The Unbearable Lightness of the Egyptian Sinai (Part 1 of 3)

CANNABIS CULTURE – (Part 1 of 3) Hi-Tech Israel’s Low-Tech Cannabis Oasis.

The Sinai has long been a place out of place, a peninsula bridging Africa and Asia, straddling the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Red Sea to the south. Throughout history, it has been a battleground between regional powers to its west and east, regularly alternating between Egyptian administrations and Levantine rulers.

A sparsely populated desert at the intersection of kingdoms and continental plates, no neighbouring nation ever built it into a prosperous province, or let it develop into a nation-state of its own. But it has long served as a travel corridor for merchants and migrants, and inspired religious pilgrims and seekers of the spirit.

According to Jewish legend, it was in the Sinai that Moses found sanctuary when he fled the Pharaoh’s forces, and it was on the mythical Mount Sinai, from which the territory takes its name, that he communed with the Hebrew god himself and transcribed his commandments onto stone tablets.

As in ancient times, the Sinai continues to transfix modern travellers with its natural fractal beauty: turquoise waters, golden sand dunes, and fiery red mountain ranges. The stewards of the land, too, remain the same as in days of yore: Bedouins, semi-nomadic Arabs whose desert wisdom and clan connections are essential if visitors are to survive and thrive.

When the First World War brought an end to the Age of Empires, the Sinai became an Egyptian protectorate once more. And so it has remained ever since, except for a decade and half from 1967 to 1982, when the territory was conquered in war, occupied by Israel, and then returned to Egypt as part of a US-brokered peace accord.

During those pivotal years in the Sinai, however, a thriving tourist industry developed along its eastern shoreline – one in which the smoking of marijuana and hashish was not only possible, but also prevalent.

On every Israeli holiday, vacationers would flock to Sinai to rent simple straw huts right on the Red Sea, where they would soak up the sun, snorkel in the sea, and bask in the beautiful sunsets. Escaping to the Sinai became a rite of passage for Jewish youth looking to leave behind the stresses of the rat race, and for some, the memories of their military service, obligatory in Israel.

Even after it reverted back to being Egyptian territory, the Sinai continued to draw tourists, both from Israel and further afield.

But then the country suffered a string of terror attacks that scared away Westerners, the lifeblood of the Egyptian economy. After a popular revolution against the military government that had ruled the country for over half a century ousted President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, Israelis grew even more wary of the security situation in the country, and Sinai tourism shrunk to a trickle.

Two and a half years later, the Egyptian military launched a brutal coup and retook control of the country, and ever since, the number of Israelis taking their vacations in the Sinai has steadily increased. But immediately after Field Marshall Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi seized power in mid-2013, Sinai’s beaches were still only sparsely populated. Five years ago, the few tourists traveling to Sinai were rewarded with a private paradise of their own, often augmented by mind-altering substances.

Amongst the Israelis who made it down to the Sinai at that time, the last person you would have expected to encounter was an ultra-Orthodox Jew. But in his late twenties, Elyasaf began to break away from the religious rules his parents raised him to obey. And by the time he was thirty, he had transitioned to a secular lifestyle, finding work as a computer graphic designer, and finding peace in Panama Red or Acapulco Gold, whichever was more readily available.

On the week-long Jewish holiday of Tabernacles in September 2013, Elyasaf decided to drive down to the desert and spend a few days relaxing on Sinai’s beautiful beaches with a women he had just recently met, and who would later become his romantic partner.

“Sinai is a real Garden of Eden, one of a kind. Of all the places where humans can tread, it is one of the most special,” Elyasaf told Cannabis Culture. “And this time it was even more so, because it was all ours, a private slice of Eden, devoid of any other people, on the water’s edge.”

“The skies were bright. The moon was full. The Red Sea was simply stunning.”

The hypnotic sound of waves gently dissolving onto the peninsula’s pebbley beach relieved his mental stress. Soon after his arrival, Elyasaf was also offered a local smokable weed that dissipated any lingering tension. “On the first night, without even having to ask for it, someone brings you a nice ‘tree,’” Elyasaf recalled. “He brought us two incredible buds. The truth is, that time in Sinai, I didn’t partake too much. You don’t really need it. But once in a while, we would happen to smoke a joint here, a joint there.”

The Twenty-First Century African Exodus to Israel

For Israelis, Egypt’s neighbors to the north, the Sinai is either the birthplace of their religion or an other-worldly wonderland of weed – and sometimes both of these. For sub-Saharan Africans from Sudan and Eritrea, Egypt’s neighbors to the south, however, the peninsula is neither holy land nor nirvana, but something far more frightening.

In recent years, the number of human beings fleeing their countries of origin, hoping to find asylum elsewhere in the world, has ballooned to over 65 million, more than at any other time in recorded human history. Two of the tyrannical regimes whose citizens keep fleeing in attempts to improve their lives are the states just south of Egypt down the Red Sea coast: Sudan and Eritrea.

According to the United Nations, over 80% of the world’s refugees seek asylum in developing nations, and many of these are in sub-Saharan Africa. But as those countries strain to support their native populations and the new arrivals, many refugees attempt to reach the richer European states, by first crossing the Sahara desert, and then the Mediterranean Sea.

