The Women of the Souk: A Mamur Zapt Mystery Set in Pre-World War I Egypt

Written by Michael Pearce
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1913, on a hot, sand-stormy day in Cairo, Captain Gareth Owen, the Mamur Zapt (Head of the Secret Police) spies through his office window a young Egyptian girl standing in the courtyard. When his clerk tells him she’s only a schoolgirl, and that she’s been waiting there for a couple of hours, he angrily asks him to let her in. Layla informs Owen that her sixth-form classmate, Marie Kewfik, was kidnapped over a week ago. She has come to see him in desperation, for the wealthy Kewfiks have done nothing to secure her release, and the City Police are dragging their feet. Owen is reluctant to take on Marie’s case. However, due to the perseverance of Layla and her supportive classmates, and the Khedive’s insistence, Owen is drawn in to resolve Marie’s abduction as well as other connected events: hashish dealings, murder, and a potential revolt against the British.

In this 19th installment, Michael Pearce has concocted yet another intriguing mystery. The series theme of tensions created by Turkish and British involvement in Egyptian affairs, leading to criminal activity and conspiracies, is integral to this novel as well. However, true to its title, this offering concentrates on the treatment of native women by their menfolk and society in general. As with other countries during the period, Owen’s wife Zeinab is shown as a defiant “New Woman” who stands up for her rights and freedoms and is a model for other ladies. They even assist in the liberation of the kidnapped girl. Although this aspect slows the novel’s pace, the masterful descriptions of Cairo life during those chaotic times and the witty dialogue make it an informative and entertaining read.