Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sleeping amid sacks of Cannabis: My night with Bedouin opium farmers in Sinai

Sometime in the mid-Nineties my ex-wife heard there was a great hike in Southern Sinai, where, while standing in Asia, one can look out over Africa.  I liked the sound of this, so we went to the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv and got visas to South-Sinai (it was outside the Sinai coast area where Israelis have visaless access).  These were the years of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and before the rise of al-Qaeda.  Sinai was a pretty safe place at this time.

We caught a rickety bus which goes from the Egyptian border with Eilat to Cairo. The bus slowly crossed Sinai, and after the better part of a day we got off in Wadi Feiran, which is thought to be the site of the biblical battle of Rephidim, where the Israelites beat Amalek and which contains a palm tree forest.
Palm tree forest in Feiran

In Feiran we made our way to a Byzantine convent called Deir el-Banat. The convent is 1,500 years old and looked completely alive (though a bit empty).  At the convent a woman, who I suppose was a nun, looked a bit astonished when we told her we were looking for a Bedouin to guide for the Serbal, but sent someone to find a guide.
The 1,500 year old convent in Feiran
They returned with a tense 15 year old boy who spoke neither English or Hebrew. He demanded some 800 Egyptian pounds to be our guide (a lot of money in Egypt) and did not back down. I can't remember what sum we agreed on but it was much more than we expected.

We were carrying heavy back packs containing food and clothes for several days and our bedouin guide raced up the side of the Serbal mountain range, which is about 2000 meters at its top, so it was exhausting.  At the top it was a plateau and much more pleasant. After a couple of hours hiking through desert, we hit a beautiful field of flowers. I remarked on how stunning they were and he scornfully told me there were much better flowers ahead.

Indeed there were.  We came to a large field, with a hand-dug well and a battery powered pump supplying water. It was very impressive, except that in between the flowers were large Cannabis plants. That and the pods on some of the flowers left no doubt: This was a poppy field. A couple of small children were working in the field.

There was a small handmade tent next to the well which our guide happily entered, motioning for us to join him. We went in and find ourselves sitting in a small space with a bunch of bedouin stoners who were clearly his mates.  Fortunately they were older than him and a couple had been through the Israeli education system so they spoke Hebrew and we could communicate.

My ex-wife was nervous: "Be careful not to show them the soles of your feet" she advised "Its a grave insult among bedouin". This struck me as silly. Would men who had built such an impressive cultivation system be offended by where I put my toes? Besides it was uncomfortable to try and sit with my feet facing inwards. "Don't refuse to drink the coffee" That made sense. Act friendly.
It was clear I needed to keep my wits about me so I refused the offer of a joint. I was happy to drink coffee I told them, but would pass on the offer of Opium tea. With hindsight the air was thick with fumes and it probably made little difference.
Maybe the smoke made me feel comfortable but it was just like sitting in Paul George's bedroom as a teenager. It looked kind of similar and he always offered tea. There was a similar boyish cameraderie. I seem to remember that one of them was a taxi driver.
"Who do you sell to?" I asked. The bedouin who spoke good Hebrew told me that a guy came up from Cairo to buy their wares.
"Aren't you afraid of the authorities?". He said that the path up the mountain was difficult and the army would take a long time to get up it and they would hear long before and disappear into the desert.  This made sense to me. The desert is very quiet and up in the hills noise travels easily. During the day a bedouin can spot a man walking at vast distances - far more than an outsider - because nothing moves in the desert.  The bedouin learn to spot tiny movements across the desert and can tell when it's a man.  I was sure they could race up or down the sides of the mountain range, which they obviously knew intimately, much faster than Egyptian soldiers could get around using the unpaved roads.

There was an old single-shot rifle on the wall of the tent. Possibly first world war vintage. I asked about it and he proudly took it down and displayed it. There was much amusement at my horror when I found it was loaded.

The previous year, he said, the army had raided them. A helicopter appear at night and "shots were fired". He said this with appreciation of the gravity of what had transpired. The shots, he said, gave them time to flee into the desert. I spent most of the rest of the evening planning how we would run into the desert if anything happened. I did a lot of desert hiking at the time and felt confident I could handle a blind race into the desert if I had to.

The bedouin explained that the Egyptians refused to give them jobs because they had lived under Israeli rule and claimed they had no choice but to turn to this line of work. He asked me if it was true that half of the Jews in Israel came from Arab countries.  I said it was and he said that if so, Israel was an Arab country. I was quite stunned by this remark, which I still think was a great insight. I would eventually make this point on the Wikipedia Arab-Jews page. I'll write about that in another blog because it would take too much space to discuss here.

I asked how much the cannabis cost and was told they could sell me a sack of the stuff for some ridiculously small sum of money. I briefly imagined the logistics, thought about spending forty odd years in an Egyptian prison and explained that I would probably not be indulging.

By now it was pitch-black outside and I said I thought we should go and find somewhere to sleep. They took charge and showed us to a cave nearby, which was full of sacks of cannabis, and that is where we slept.

The next day went to the edge of the Serbal and looked out across the Suez canal into Africa. Then we started our descent from the mountain range.

The path we followed down the mountain side went through a series of different rock formations, each of which was composed of the sort of stones you see on sale in new age shops. As we walked, we would go through a whole field of say green rocks, and then red rocks. It was beautiful. We saw extensive terraced farming, with whole Bedouin families cultivating poppies on small, probably Byzantine-constructed (1500 year old) terraces.

