Ibrahim El-Gharaby: The Pimp Emperor
A character like El-Gharaby is mysterious, unique in his nature and rare to find throughout the history of modern Egypt. The writings surrounding this character are many but all follow the same official story that we heard of from officials after his arrest, as it seems that the contemporary writers didn’t want to object to this story. However, this article an attempt to present the historical facts about this character as it was written without taking any sides.
Origins and Early Life before Cairo:
El-Gharaby was born in the year 1850 in Korosko, Aswan to a rich and well-respected family. His father was Mohamed Mahmoud Ammar who worked as a Shaikh (Tribal word for Leader), and was a major player in the ongoing slave trade on the Nile river, as slavery wasn’t banned in Egypt until the year 1870. His mom was Naimaa Sanad, the daughter of the mayor of Korosko.
Growing up, El-Gharaby had a special place in his father’s heart, as he was his favorite among his siblings, and it was decided that he was to take his father place at the slave trade once he turned 18. Growing up El-Gharaby was known for being a righteous religious man, until he took a trip to a far-away land in Sudan for six months and came back a changed man. Even his own father considered him to be “lubricious”, and ever since then “lubricious” meant shame to the family. His father decided that killing his own son was better than waiting for him to bring great dishonor to the family name.
News of his father’s plotting reached El-Gharaby and he decided that it was better to run away from their village to the town of Korosko, where he sought shelter from the garrison’s commander in the city, who knew his mom. And indeed, the commander protected El-Gharaby from his father. Now alone, El-Gharaby decided to try his luck with his first brothel which he opened in the town of Korosko. However, the town was too small to feed the ambition of this young man.
He decided to move to Qena, in which there was a big garrison protecting the city and railways in the area. He saw a golden opportunity in this garrison and opened a brothel near it and made a name for himself there, until the commander didn’t like the brothel and saw that it was a source of corruption and distraction for his soldiers. He worked on seeing it closed and El-Gharaby eventually kicked out of Qena.
Cairo: The New Life:
He came to Cairo after the commander kicked him out of Qena in the year of 1890 and rented a big house in Wabor El-Mayah St in “Boulaq El-Dakror” district and turned it into a brothel. That brothel was the first step towards his empire that he would build carefully over the years. Soon after, the brothel became a distention for everyone who sought pleasure in the city, and as for El-Gharaby, it only took him a year to buy the house.
His father passed away in the year of 1896, leaving behind 10,000 Egyptian Pounds and 8 acres of farmland to his son. For a businessman like El-Gharaby, that money was just a new opportunity to further build his empire and he bought a luxurious house in “El-Wasah” at “Bab El-Sharia” district. That house was soon known for being one of the most luxurious brothels in all of Egypt. He didn’t just buy the house; he also bought a dancing pub. ‘Dancing’ in this context doesn’t mean regular dancing, but it was more of stripping, seductive dancing. Some stories say that El-Gharaby would open the show every night with him dancing a particular dance he called: “Raqst El-Batn” (Dance of the Belly).
By the year 1912, El-Gharaby owned around 15 brothels and an unknown number of dancing pubs. For him worked around 150 sex workers, but all of that conundrum managed to get the authorities’ attention until he was arrested for the first time in 1916.
El-Gharaby’s first clash with the authorities came in the year 1916 when he was arrested and charged with “corrupting the morals of the public”. This arrest was part of a bigger campaign headed by Harvey Pasha, the Chief of Police at the time, to cleanse Cairo of unlicensed sex workers and pimps working outside the licensed districts for sex work. In 1914 and with the declaration of martial law, Harvey Pasha decided to build a prison for those he deemed morally corrupt in El-Halamya, however, in the beginning El-Gharaby was not arrested until the Deputy Chief, Thomas Russell Pasha noticed and became angry at the level of corruption in the police force and ordered for his arrest himself. EL-Gharaby was arrested but he only spent one year in prison and with his release, he declared himself the emperor who won over the government.
His inauguration as the emperor of the sex work industry started the moment he stepped outside of prison, as he was met with a party of his followers who brought him a golden crown with diamonds, and a carriage decorated with golden paint, and paraded him in “El-Wasah” Street to announce to everyone that the emperor had arrived back to his palace. He was an emperor that was known to rule with an iron fist, as El-Gharaby often showed cruelty to his workers and associates as he put his own laws and punished whoever broke those laws.
