The Sinai Peninsula that serves as an escape for tens of thousands of Israelis, has become one of the major centers for the thriving cultivation of drugs in the Mediterranean region. The process has evolved quietly over the past several decades and has radically altered the face of the Bedouin tribes in the area. Since 1985, I have made many visits to the opium and hashish fields of the Sinai, those which the Egyptians are officially “battling” as promised to the Americans. On the surface, the crops and the big money are flourishing.
There is Opium in the Sinai – Lots of Opium
It is grown on the high mountain (St. Catherine region) and on the Tih plateau – the desert of the wonderers (the proposed area the children of Israel wonderd on their way to Knaan) that spreads across central Sinai. It is not a small or secondary cultivation. There are thousands of Acres (1 Acre=4 Dunams). The raw opium is transported by car to Cairo. Each Acre produces a yield of 16 kilos of opium for its grower.
And all of this is going on in the backyards of Egypt and Israel, at a distance that is no more in some instances than 30 kilometers from Santa Catarina (St. Catherine’s Monastery).
Are the Egyptians really fighting against the production of opium? Not really. It is mostly lip service – army helicopters that track from above, publicized raids in order to appease the Americans and show that they are doing something.
fruit and flower
Is the product reaching us? There is no demand for opium in Israel. What we do get, is grass or hashish (Cannabis); The same fields grow Cannabis after the opium season is over. Cannabis indica (hashish) does indeed sell for only 150 Egyptian pounds per kilogram but every dunam yields 500 kilograms for the Bedouin. 12,000 dollars per dunam. About a forth of what they get for a kilo of opium – but they sell it on the shores of the Sinai, blessed by tourism and by convoys of smugglers through the western Negev, as well as to Israeli customers that have learned to recognize the Sinai crop of grass by the careless harvesting, the remnants of earth and sand between the branches and the desire of the Bedouin to increase the weight by picking the entire bush as compared to the finer and more correctly divided yield of their counterparts in the Parvati Valley in India.
1985: The Start of My Journey Towards Opium
Cultivating opium (in Arabic, poppies and opium are the same word – ‘ofyun’) in the Sinai, as well as growing cannabis, is relatively new. Did it begin by the authorities turning a blind eye? With the permission of Egyptian intelligence that wanted to nurture new spy networks that were pro-Egyptian? Through local initiative? Pressure from the market in Cairo? By chance? Apparently by all of the above together. The moment that the nuclear crop began growing in the wadies of Southern Sinai, it spread across the Sinai, accompanied by the smell of large fortunes. Poppy cultivation is the major Bedouin agricultural branch in the Sinai today. Drugs and tourism. Not a bad combination
For years, I have been closely following the spread of opium cultivation in the Sinai. In 1985, I went down to Jabal um Shumar , south of Santa Catarina, and in the lower groves of Wadi Rumhan, I first saw the blooming poppies. It was beautiful: the tall poppies with green leaves, the dense surface painted by the white, purple and red blossoms. Some of the blossoms shed and left round capsules headed by an orb with small papilla neatly spread out encircling it.
Within time I came to know several of the best Bedouin farmers in the Sinai, and one of them told me that opium began to be grown in 1981 in the area of the Sirabel in western Sinai. He said that the opium came from the Nile Valley, from the area of Luxor, from the place where the Pharaohs grew opium for their worship already 3,500 years ago. Opium, in contrast to the cannabis, is local and the most ancient testimony of its existence comes from the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea. It could well be that the authors of Hammurabi’s code of laws in Babel and the Jews who wrote the Talmud
Bavli were familiar with the soothing effects of opium.
That same grower who learned the working methods from those who brought the cultivation to the Sinai in 1983, brought it to the wadis south of Santa Catarina. Today, the poppy fills no small number of wadis in the area. In 2004, when I went to the fields, it appeared that the underground water level was constantly going down. There are places, like at the junction of Wadi Rumhan with the Islah that the level has declined 13 meters. The Bedouin are drying out the desert in order to increase areas for cultivation.
