I was reading about recent excavations at Amheida, a buried city in Egypt’s Dakhleh Oasis, where it is beginning to appear that agricultural development was taking place before the settlement of the Nile valley and rise of the Pharaohs. I thereupon turned the Al-Ahram Weekly Online, in order to search their Heritage section, and read about the horrendous murder of the wife of an Egyptian doctoral student here in Europe. It is always very sad when tragedy befalls people coming from abroad to work or study in our universities and institutes, but this incident is particularly gruesome.

Elwy Okaz was studying at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, where he lived with his 32-year-old wife Marwa El-Sherbini and their 3-year-old son. Last year, while with her son on a swing in a public playgroup, she received strong verbal abuse from Alex W., who wanted the swing for his niece, and who was engraged by her headscarf. He is an ethnic German immigrant from Russia, where it is said he had been in Chechenya with the Russian army. El-Sherbini filed charges, and Alex W. was fined 780 Euros. However, because of the strongly xenophobic behaviour of the defendant, even in the first court, the Public Prosecutor appealed for a more stringent sentence.

On July 1st 2009, the appeal hearing started. Only the judge, two jurors, the prosecutor, the defence lawyer, Alex W., El Sherbini, her husband and their three year old son were in the hall: no security people were present. Suddenly the defendant attacked El-Sherbini with a knife, stabbing her eighteen times, and also her husband when he tried to defend her. The defence lawyer threw a chair at the defendant, and a policeman rushed in from a nearby courtroom and mistakenly shot the husband in the leg.

El-Sherbini, who was carrying their second child, died instantly. Elwy Okaz was for a while in a critical condition from his stab wounds, but is now recovering. El-Sherbini’s funeral has been held in Egypt, where she is now known as “the Martyr of the Headscarf”. Egyptians are particularly angry at the low coverage of this incident in the German press and the low-level reaction from the German authorities.

My own scientific career has been very much helped by a series of Egyptian students, some of who have returned to us for a time to to post-doctoral work. So I find this incident particularly poignant.


Death of Marwa El-Sherbini (from Wikipedia)

Footnotes on Marwa’s murder (by Abdel-Moneim Said)

Two statements from the Max-Planck Society and Institute:

“We most strongly condemn this deplorable act”

Statement on the occasion of the official ceremony to remember Marwa El-Sherbini Dresden, 11 July 2009

Landgericht Dresden: Messerattacke gibt Rätsel auf (from Frankfurter Rundschau).

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Buried City in Oasis Lends View of Ancient Egypt

Welcome to Excavations at Amheida in Egypt’s Dakhleh Oasis (from Columbia University)