt found themselves obliged to defend Egyptian men, who were sweepingly accused of sharing the victim’s sadism and brutality. Egyptian writers and intellectuals (both male and female) protested with such fervour that they eventually pressured several major British publications to apologize for their appalling comments and generalizations.
Ali Fahmy himself did not make his defenders’ task very easy. There were many credible eyewitness accounts testifying that he had grossly mistreated his wife—at times even hitting her in public—to the great disapproval of his friends and family in Egypt. Then again, had she really wanted to end this fateful marriage, Maggie could have easily sought the protection of her embassy. Although Maggie’s motives were shrouded in doubt, Fahmy did not receive a fair trial. The judge, a former lawyer and assistant to the charismatic Marshall Hall, turned a blind eye to Maggie’s shortcomings. The trial was plagued with corruption, negligence and unabashed prejudice, and there was precious little the Egyptians could do about it.
The son of an engineer who had amassed a vast fortune from scratch, Ali Fahmy grew up deprived of all the comforts his miserly father could easily afford. As soon as the young Ali got his hands on his inheritance at the age of eighteen, however, there was no holding him back. In four years’ time, he had reportedly spent over a million Egyptian pounds.
Ali was known to pay tips between 5 and 20 pounds when he frequented bars (this was the 1920s!). He abandoned his father’s house in Bab el-Luq and paid £E 13,000 for a piece of land only worth £E 4,000 in the posh Zamalek district. The difference was pocketed by his personal ‘secretary’ and various helpful cronies. The villa that was to be his new home was built for £E 100,000 when the job could have been done for a fifth of that. Ali simply didn’t care … One story goes that when he asked for the young, high-born Munira Sarhank’s hand in marriage, he walked into her family’s house followed by twenty uniformed men wearing full redingote suits, each carrying a sterling silver box laden with jewellery. That engagement did not last very long, however, as Ali was soon caught making love to one of the actresses from the Rihani theatre troupe in his car. The nuptials were, of course, promptly cancelled. In case you were curious, Munira returned all the jewellery to the young man, as accounted to me by one of her relatives … That must have been hard!
So, this was Ali, a quintessential hedonist who stopped at nothing for his pleasure until that fateful evening when he met Maggie. Eight years his senior, Maggie was a seductive woman of humble origins who moved skilfully from one man to the next, living in decadent luxury entirely on her wits and beauty. Her health had brought her to the sunny climate of Egypt where she mingled with Cairo’s cosmopolitan elite.
The first time Maggie saw Ali was at a party at the Zamalek villa. According to her diaries, the lush renaissance-style house with its luxury and extravagance left quite an impression on her. Ali immediately fell in love with the beautiful Frenchwoman, and a passionate love affair ensued with the skilful Maggie teasing and tantalizing the young man until he begged her to marry him. The marriage was stormy from the very start. The fighting never ceased, and what had begun glamorously at an elegant Zamalek party, ended gruesomely at the Savoy Hotel in London.
The villa, which today stands at the entrance to 26th of July Street in Zamalek, is known as the Aisha Fahmy Palace. It was inherited by Ali’s sister, Aisha, who lived an eventful and occasionally turbulent life and whose numerous marriages to men of diverse backgrounds frequently made the news. Her husbands included the legendary theatrical pioneer Youssef Bey Wahbi and she was also reportedly married to popular comedian Mahmoud Shukuku, among several others.
The Aisha Fahmy Palace is now an art gallery owned by the Ministry of Culture. Little is remembered of the man who built the house for a small fortune so many years ago, but never had a chance to enjoy it. When you visit the gallery today, the attendant following you around like a shadow will monotonously and mechanically recount the eccentricities of Aisha Fahmy but nothing of her brother’s tragic story. The beautiful building is worth a visit, though, and the gallery frequently hosts fine exhibitions. So, the next time you’re in Zamalek, do drop by for a little visit and try to imagine the glitzy balls and parties that were thrown in the grand hall that maintains a lingering glamour despite its current gloomy bareness. One thought to ponder as you walk through the old house: If this murder were to happen today, would prejudice still prevail over justice?
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Yasmine El Dorghamy Yasmine El Dorghamy holds an MA in international education policy from Stockholm University and works in the field of education. She also publishes RAWI Egypt’s Heritage Review and is currently conducting research on traditional Egyptian jewellery and amulets in addition to researching the history of art writing/critiquing in Egypt.