The Bedouin prepare tracts (or get rid of other, less profitable crops from existing land) the length of the canyons or on gentle slopes; they clear away the stones, fence the area and lay a network of irrigation, turn over the land with hoes and fertilize it with goat or sheep dung, as well as with fertilizer brought from Cairo. The irrigation, from water originating in wells, often comes from irrigation pipes, a method learned from the Israelis. The poppies are planted generally in the fall, in the month of October. Extracting the sap (resin) from the capsules (“milking”) is done at the beginning of April. Three to five laborers are needed to accomplish the work on each field that can hold up to 4-6 dunams (1.5 Acre ). At noon or in the evening, they delicately make small incisions in the capsule (in order not to extract all of the liquid at once) with the aid of an old-fashioned razor blade, and they water the land in order to increase the flow of the sap. In the morning, at dawn, they begin to harvest the congealed sap with the aid of flat tin sheets. The work takes about three hours, until the sun rises in the skies above.
Three days later, they return to harvest more sap from the same capsules – up to five “rounds” of harvest from each capsule. The mounds of raw, reddish sap are bundled together in nylon bags and thus, without any further ministration, are sent off to Egypt. Small amounts of the crop are left in their hands for their own use and for selling locally.
Opium has a big market in Cairo. According to the grower with whom I spoke, the opium is not refined to make heroin in Cairo – this process takes place in Europe. Contrary to hashish, opium is an addictive drug that accumulates in the space between the synapses and the nerve roots, blocks the receptors and causes an increase in the secretion of dopamine – a kind of natural pleasure drug produced by the body – resulting in a pleasant feeling.
Opium does something else. The body produces substances known as opiates. There existence was discovered 25 years ago; they are secreted in order to overcome pain spasms from which the body is suffering. It is not for naught that opium is the basis for the preparation of morphine and codeine, anesthetizing drugs used for the relief of pain from injury or from surgery. Addiction to morphine has been noted in soldiers who were injured and took the drug as a pain suppressor.
Once, when we went down to the grove at the foot of the Byzantine monastery, we saw the poppies blooming amongst the almond trees.
Spring. Early April. We were planning to climb to the top of the mountain,
Um-Shumar, the following day. Um-Shumar, the second highest peak in the Sinai, is one of the most beautiful to be seen: the view of the gulfs of Suez and Eilat, the mountains beyond the gulf on the Egyptian shores, the Jubal Straits between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, the dry and sparse air at the summit, the small shrubs that smell of strong etheric oils when trod upon.
A steep and isolated peak, far from the main trails, part of the wild realm of southern Sinai.
At night, we sat by the fire. A cold wind blew and fanned the flames. We found shelter behind the large rocks. The people scattered to their tents. The Bedouin of AWalad Said, the growers of opium in the grove, sat by the fire. Then we heard shouting from one of the tents. A young woman traveler was bitten by a black scorpion.
We sprang towards her. She was sure that her minutes were numbered, enveloped as she was with the pain of the bite. An adult doesn’t die from the bite of a scorpion, unless he or she is allergic to it. Young children can die from a state of shock. Not a woman of her age. She was crying from the pain. I sat next to her and laid a loose band over the spot of the bite to keep the venom from spreading through the lymphatic system. The Bedouin, smoking cigarettes between their lips, gathered around us. At last some action. They filled a glass with tea and crumbled some crude opium into the glass, and also rubbed the remnants of the opium on the bite. She drank from the tea, called, in the words of the Bedouin, “chai el-ofyun” (opium tea).
Morphine is a product of opium. So is heroin. Almost every poison and venom can be used in both ways.- to poison & cure. Opium causes a sense of blurriness, sterilizes the pain from extensive lacerated wounds, from flashes of pain caused by a stinging bite. The woman took several sips from the cooling tea and within minutes her moaning had grown more faint. She lay down in the tent and fell asleep. In the morning she awoke. Nothing was left of the bite or the pain, nor were there any side-effects from the tea that she drank; she climbed the cliff towards a blissful day.
A day after we came down from the peak, we climbed up to the ridge and descended the long decline into Wadi מווג’יד Mwajid . The Mwajid…… המווג’יד flows into Wadi Islah. The poppy orchards begin near the spring found at the center of the stream. A small house, a remnant from the grove belonging to the Byzantine monks, stands on the ridge above the pools. The Bedouin welcomed us. No, not Awalad Said. They were from a-Tur. They worked for the Awalad Said for a daily rate.
wounding the opium
The flourishing opium industry turns the enterprising growers into managers who then broaden the economic base of the business. Other Bedouin are employed by them, and the circle of working partners grows to encompass tribes that have had no previous connection with opium.
