Egypt October 2012

Tea and Kidnapping

In the desert with the world’s friendliest hostage-takers
"It isn't just kidnapping," the sheikh explained over tea. "It is a tourist safari." (David Degner)

My host, the 37-year-old Bedouin tribal leader Sheikh Ahmed Hashem, had served me so many glasses of sweet tea that I had lost count. It was a hot afternoon in early July, and we were sitting on the floor of his compound in Wadi Feiran, a remote village deep within Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. A single electrical cable connects the settlement’s squat cement houses; a single road runs through the surrounding mountains to the outside world. Everything felt unhurried, including Hashem’s explanation, via a translator, of his people’s complaints against the Egyptian government. But when I asked why the local Bedouin had started kidnapping tourists, he was quick to correct me: “It isn’t kidnapping. It is a tourist safari.

The sheikh’s brother Mohammed, a wiry drug runner, nodded vigorously: “Tourists come to Egypt and pay for this kind of experience,” he said, beaming. “Now they are getting the same thing for free!”

During the Egyptian revolution last year, the country’s beleaguered security services mostly pulled out of the Sinai, the triangular peninsula that lies between mainland Egypt to the west and Israel to the east. Drug running and weapons smuggling spiked; in the northern half of the peninsula, shoot-outs between Islamic militants and the police became routine; the gas pipeline connecting Egypt and Israel was repeatedly bombed. In recent months, the security vacuum has emboldened a handful of Bedouin in the southern half of the peninsula to lobby for the release of jailed kinsmen via a novel tactic: kidnapping foreign tourists and using them as bargaining chips. Between February and early July, Bedouin tribesmen took three pairs of Americans, three South Koreans, a pair of Brazilians, and a Singaporean on “safaris” lasting between a few hours and several days.

Egypt’s Bedouin, historically nomadic Arab tribespeople who have lived in the Sinai for centuries, harbor a number of grievances against the government. After Israel returned the peninsula to Egypt in 1982, following a 15-year occupation, the Egyptian government accused the Bedouin of collaborating with the Jewish state; the Bedouin have since been rejected from military service and most government jobs. The Bedouin complain that the state’s notoriously brutal security services deal particularly harshly with them today, imprisoning hundreds of their kinsmen without trial. Bedouin villages have little in the way of infrastructure, health care, or schools compared with the rest of the country. And although the Sinai’s Red Sea coast is dotted with high-end hotels, tribesmen complain that tourist cash does nothing to improve their lives, as tourism outfits won’t hire them.

The recent rash of kidnappings is well timed to mortify the Egyptian government. The country’s economy is already in free fall, and beach tourism is a key source of foreign currency. So the government has worked to secure the release of each batch of kidnapped tourists as quickly as possible. But a strange thing has happened: some of those freed tourists have described their captivity in surprisingly glowing terms.

“All of this is an unforgettable memory,” Norma Supe, a 63-year-old nurse from California who was kidnapped in February, told the Associated Press. She called her captors kind and polite. Supe was kidnapped with another member of her tour group, 66-year-old Patti Esperanza, on a road near Saint Catherine’s, the sixth-century monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. Their guide, Hisham Zaki, volunteered to go along as a translator. As Zaki later recalled, Esperanza demanded that one of her kidnappers stop smoking: “I told her, ‘Are you joking? You are kidnapped!’ ” But the Bedouin kidnapper cooperated, throwing his cigarette out the car window. At one point, Esperanza recounted, the kidnappers stopped to prepare coffee for the women, but upon learning that Esperanza does not drink coffee, they made her tea.

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Sarah A. Topol is a writer based in Cairo.

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