Perhaps you too have heard of the legendary Arabian
trackers and detectives of the past. It was in 1952
that I happened to observe one such detective in
action with all the tools of his trade which, by the
way, were comprised of instinct, common sense, acute
observation, knowledge of people and places, and, oh
yes, a piece of string.
It was my second year in a Middle Eastern country,
working as a journalist. I lived alone in a big house
near an old market place, or 'souk' as it is known,
with roofed alleys, where you could buy almost
anything you wanted, from spices to the highest
quality Persian rugs.
The souk was a busy place indeed, with all the shops
opening at seven in the morning and doing brisk
business till eight in the night. Then one by one the
shops would close, the vendors pulling down the
shutters and locking them for the night, and silence
would descend and fill the dark alleys where for the
last thirteen hours there was light and all the sounds
During my stay in that country, I had made friends
with one Syed Najem Al Khaleel, who was a police
detective. Najem spoke good English. He lived in the
house beside mine, with his wife and six well-behaved
children. He was in his late forties, of medium height
but sturdily built. His bearded face with sleepy eyes
was, if not handsome, pleasant enough.
The old wooden tea-stall in the souk was one of my
favourite haunts in my free moments. It was here that
I first heard about the murder.
One Thursday, early in the morning, I was sitting at
the tea-stall, sipping a 'finjan' of 'qahwa' (a cup of
black coffee, for you) when Najem walked in and sat at
my table. I order another qahwa for him. While we
waited for his qahwa to arrive, I noticed that his
mind seemed pre-occupied.
"What's the matter?" I asked him. "Why so quiet
"I am thinking," he said.
"Do you do that often?" I grinned.
"Don't joke. This is a serious matter."
"What is it?" his tone made me sit up.
"What?" I was taken aback.
Then he related the whole thing to me. Some time last
night, a murder was committed in the souk. The victim
was a young perfume-seller. His body was discovered
that morining at five when people were out on the
streets going to or coming from their morning prayers
at the mosques. The case had been officially assigned
to Najem and he was on his way to the scene of crime.
My journalistic instincts came fully awake. I had
heard tales of the acutely trained senses of Arabian
detectives. Here was my chance to find out about them
first hand. I requested Najem to take me with him. He
It was now 7 AM, and as it was summertime, the morning
was quite hot already. One by one, the shops in the
souk were being opened and readied for business. The
traffic on the roads was gradually increasing. Water
sellers, some on foot and some on donkey-carts, were
about. Bicycles were there too, and there were
children prancing about in front of their houses.
We found the body of the victim lying in a dim and
narrow alley of the souk. The cause of death was clear
enough. His throat was cut. The alley had already been
cordonned off by two policemen who saluted Najem and
led him to the body.
Najem examined the body for some time, then stood up,
his sleepy eyes looking sleepier than ever.
"There was a struggle before he died," he said.
I looked around for signs of struggle, and found them
- broken buttons of the dishdasha (the common dress of
the Arabs), torn sleeves of the same, and a puffed up
Najem then proceeded to inspect the surroundings.
Bending low, he peered carefully at the ground. Then
he whipped out of the pocket of his dishdasha a piece
of string and started taking some measurements with it
on the ground. Slightly surprised, I looked at him
He called me near him.
"Footprints," he pointed to the ground. I looked. They
were barely visible, some moving towards the corpse
and some going away from it.
"How can you be so sure?" I asked. "So many people
might have passed this way since morning. In fact the
marks could as well have been made by us."
"Look around you. Don't you see a difference in the
footprints made by us and this particular set of
There was a difference. Our footprints were much more
vivid and sharp.
"You remember there was a sandstorm last night?" Najem
"Remember!" I exclaimed. "I can still taste the sand
in my mouth."
Then I realised what he meant. Sand had covered the
ground all around and it was this layer of sand which
had made our footprints so vivid.
"That means these footprints of the murderer were made
before the storm," I tried playing the detective.
"No," said Najem. "They were not made before the
storm. They were made during the storm. If they had
been made before the storm, they would have been
totally obliterated." He paused. "In fact, judging the
strength of the storm and knowing the time when the
storm ended, I can place within a fifteen minutes
bracket the time of the making of footprints."
I was impressed, but immediately thought up another
objection. "How do you know these are not the
footprints of the victim?"
He seemed a bit surprised at my question. "Use your
eyes, my friend, use your eyes," he said. "Look," he
pointed to the victim's feet, "different size of feet,
different kind of footwear."
"What were you measuring on the ground?" I quickly
changed the tack.
To demonstrate, Najem once again brought his string
into play and measured the distance between two
consecutive footprints. Then he proceeded to repeat
the measurement randomly choosing another pair of
"Do you notice anything?" he asked after about four or
"All the measurements that I have taken are exactly
"So we can definitely say that the murderer had what
you might call a measured gait."