1997: Opium Becomes a Family Business
In the fall of 1997, I climbed the Sirbal, which is a secluded region in the high mountain, rising upright over the Firan Wadi. The Bedouin on the mountain and at its foot are Gararsha, although beside them, one can find other tribes as the Mezeina, Jebalia & Awalad Said
We climbed up the long way, through Wadi Rim. When we had passed it, the poppy groves began. A man in his thirties was cultivating the section together with a young woman and a baby. Not groups of young gamblers and singles but a family business.
The orchard wasn’t very large, and the family lived in a stone house that was built under a giant rock of granite. I greeted him. The cultivation had grown from a business of deft entrepreneurs and opportunists to a routine business. The whole family was aware of the dangers from the reconnaissance planes, the commando helicopters and the patrols. The punishment in Egypt for growing or keeping drugs can be anywhere from seven years to a life sentence. Smuggling opium, heroin, and hallucinatory drugs in large quantities can end in a death sentence.
in the opium fields of Sinai
We parted from the Bedouin family and continued on our way up. At the top of the ridge, the beds had greened and the Bedouin that was working up there waved to us. We came down to a small inner valley .
He lit a fire and boiled some tea in a tin can. We took out some halvah and sat quietly in the translucent light, next to the low acacia tree, surrounded by neatly arranged flower beds sprouting green. Poppy buds.
“Hashish? Not from me. My brother and his friend grow it near HajarLombardi (the rock of the rifle/hunters),”
We asked about the drop in the stream and the falls, and we left the bag-packs next to the beds of poppies that he was growing. The round capsules scored by the razor blade and the collected congealed milk, turning dark into opium.
“You want?” the Bedouin asked, his eyes red, “it’s from the past year. It’s excellent. I always smoke when I need to work. It gives me strength to work the whole day.”
“How long have you been working?”
“And there’s a lot of money?” He explained how many grams are obtained from each bed, brought us to the bed, thinned out the shoots, leaving the young plants room to develop, so that they grow strong. Dandan figured out the grams and the price. “Fifty thousand pounds? Not bad for a half year’s work.”
“Half of the year I’m here and half of the year in Cairo. Whiskey, women – within two weeks I’ve spent half of the money.”
“You have any weapons?”
“I don’t, but my brother does. A good rifle to hunt wild goats and an automatic rifle. All of the Bedouin have weapons. Two years ago, the Egyptians came here; they came in airplanes. We shot at them just to scare them; they shot at us in order to hurt us.”
The Bedouin again made tea and spread out tiny, black poppy seeds before us that reminded us of “Haman’s ear” – our Purim pastry. We climbed the ridge and crossed over the streams (brooks) and Wadi Lombardi, A giant rock shelter above the fork of the wadis with the water pools. All around, the valley was blooming with poppies. In the rock shelter, a piece of opaque material covered a food cache. At the fork below, surrounded by a stone hedge, was an incidental tent and two Bedouin slid from the wide expanse to the tent. A Czech rifle, well cared for and oiled, shells with large cartridges and bullets overloading its muzzle, rested against the hedge.
The Bedouin, youths in their teens, are poured water on flour, kneaded the ‘libee’ (simple bread), put it on a tin plate and covered it with a pile of hot ashes. We took out the food from our packs. They looked at us disparagingly and smiled. “We have enough food,” one of them said, “keep what you have.”
They asked that when we return in the Spring, we bring them a radio tape and whiskey. They would pay us. Dunams of plots on the slopes. Young cannabis indica plants to be dried out and smoked were offered as a friendly gift. Opium in the Sinai returned to the young Bedouin the power and freedom that had been taken from them by the Israelis and the Egyptians. They returned to rule the mountains. Young people who were able to conduct and determine their own lives.
1999: “We just switched the seasons”
Towards the end of the 1990’s, the Egyptians increased the pressure on the opium growers. They came during the season when the flowers bloomed, burned the fields and cut off the capsules so they would dry out. Truck loads of soldiers, helicopters, commandos that were brought from camps near Cairo- all in order to do the job in good faith. The United States Authority for the War Against Drugs was paying. Television crews were joined to the soldiers in order to broadcast suitable propaganda to the media.
