When news first broke of the sudden death of prolific Egyptian blogger Bassem Sabry on April 30, Egyptian society was both shocked and grief-stricken. Sabry was just 31 years old, but the nation had lost a strong advocate for democracy and civil rights at a critical moment in the post-revolutionary saga – just weeks before campaigning began for the presidential elections.
What sparked a frenzy of rumour and speculation, however, was the manner of death that befell the young activist. Sabry had reportedly slipped “by accident” off the balcony of his 10th floor flat in Cairo.
In a country that has seen several mysterious “balcony deaths” involving prominent figures during the past few decades, there was reason enough to begin imagining alternative, more dramatic, scenarios.
Had the influential Sabry, who had over 100,000 followers on Twitter, been erased by the country’s all-pervasive intelligence apparatus? Or had the young man been a victim of shoddy construction standards?
The online portal Middle East Monitor reported that the blogger had “died in suspicious circumstances”.
Sabry’s family and close friends were quick to silence the conspiracy theorists by insisting the blogger had succumbed to a diabetic coma, and the matter was closed. Or was it?
Mysterious balcony deaths have constituted such a motif in contemporary Egyptian history that it has spurred a myth about a “balcony phantom“.
“Is there some sort of a balcony phantom … that goes after every Egyptian who dares and stands [on] the balcony?” asks one blogger.
Perhaps the most spectacular instance was that of film star, Souad Hosni, in 2001. The 58-year-old actress, once known as the “Cinderella of Egyptian cinema”, plunged to her death from the balcony of her apartment in London.
Despite substantial evidence to the contrary, British authorities ruled it a suicide. Some alleged that at the time of her death, Hosni had been working on her memoirs, which would have implicated several high-level Egyptian officials in a lurid sex scandal.
Last March, an Egyptian judge suspended investigations into Hosni’s death. They had been launched after a formal legal complaint by the star’s sister, who alleged that Egyptian government officials had been behind Hosni’s death.
In 2007, another sensational death by balcony would rock Egyptian media. Ashraf Marwan, billionaire, alleged spy and son-in-law of Gamal Abdel Nasser, reportedly “fell” off the balcony of his fifth floor apartment in London. There were rumours of foul play and witnesses claimed to have seen two men in suits, “of Mediterranean appearance”, on the balcony after Marwan’s fall but no one was ever held responsible. Marwan’s widow, Mona Nasser, has accused Israel’s Mossad spy agency of having killed her husband.
“I wasn’t there when it happened, but I’m certain someone came in and just threw him over the balcony. He was very frail and could easily have been carried and thrown from the balcony,” Mona Nasser told the BBC in 2010.
crystallises the perfect opposite of what balconies symbolise in the collective Egyptian subconscious. Balconies are the only place where many Egyptian families are not confined in a closed space or lost in a loud crowd in the middle of maddening traffic. Balconies mean distraction, laughter, cool watermelon slices, round after round of tea with fresh mint.”]
In the mid-1970s, Egyptian ambassador to Britain General Leithy Nassif also fell to his death from a balcony in London. And in 1977, Ali Shafik, an alleged arms dealer and secretary in the office of former Egyptian Vice President Abdel Hakim Amer, shared the same fate.
In all cases, questions continue to linger: Did they jump or were they pushed?
Is it any wonder that Sabry’s untimely death reignited memories of previous unsolved “accidental” balcony deaths – dubbed “Egyptian X-files” by some bloggers?
More recently, in January 2011, there was a lot of speculation over the death of another activist, Sally Zahran. Some of the speculation included the assertion she had jumped off a balcony because her family had locked her in to prevent her from joining a sit-in. Her family refutes this story, stressing that she was clubbed in the back of the head and died in Tahrir Square.
Balconies in culture
All this feeds popular lore – or a national fixation even – on balcony deaths. But let’s backtrack a little.
Amina Elbendary, an Egyptian historian and an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, says balconies have served an integral purpose in Egyptian life “since their appearance at the turn of the last century with Italianate architecture”.
Most Egyptians in the big cities reside in apartments and balconies are an integral part of daily life. The idea of a balcony death, therefore, hits close to home, and might lend itself to what some describe as a “latent fear”. It is a fixation that even permeates Egyptian artistic life, and by extension, art aficionados. Were there not reports of people jumping off balconies after the death of heartthrob crooner Abdel Halim Hafez in 1977?
In the latest Mohamed Khan film, Fatat al-Masna (Factory Girl), the protagonist falls off the balcony of an old, decrepit house.
“It’s an interesting scene, and somehow it is in the collective popular imagination of people. It’s a latent fear that Khan seizes and plays on,” says Elbendary.
“Death by balcony, it would resonate. The idea of somebody – often a woman – throwing themselves off a balcony is not uncommon. It’s an image often associated with women in the popular imagination, women in times of distress or psychological trauma. These ‘accidents’ typically pop up after grades are announced for example. We had one on our street last month, a young teenage girl.”
For Injy el-Kashef, a social commentator and former columnist for Ahram Weekly, death by balcony “crystallises the perfect opposite of what balconies symbolise in the collective Egyptian subconscious”.
“Balconies are the only place where many Egyptian families are not confined in a closed space or lost in a loud crowd in the middle of maddening traffic. Balconies mean distraction, laughter, cool watermelon slices, round after round of tea with fresh mint,” she says. “It makes the act appear all the more tragic, all the more desperate, hopeless and shocking. It is like the dazzling contrast that results from juxtaposing black against white.”
But before one jumps to conclusions, to assume that all balcony deaths in Egypt or involving Egyptians are either murder or suicide, there ought to be a caveat for the genuine accidents, or building collapses, resulting from shoddy construction or bad maintenance.
According to 2007 figures, for instance, there were 31,000 known building violations in the city of Alexandria alone, where 6,500 buildings are near collapse.
“Falling off balconies is a common accident [in Egypt],” says Elbendary. “It is common because of bad maintenance and poverty and ignorance which lead to it, as were butane bottles blowing up. It’s not always suicidal, of course.”
Still, the mystique endures in what has come to be known as the most suspicious way to die for Egyptians of stature.