Janjah Abdel Moneim was only 15 when she moved in with her half-sister Souad Hosny in 1975. The “Cinderella of Arab cinema” was 33 at that time and living in Zamalek with her then-husband, film director Aly Badrakhan.
Hosny had 16 brothers and sisters, but Abdel Moneim says the two of them had a special bond, and Hosny made the teenager her personal assistant. Abdel Moneim would take care of her appointments, rehearsals, arrangements with her accountant, and sometimes even drive her instead of the chauffeur. “She used to love the way I drove the car,” Abdel Moneim remembers, when we meet for an interview at her office in Dokki.
Four years after Abdel Moneim moved in, when Hosny was starring as a circus acrobat in Al-Motawahesha (The Fierce, 1979), which she and poet Salah Jahin produced, she slipped and injured her back. The accident pushed her down a slippery slope of back and neurological dysfunctions. After years of treatment in Egypt failed, she eventually left for Paris in 1992. But her worsening health led her to seek help in London in 1997, where she planned to stay for just a few months but never left. On June 21, 2001, when she was 58 years old, Hosny’s body was found under her sixth-floor balcony at the Stuart Tower in London’s Maida Vale neighborhood.
Abdel Moneim, who couldn’t afford to visit Hosny in London but kept in touch “constantly” by phone, believes that the fact that she died on a Thursday afternoon but that Egyptian TV only announced the death on Friday evening proves that she was murdered. Later still, she says, they announced that she had committed suicide. Hosny’s brothers and sisters were all certain she didn’t kill herself, says Abdel Moneim, and her friends felt suspicious too.
Abdel Moneim immediately flew to London and filed an appeal against the coroner’s report of suicide, but says she ran out of money and had to fly home before reaching any conclusion with the London judiciary. In 2010, she began collecting data from Hosny’s personal documents and close friends in preparation to file a lawsuit in Egypt, which she did in 2011. When investigations were suspended in March 2013 due to insufficient evidence, Abdel Moneim felt her only option was to publish the evidence she had gathered, which she felt was missing from the official account, in a book.
With her relatives’ backing, she hired a scenarist and a journalist to help, but the tone of the writing wasn’t right. She wanted the book to be more emotional and realized she had to do it herself, despite not having written much before. But due to the explosive nature of the story, she had to keep it under wraps. “I didn’t tell anyone except for my brothers and sisters I was writing this book,” she says. “I even had it written by hand and never typed it on a computer until I settled with a publisher.”
Abdel Moneim says finding a publisher unafraid to publish her book and amenable to her conditions – which involved not reading the text before a contract was inked – was tough. Even after she made an agreement with Rawa’ae, which usually publishes fiction, Abdel Moneim claims that someone tried to sabotage the printing process. Whether or not this is true, the book was published in December 2016, under the title Souad Asrar al-Jarymat al-Khafyat (Souad: The Hidden Secrets of the Crime), to welcoming headlines in the local press. (It does not seem to have been reviewed yet.)
The book contains Abdel Moneim’s version of Hosny’s story as well as official documents, personal pictures, and transcripts of phone calls and interviews conducted by the security service with well known figures, most notably Safwat al-Sherif — one-time spymaster, then Information Minister for 23 years, then speaker of Egypt’s Shura Council until the 2011 uprising. There’s also a QR code that links to 18 videos Abdel Moneim has uploaded, which include leaked conversations, testimonies and TV show excerpts backing her conclusions. A woman called Elham, whose last name is never given but who is said to have accompanied Hosny during her stay in Paris, and Baheega Jahin, Salah Jahin’s sister, who was with Hosny for some time in London, are two of Abdel Moneim’s main sources.
Written in simple classical Arabic, with some colloquial words scattered here and there, the book centers around two main themes: the story of Hosny’s recruitment for espionage by a secret office in the Egyptian intelligence service in the 1960s, and a woman called Nadia Yousry, who owned the Stuart Tower apartment and whom Abdel Moneim says only showed up in the media after the star died, introducing herself as Hosny’s closest friend.
