Recommended by Jack: Mamur Zapt

Thursday Mar 10 2011
by Jack

As I recently watched with growing fascination the televised events in Cairo, I was reminded that I knew quite a lot about the earlier history of Egypt of a century ago, thanks to the wonderful crime novels of Michael Pearce.  Pearce is a British writer who grew up in the Sudan.  He has a real eye for local colour, and between 1988 and 2008 he wrote sixteen novels set in Cairo just before and just after the First World War.  His detective was a young Welshman named Captain Gareth Owen, who began his career in the Indian Army and somehow got transferred to the Egypt being governed as a protectorate by the British, acquiring an appointment as head of Cairo’s secret service and the title of the “Mamur Zapt.”  There apparently really was somebody called the “Mamur Zapt,” but Pearce uses the post as an entrée into the Egyptian world of the early twentieth century.  In the process he manages, among other things, to explain how “indirect rule” worked for the British in Egypt and other places around the world, and why Egypt was (and is) such a fascinating place.  The Mamur Zapt’s Cairo is a cosmopolitan city with a Muslim majority,  a Christian (Coptic) minority, and a variety of other cultures as well.  Its government is complex, since it is technically part of the Ottoman Empire and is ruled by a local Khedive who has unfortunately gone so deeply into debt that his government has in effect been taken over by its creditors, first the French and latterly the British.  There are more than faint stirrings of Egyptian nationalism, with one of the major conflicts between the Nationalists and the British.  There is also an ongoing love story in the novels, an on-and-off romance between Owen and the illegitimate daughter of a Pasha and one of his harem slave girls. Zeinab is a very modern and liberated young lady.  The stories are exciting, often amusing, and highly informative.  Unfortunately, many of the sixteen novels in the series have become difficult to get.  Whodunit? is doing its best to put them on the shelves as quickly as possible, but you may well have to wait your turn.  Highly recommended.    

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