In the valley there was a large mud brick village, which we walked through to the road.  After parting from our guide, we hitched a ride in a small van with a friendly Egyptian school teacher.  His van was packed to the rafters with toys and school teaching implements like pens and exercise books which he apparently sold to augment his salary.  He dropped us off on the main road to Sharm-El-Sheikh, where we easily caught a ride with a Mercedes going to Sharm.

Sharm-el-Shiekh had millionaire's yachts anchored in the bay. It was full of five star hotels, which in contrast to the ones I've seen in big cities were single-storey hotels with the rooms as bungalows. There was a beautiful restaurant on stilts in the Red Sea where we sat down for our first decent meal in a week of so.  It was the best meal I've ever eaten.

My ex-wife took a poppy pod home as a momento and after it had dried out I removed the seeds and stuck them in a little plastic box. Years later we took all the seeds we had lying around the house and threw  them in the front garden. We no longer remembered what they were. Only one type of plant grew and it had beautiful flowers. It was only when one of the flowers dropped its petals, revealing a very evil looking pod,  that I recognized the plant growing in my front garden. I quickly got a pair of scissors and removed the pod but because the flowers were very beautiful, I left the ones with petals.

It turned out that if you remove the pod they put out even more flowers in a desperate drive to generate seeds. I decided to leave a couple of hidden pods among the flowers for a possible second wave. After a couple of weeks one of our neighbors spotted the pods, identified the plant and quickly rushed in and uprooted all the flowers thus ending my career growing opium poppies.

A few years later I had a holiday in Gibraltar, where I climbed the rock and saw Africa.  It was just like the Serbal except I was in Europe rather then Asia.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Cycling in Israeli summers: How air-conditioning boils me alive.

Its the end of July and it hasn't rained in Tel Aviv for over three months. The ambient temperature is 30 degrees centigrade by seven a.m. and at night it doesn't get below 23. Humidity reaches 65% and midday temperatures are close to body temperature.
We have no air-conditioning in our house and I cycle to work, which causes constant astonishment in my office. Everyone else lives and sleeps in air-conditioned flats, they briefly step out into the heat as they go to their cars, which are also air-conditioned and then they drive to the office where they again, briefly, step into the heat of the underground car-park before ascending to the air-conditioned office.  So they only have brief encounters with the heat and can't understand how I manage.

Cycling in this heat does require a certain amount of care. I wear sandals, shorts and loose sleeveless shirts in an effort to keep my body from heating up. Gloves are out of the question and I would prefer not to use a helmet, though I do. Its a six kilometer ride which takes me less than 20 minutes, so its not that bad. Once I get to the office I change my clothes, wipe myself down and drink water. In truth, entering the air-con I get a burst of cold air and it feels amazing, as if I can breathe again but its misleading.  Every year without fail the office-air-conditioning makes me ill. You see I'm like a frog being boiled alive - only in reverse.
It takes some time for my body to cool down after the ride and early this year I decided to leave my sandals on because it felt so pleasant. What then happened was that my body temperature very slowly went down.  The air-conditioning is inevitably set to temperatures of 20 degrees or lower and because my body temperature goes down very slowly (by now I'm wearing long trousers and a t-shirt), I don't feel the change.  Perhaps my body has simply adjusted to the heat and can no longer manage winter temperatures.  Either way by the end of the day I was severely ill and faced with cycling home while feeling appalling.

Last week I wasn't feeling well, but wasn't actually ill, so I went to work by motorbike instead. That has a whole set of different problems. Most Israeli bikers wear t-shirts and very often they are also in shorts. The though of smearing my body on the asphalt at 100 kilometers per hour generally motivates  me to wear my  rather ancient Belstaff motorcycle jacket. Its a tough decision because if you do wear it, it gets very hot in summer.  Yes there is a good breeze at high-speed and the jacket has air-vents, but the air just isn't very cooling. Because of traffic-lights and the need to park in the basement, it takes me only a few minutes less to get to work by motorbike then it does by bicycle, so its still very hot.  
At work we were taking an Author-It course last week (that's a technical writing tool), so we were in a different, even  cooler office and I forgot to order lunch.  Then my partner called towards the end of the day to say she had fallen off her bicycle and hurt her knee. She needed me to take her to the emergency medical center. In Israel our health services provide a local emergency service for low to mid-level accidents so as to reduce the load on hospitals.

I biked home and we drove to the Kupat Cholim emergency center in Tel Aviv.  Unfortunately the nurse who was running the show was Ukrainian and rather than take off her home clothes before putting on her white coat she simply made the air-conditioning colder and wore her white-coat over her clothes. Being Ukrainian, she anyway considers normal weather temperatures to be somewhere below freezing so it was really cold and by the time we got home I was, once again, severely ill.  This time courtesy of the medical services. The hot-cold transformations also caused agonizing muscle pains in my legs.

The malls are also extremely well cooled and I recent came out of the Ayalon Mall and found my glasses had steamed up in the external humidity.

I will now do the right thing and take a jacket to work and remember to dress for winter while I'm at my office.  It reminds me of the northern-English teenage girls. In mid-winter, with temperatures below zero you see them wandering around in mini-skirts and short tops. No tights. I once asked why they do it and was told that the clubs are heated to mediterranean temperatures, so they prefer to dress for the indoors because then they don't have to find somewhere to store all the clothing they've taken off.
Girls in Newcastle city center

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