"What's so extraordinary about that?" I really didn't
see his point. Why was he giving importance to the
gait of the murderer? "Many people have such a gait.
In fact, even I have a measured gait."
"You are right. Many people have measured gait, but
how many of those people could maintain it under these
"Under what circumstances?"
I went near him.
"Do you see any difference between the footprints
which move towards the corpse and the footprints which
move away from it?'
I examined both the sets. "The prints moving towards
the corpse are sharper than the ones moving away from
it," I said.
"Good. What does that suggest to you?"
I had an inspiration. "The murderer was carrying
something heavy when he came here and he had dropped
the weight before moving away."
"Very good. I will make a detective of you yet. Now
tell me what heavy thing could he be carrying?"
I had another inspiration. "The corpse."
"Once again right on the head," said Najem.
"You mean to say that the murder was not done at this
"I am positive. Look at the evidence. First, there is
the matter of the footprints. Second, even though the
victim died due his throat being cut, there is very
small amount of blood on the ground. Third, even
though the body shows signs of struggle with the
murder, the ground itself is devoid of such signs."
I thought over what Najem had said. "What has all this
got to do with the gait of the murderer?" I asked.
"You said you have a measured gait but do you think
you could keep up your measured gait while carrying a
corpse on your back?"
I considered. "No, I don't think so."
"There you are."
"So what does the measured gait tell you?"
"It tells me that the murderer is a strong man and a
man whose measured gait is the result of years of
"A military man," he stated positively.
My respect for this man was growing by the minute.
Truly, this was the stuff that legends are made of.
"Now let us see where the murder was committed and why
it was necessary to shift the corpse." Eyes to the
ground, Najem started tracing back the footprints
which came towards the corpse. After a while, the
footprints vanished, being obliterated by the day's
traffic. Najem took his bearings and moved off in the
general direction from which the footprints seemed to
have come. His eyes were still fixed on the ground.
After about five minutes, he stopped and looked up. He
was in front of a house with green doors. He stood
there for some time, deep in thought. Then he came
away from there and motioned his assistants to remove
"Well, that ends our investigation for the day," he
said. "Meet me at the tea-stall tonight after the
evening prayers," and he was gone.
I met him at the tea-stall at the promised time. For
the first five minutes, there was no mention of the
murder. We just drank our tea and talked of this and
"Do you remember the house with the green doors we saw
this morning?" Najem asked. At last, I thought, he is
going to speak of the murder case. I was eager to know
the developments. His next question, however, was
"Do you know that a very pretty girl lives there,
young and with tons of sex-appeal. And what's more,
she belongs to one of those 'modernized' Arab families
who think nothing of their women folk wearing
provocative dresses and roaming in the streets."
"What's this?" I asked, surprised. "Turning into a
lecherous old man?"
"Actually, I was thinking about your bachelorhood," he
"Don't trouble yourself on my account."
"The murder was committed in front of the house with
the green doors," he said suddenly.
"How do you know?" I pounced.
"Direction of the footprints, slight signs of struggle
on the ground in front of the house, and the presence
in the house of a pretty girl who goes about freely
displaying her charms."
I caught the drift of his words. "You mean the motive
for the murder could be jealosy between two young men
over the charms of the said pretty girl?"
"I am sure of it."
"And the corpse had to be moved away from the house in
order to protect the girl, and also to hide the motive
of the murder, which might then lead to the detection
of the killer?" I was getting excited. The murder case
seemed to be nearing its end.
"So what are you going to do next?" Now would begin
the chase between the detective and the criminal as it
happens in the novels, I thought.
"Next, I am going to go home and relax with my
family," said Najem.
"What do you mean?" I was confused.
"The case is closed, my friend."
"Closed," I almost shouted. "You caught the murderer?"
"Nothing exciting, I am afraid," he peered out of the
tea-stall into the darkness of the night. "Just
routine stuff. A little bit of questioning frightened
the girl enough to make her confess."
"Girl? Confess?" I was totally lost.
"The pretty girl, you know."
"What did she confess?"
"Of course, I knew the time of the murder and that the
murderer was a military man," said Najem. "It helped
me a lot in my questioning."
"What did she confess?"
"She confessed that she knew the murderer. She
confessed that she had witnessed the murder."
"She had witnessed the murder?"
Najem nodded. "She had a rendezvous with one of her
admirers. By a co-incidence, the other admirer felt
the urge to see her, and came by uninvited. That is
how the two rivals came to know about each other." He
was silent for a while.
"And they had a fight," he picked up the thread of his
narrative, and one of them was killed. The other one
is now caught and will be punished."
We sat there for a long time staring into the dusk,
not talking, each of us thinking our own thoughts.