According to the book, when Hosny was a 20-year-old rising star in 1962, she was approached by an intelligence agent, Mamdouh Kamel, disguised as a French producer and with an unidentified translator in tow. Through the translator, Kamel told her he wanted her to sign an exclusive acting contract with him, which was common at the time, but first she had to perform a screen test. She agreed but suddenly found herself surrounded by intelligence chief Salah Nasr, intelligence officer Ahmed Yousry al-Gazzar and others with “their huge figures,” so she passed out due to fright. When she woke up, she found herself in a different location, where officers told her Kamel was a French spy and that she was accused of spying for an unidentified country. They said she had two options: be publicly accused of espionage, or do as they told her. Hosny picked the second, “less damaging” choice, which meant seducing intelligence targets to extract information. (Abdel Moneim writes that Hosny very often dodged these operations by traveling for film shoots and using other excuses.)
As in the 2011 court case, Abdel Moneim accuses Nadia Yousry of being part of a plan by this “deviant” group in the intelligence service – led by Safwat al-Sherif – to murder Hosny in 2001 because she was making voice recordings in preparation to write her memoirs. Through conversations with people around Hosny in both Paris and London, many of which Abdel Moneim details, the book tries to prove that Yousry was never Hosny’s friend.
If there’s one thing that unites people who accept Abdel Moneim’s story and those who don’t, like pro-state talk-show presenter Moufid Fawzy, it is suspicion about Yousry. Last September, Abdel Moneim and Fawzy both voiced their disbelief in an episode of TV host Wael al-Ebrashy’s Al-Ashera Massaan on DreamTV. (Fawzy, who has often made it clear on TV that he disagrees with Abdel Moneim’s accusations, tells Mada Masr now that he abandoned the case long time ago. “I grew sick of it, because someone like Souad Hosny is the pearl of art in our lives, and Abdel Halim Hafez is the greatest voice in our lives; when they get reduced to a personal story in the media, it’s just disgusting,” he says, refusing to comment further.)
Abdel Moneim has another motive: The book also discusses at length the warm relationship Hosny had with her family, responding explicitly to articles that “defamed” them and reported “fallacious news” that Hosny wasn’t caring enough. To rumors about Hosny’s love life, particularly about her romantic relationship with singer and actor Abdel Haleem Hafez, Abdel Moneim responds by reproducing a previously unpublicized marriage contract from April 1960. She says the famous couple kept their marriage a secret so the media wouldn’t intrude, and that the mufti who wrote the contract was a friend who kept the secret safe. This marriage is also part of the evidence Abdel Moneim says helps prove the murder. Hafez was close to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Chief-of-Staff Abdel Hakeem Amer (who died in mysterious circumstances in 1967, a case re-opened by his family in 2012), and Abdel Moneim argues that because the marriage protected Hosny from Sherif’s schemes, it created rumors about her social life that affected the naturally credulous Hafez, and the couple divorced after six years.
In the Ashera Massaan episode, Abdel Moneim challenged Fawzy to explain why Scotland Yard also failed to identify how Egyptian ambassador to Greece and former Republican Guard head Al-Lethy Nassef died in 1973, how Abdel Hakeem Amer’s secretary Ali Shafik died in 1977, or how Nasser’s son-in-law, billionaire Ashraf Marawan – the controversial figure who was known to have ties with Israel – died in 2007. These three were also mysteriously found dead under balconies in London (Nassif also at the Stuart Tower), and were each connected with the intelligence service in the late 1960s.
Interestingly, Abdel Moneim doesn’t mention these deaths in the book, which she doesn’t think will lead to her lawsuit being reopened. “When you read the book you’ll understand that the lawsuit cannot be revisited – because if it gets revisited, the courts will be overwhelmed by the gates of hell it would open,” she says, adding that this is because Hosny’s murder involved a high level of corruption in state institutions. “All I want from this book is to bring the truth to the people, the truth of Souad Hosny’s murder and the criminals who took part in it.”
The cover of Souad: The Hidden Secrets of the Crime looks like the sensational poster for a cinematic thriller, and the book’s language is very unsophisticated. Abdel Moneim says it is “a long talk from the heart” more than anything else. “I meant to keep it that way so the truth would reach all levels of intellectual classes,” she says, advising me to read the 650-page book from cover to cover without skimming through or scanning for answers. “It is important to keep reading through the ordered chronology of events to understand the whole picture.”
And in the end, compiling all these details, data, transcriptions and documents in a book does give Abdel Moneim’s case a louder, more convincing voice than the spoken testimonies we have all seen on TV shows. By appearing to back each of her claims and in its sheer volume, the evidence wears away at the reader’s skepticism, and it’s very difficult not to be persuaded.
Note: This article was corrected on June 19 to reflect the fact that Al-Lethy Nassef was an ambassador to Greece, not Britain, at the time of his death.