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.

When I had finished my own tea, Hashem agreed to take me to the area where Esperanza and Supe had been held. We got in his truck and drove for about an hour before parking along a stretch of sand at the base of the mountains. Once brush was gathered for a fire and water was set to boil, we sat down on the ground, and Hashem introduced me to Attwa, who he said had kidnapped the Californian women. (Attwa did not provide his last name, but a source in the Egyptian security services confirmed his involvement.) Attwa lives in a shack nearby and, like most Bedouin in the area, makes a meager living smuggling drugs. He has tried in vain to find other work, he said, but is proud that he has so far managed to keep his children out of the drug trade.

Attwa rolled a joint as he began telling me the story of the safari. In late January, he explained, he got word that one of his sons had been killed and two other sons jailed following an altercation with the police. Ten days later, hoping to bargain for their release, Attwa and a friend armed themselves and drove toward Saint Catherine’s. Taking Supe and Esperanza from a tour bus proved surprisingly easy, Attwa said. “I used their translator to make them calm, so they wouldn’t fear anything. I explained that I needed to deliver a message to the government and this is the only way I would be heard.” He added that he’d packed bread, cheese, and juice for his captives. What would he have done if they had become hysterical? Attwa said he would have left them, but they didn’t cry, so he brought them here.

Hashem told me that the Bedouin take only a few tourists at a time because caring for larger groups could quickly get expensive. “When [a Bedouin] kidnaps some people, he must be responsible for their hospitality when he takes them around on the safari trip—their food, drinks, toilets, and their sleep. If he treats them badly, he will be held accountable,” Hashem said, referring to the tribal justice system.

The Bedouin seem to know they are walking a fine line. Too many safaris, and more repression might follow. Too few safaris, and their demands might continue to be ignored. A few hours after Attwa captured the American women, he told me, the Egyptian government promised to release his sons, and he surrendered his hostages. But here we were, five months later, and his sons were still incarcerated.

Shortly after my tea with Attwa, two more Americans and their guide were taken hostage. At first, this safari seemed different. The kidnapper, a 32-year-old truck driver, threatened to hold the hostages until his uncle (who he said had been arrested after refusing to bribe the police) was freed from prison. Four days later, however, he released them, unharmed. “We were treated just like they treat their own,” the hostages’ translator told a reporter. The kid­napper explained that in addition to the customary tea and coffee, he had served his guests roast lamb, a dish usually reserved for special occasions. He said his uncle remained in prison.