One of the stories that were told during this period was that El-Gharaby turned one of the houses he owned into a “prison”, where he would jail the sex workers who dared to disagree with his orders. The fear of El-Gharaby stopped anyone from reporting what was happening in that “prison” to authorities, until a sex worker’s sister decided to complain to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, but news of this complaint reached El-Gharaby and he managed to empty the cells and went to the Public Prosecutor wearing a dress and denied all allegations.
Sex workers working for El-Gharaby did not only fear his cells, as that was only one of the many risks that came with the job, he implemented a system that was described as “sexual slavery”. The sex workers could not keep any money to themselves and had to give all of their earnings to El-Gharaby himself or one of his assistants, and he forced any sex worker that wanted to work for him to sign a promissory note that he could use if they ever tried to run away from him. For El-Gharaby, the money he collected from the sex workers was just and fair, as he often justified them for covering the expenses of the food, clothes and house supplies; even though the quality of the food was quite heinous as it comprised of only beans or cheese. As for the clothes, he only used the cheapest fabrics he could get his hands on to produce the clothes for the sex workers.
Rare picture of El-Gharaby. Date Uknown
Don’t be fooled though, El-Gharaby was not a stingy man, at least not on himself and his needs. He wore a lot of golden jewelry and spent a lot on his deputies and assistants and some officials to keep his secrets and ignore any complaints that may come their way against him. One of the weirdest stories came after his arrest, was when the police raided his house and found an official complaint that was filed against him. But instead of taking the legal route regarding the complaint, the complaint ended up going to El-Gharaby himself and El-Gharaby managed to build his network and connections very well during the British rule. Those connections even reached Senty Pasha, Head of the Public Morality Office and Geroge Philips, the Deputy Chief of Cairo Police.
Having the authorities in his back pocket meant that he had a free hand to expand his trade further and further. Slowly, El-Gharaby was turning into a megalomaniac, as he started “importing” sex workers from Europe, Turkey and other countries, and instructed his deputies to wait in Egyptian ports to welcome those girls and play along with them or just flat out trick them into working in his brothels, and as such, his brothels became more and more popular among the public, as you could find the dark-skinned, colored and white ones.
El-Gharaby didn’t only work to get adult sex workers into his brothels, but also assigned his deputies to capture underage girls, even though the law was against it, but for El-Gharaby, there was no problem that money couldn’t solve. He would just bribe the doctors who would determine the age of the girl to declare them over the age of 18 so she would receive her license. El-Gharaby didn’t only hunt underage girls but also had male sex workers working for him and again, that was illegal but for him, he would just say that these men were just waiters in the bar attached to the house, which was true as they waited on customers and served them drinks and at the same time if a customer grew lust after one of them, they would pay for sexual services.
The rule of El-Gharaby didn’t stop with his workers alone, but it expanded over all the other pimps in the industry, he often would sit on his sofa which was covered with eagle feathers and deer leather to work as the “judge” among the people working in the industry. His rulings were harsh but no one dared to object to it after all as he was their emperor. But a story was told of two sisters who owned brothels and decided to go against one of his rulings, so El-Gharaby decided to call the police on them, saying they had underage girls in their brothels, which was ironic given the number of underage girls he had at his own brothels. The police raided the sisters’ brothels and found the underage girls and the sisters were arrested and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
So El-Gharaby was a true pimp emperor, he bought the officials and ran a sex work empire that operated all over Egypt and at its peak, reached 54 brothels and an unknown numbers of small pubs. In this empire if you ask about the judge, the police and the chief, the answer would be one which is El-Gharaby. El-Gharaby’s empire was a state within the state and the moment you would step inside one of his brothels, you left the outside world and entered a world where there was no law, other than El-Gharaby’s law.
By the year 1922, the disappearance incidents of underage boys and girls increased in the country and with it, the suspicion rose among the public, especially since most complaints regarding this issue would just be closed and noted that the criminal was never caught. In the same year, a “El-Sayda Zaynb” police station received a complaint from an underage girl that ran away from home and was approached by a female worker working for El-Gharaby, where she told the little girl to come with her to see her son and marry him but then, she was drugged and raped.