In the mid-2000’s, some refugees from Sudan and Eritrea started to request asylum in Israel, on account of its reputation as a western democracy. But the end of the decade, tens of thousands of African refugees had crossed the Sinai to reach Israel’s borders, scampered over the pitiful fence they found there, and petitioning the Israeli authorities to admit them.

The Israeli government was not keen on accepting these asylum-seekers, because they were Christians and Muslims, not Jews. But because their lives were in danger, it grudgingly permitted them to enter the country. And though the Africans never received refugee rights from the state, they worked together to find food, clothes and shelter, and received help from some sympathetic citizens.

23-year-old Ablel had been one of the first Eritrean refugees to reach Israel. After his parents divorced, he helped to provide for his mother and three sisters. But before he turned 18, he fled the country in order to avoid military conscription, tantamount to lifelong servitude in Eritrea.

After an arduous journey through the Sinai, Ablel made it to Israel, entering the country on September 4, 2007. After a few weeks, he managed to find work, and after a few years, he took the money he had saved from that job to start up his own business, a restaurant in Neve Shaanan, one of the African areas of Tel Aviv.

Ablel ran the “Dolphin” restaurant for over a year, turning the venture into an economic success. “The restaurant was really great,” said his friend Semere, who would often drop by on his way home from work to check in on Ablel. “There were lots of people, all of his friends. It was really nice. His restaurant was packed almost all the time, every night it was full of people, on the weekends as well.”

On the night of July 15, 2013, however, Ablel closed Dolphin’s doors early, because it was the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av, He had a heartfelt conversation with Semere, and then the two parted ways. “That was at about 5 PM. We ended our meeting,” said Semere. “I was the last person to see him.” Ablel had gone missing.

“The next day, he was not in the area,” Ablel’s friend Bereket told Cannabis Culture. The two had made tentative plans to get together and watch movies on the computer, but Ablel hadn’t shown up. “I tried to call – his phone was not working. I tried so many times, and I tried to send a text message – he wasn’t answering me. I started to get scared, so I asked people, ‘Where is he? Have you seen him?’ ‘No, no, no.’ I waited for a call from his cellphone, but for three or four days – nothing. So at last, I decided to go to the police station and inform them. I went there, and I opened a file,” he explains.

The weeks that followed Ablel’s disappearance were nerve-wracking for Bereket. “I couldn’t sleep all night. Day in, day out. I had nothing,” he remembers. “One day a lady called me from the police station and asked me, ‘Why do you apply about your friend Ablel?’” Bereket was aghast. “‘Why?’ I ask her, ‘Why not? I don’t know what happened to him! He’s my friend! So I’m doing what I have to do! You are asking me why? That is not a legitimate question.”

Days later, Israeli authorities informed Bereket that they would make no further effort to ascertain Ablel’s whereabouts. “The next time I tried to call the police officer who opened the case file, they said that the file was already closed. ‘I lost my friend and you close the file? How?’” Bereket steamed. “‘No, it’s closed, don’t call me again.’”

Less than a month after Ablel went missing, the Israeli authorities permanently ended its search for him. Bereket was convinced that under similar circumstances, a Jewish citizen would have received far better treatment. “I was not happy with the Israeli police. I told them, ‘If it was an Israeli guy, you might find him in 24 hours. But it has been two or three weeks since I told you, you did nothing, and you closed the file.’”

In conversation with Cannabis Culture, Semere concurred. “I watch their news, I watch their television. If a person goes missing here in Israel, they’ll look for him, it doesn’t matter where he is, they find him in 24 hours,” he says. “There are many [CCTV] cameras in downtown Tel Aviv, everywhere. Maybe he was seen by one of the cameras near the central bus station. Then we could see where he went, what taxi he got into, who took him from there,” Semere said, with a pained expression on his face. “They would do that if they wanted to.”

Semere was certain that if someone had attacked Ablel, it would not have been fellow Eritreans. “I know that of our friends, no one could have done that to him. He had no enemies, there was no one who didn’t like him. As far as I knew, he didn’t get into arguments with people,” he said.

He began to explore other, less appealing, options. “Maybe someone thought that he had money. Maybe someone killed him and threw him in a dumpster somewhere,” Semere says, with a strain in his voice. “That was my biggest fear. So I would walk around the area of the central bus station, where all the garbage dumpsters are. You have no choice. In your head, that’s all you think about.”

“He disappeared just like that – and he was with you at the end,” said Semere. “It was fucking hard.”

Unbeknownst to Bereket and Semere, their friend Ablel was not lying dead in a dumpster in downtown Tel Aviv – although at that point, he may very well have wished he was.

It would be many months before either Eritrean would get the chance to speak to Ablel again. Before any of them could reconnect, Ablel would first come face to face with Elyasaf.

 

— END PART ONE —

Part 2 can be found here.

 

David Sheen is an independent journalist and filmmaker born and raised in Canada, now reporting from the ground in Israel*Palestine. His written and video work focuses primarily on the country’s racial and religious tensions. In 2017, Sheen was named a Human Rights Defender by the Ireland-based Front Line Defenders. Sheen’s website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.