In the winter of 1999, I was traveling by foot in the area between the sandy basins and the plateau of the lost wonderers in central Sinai. The weather was grey and rainy. For years there hadn’t been so much rain in that region of the upper Zalaka I was walking with a Bedouin from the Jebalia tribe who was acquainted with vast areas of the Sinai. The Bedouin, almost everywhere, have intimate knowledge of the desert near them, rumors and fears of what occurs in other parts of the desert.
I approached the field, expecting to find poppies. Cultivation of poppies that began in the wadis and depths of southern Sinai, had spread to central Sinai, and from granite to the limestone of Jabal A- Tih. When I came closer, I saw that the site was covered by cannabis. The hashish shrubs, at a height of about half a meter, covered several dunams. Preparing the area requires irrigation and effort from the Bedouin. Clearing the stones, preparing the tract of land, digging a water well, building a pool from which to flood the tract, plastic pipes that need to be bought and brought over. The hashish grew in a wide wadi.
On the ground were tire tracks. The Bedouin more and more preferred motor transportation over camels. The comfort and the speed. I wandered amongst the beds. The Bedouin rested on a small mound and nervously motioned to me to distance myself from the field. The Bedouin built permanent houses from stone near the spot. This wasn’t a plot that had been planted the previous fall; it had existed for several years. When I asked him why it was that they were growing cannabis and not poppies, he laughed and said: “The Egyptians are at war with opium, not with hashish; they know that the opium is blooming now, and when they reach a field of hashish, they don’t do anything. The soldiers take a few leaves, and then we pick the hashish and plant the opium. We’ve just switched the seasons. Whoever is clever enough will have opium in the fall.”
Opium and cannabis have similar requirements: water, sun and soil. The soil in the Sinai is excellent – it is isolated and free from diseases. The Bedouin take care of the water, and the sun – from messengers above. It took several years for the cultivation of opium to spread to these areas of the Sinai. The Egyptians aren’t looking for it here. The wadis of the southern Sinai can be reached only by foot or by helicopter. Every operation is complicated and costly. The Bedouin grow it everywhere.
2004: A Chase in the Grove
When I arrived this year, I was met by one of my acquaintances. He worked in a grove that I knew belonged to another Bedouin. That Bedouin was one of the biggest growers of opium in the Sinai. The tracts of land are well tended and yield plentiful sap (resin) from the fruits’ capsules that are incised in the morning, gathered when it has turned red, sticky and oxidized by the following morning.
“I bought this grove,” he said.
“How much did you pay for it?”
“Two hundred thousand pounds.” 160,000 Israeli shekels or 35,000$ . No small amount of money for a plot of only three dunams. But three dunams yield 12 kilograms of opium a year. 120,000 dollars. Another 30,000 dollars for hashish. A yearly income of 150,000 dollars. Not bad by any standards.
The industry is so profitable that every Bedouin everywhere locates a place for a grove. Never before were there such happy farmers in the Sinai. After a week of traveling by foot, we again went down to the sandy basin to meet the jeep. We were supposed to get to Taba at the other end of the Sinai. Night descended as we reached the area of Bir Ikna. We rode in darkness, straining our memory. A short distance from Bir Ikna, the jeep entered a trail of roads through the fields. “Stop,” I said to the driver, and got down to look at the clumps of obscure growth. By the light of the jeep’s headlamps, it was possible to see the carpets of white, purple and red flowers.
“Get back up quickly!” yelled the Bedouin driver of the jeep as the light shone on the small mount. The hum of a motor from another truck could be heard from the other side. The Bedouin, sensitive to the expanse of fields that were at the peak of blossoming, appeared suddenly, speeding out of the night from all directions, to check if whoever had entered the fields was a misguided tourist, the police or the army. We didn’t feel like getting shot at. We hurriedly got into the jeep and sped away.
The Bedouin drove behind us, trying to find out who and what, while we were arranging our sleeping bags and pitching our tents. Sitting around the fire, we drank tea together; the smiles were different than those at the time that preceded the intensive growth of the opium.
So how much money is grown and milked in Sinai?
If every Acre (4 Dunams) yields about 40,000 $ and we speak about thousands of Acres- we speak about hundreds millions of dollars.
A very big and profitable industry no doubt. Expensive enough to oil all hands – official & unofficial.
A new golden triangle is here.
The Bedouin had become powerful; they hoarded a treasure; they recovered the desert for themselves through the help of the cultivation, the smuggling and the big money.