This girl started a domino effect, as soon she told the police about it, another girl she knew had the same thing happen to her and the stories kept coming and with each girl, she would point to another girl who also had the same experience. The investigations revealed a lot of stories, one of which was one of a girl that was forced to sell her virginity to a rich man from Upper Egypt for 100 Egyptian Pounds, all of which went to El-Gharaby and after the rich man was done with her, El-Gharaby’s workers took her to the Office of Public Morality to get her a license to practice sex work, but the doctor there refused saying that the girl was only 15 and under the legal age of consent. When the doctor’s report reached Santy, the Head of the Public Morality Police, he was furious and asked his friend Philips, the Deputy Chief of Cairo Police to help him with the girl getting a license to practice sex work and so she did.
News reproting on the arrest. Date Unknown.
This revealed how deep officials were with El-Gharaby. The Prosecutor’s Office did not stop at that and expanded the investigation and found that more than 400 underage girls were being sold in markets for different brothels by El-Gharaby and his gangs.
The Police raided his house and found huge amounts of gold and paper money and promissory notes he forced the sex workers to sign, and it was revealed that El-Gharaby owned and ran about 52 brothels and the Prosecutor charged about 22 individuals in the case with different offenses like blackmail, kidnapping and forgery.
In court, El-Gharaby stood and threw his allegations against all those witnessing against him and gave a list of the officials who received bribes from him. All these allegations were investigated later and led to the arrest of his friends Senty and Philips. The court in the end found El-Gharaby guilty and sentenced him to ten years in prison.
At first El-Gharaby was sent to Masr Prison in Cairo, where the other prisoners refused to let him come to the prison and threatened to revolt if he was to be placed with them, as they would not accept a crossdressing pimp amongst them. And so he was transferred to another prison in Upper Egypt, where he was less known. But he didn’t last for long in prison and died in 1926.
In the end he did not receive an emperor goodbye, his funeral was welcomed with eggs and vegetables by the public and no Imam wanted to pray over his dead body.
The most mysterious aspects of this interesting character of El-Gharaby was his personal life, he was known to be handsome, smart, and a smooth talker. El-Gharaby was also rumored to be homosexual and by today’s standards, some may call him genderqueer as he loved to look feminine. When you think of a hardened criminal and a pimp, you wouldn’t think of someone who likes to dress like women and put makeup and sleep with men, but so was El-Gharaby, a “man” that decided to go against the gender binary narrative of what you may consider a conservative society then.
El-Gharaby often wore women’s clothing, put makeup, and wore feminine golden jewelry. One of the contemporary writings on his looks came from “El-Alam” newspaper in its 25th edition issued on 25th of October 1926:
“His body and his women’s clothing were adorned with jewels and jewels. Among them was a pair of gold anklets set with diamonds that were worth six hundred pounds, and a pair of gold bracelets hanging from each a chain consisting of forty-five British Pounds, and at the end of the chain, a piece of five English Pounds. The price of the bracelet was estimated at three hundred pounds, and a pair of snake-shaped bracelets studded with diamonds cost three hundred pounds.”
Another contemporary writing came from Mohamed Younis El-Qady’s personal journals:
“He had the same dark skin of someone who came from “Al-Ahbash” region, of moderate stature, in his speech soft, in his movement feminine, and most of the time he wore women’s clothes, adorned his wrists and ears with bracelets and earrings, and wore gold anklets on his legs.”
El-Gharaby didn’t have any kids of his own, after all, he was rumored to be gay and most likely it was true, but he did adopt two kids (Mohamed & Ismail) and supported them and gave them all the love and money they needed in life until they received their Bachelor’s from the Fines Arts School and started working with the government.
Upon his death, El-Gharaby left forty-five houses he owned and the furniture in it alone was estimated at about forty-five thousand Egyptian Pounds, in addition to more than 400 pieces of gold, silver and diamonds and endless jewelry, and 124 piece of silk clothes, 150 fine dresses, 18 boxes of luxurious champagne, 15 boxes of fine wine and many more items that posed to be very valuable to whoever inherited all that fortune. This opened the door to many years of fights in court mainly between his two adopted sons and his brother Gamal, and at the end of the day, the two adopted sons didn’t have anything to prove that he legally adopted them and the court ruled to giving the inheritance to the brother, Gamal.
In the end, the biggest loss in this story was not having it documented from the man himself. It is unfortunate that the contemporary writers did not see the value of a story like this, maybe because El-Gharaby himself refused to talk to anyone about his life or maybe because the writers just didn’t want to present a story that may go against the official story that was released by the government. In the end, El-Gharaby managed to take most of his secrets to the grave, secrets we will never know about the pimp emperor.