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Egypt’s Great Hash Crisis of 2010

The biggest news on people’s minds in Egypt is not last week’s pro-democracy demonstrations in front of parliament during which some 90 people were arrested. It’s not Mohamed ElBaradei’s shakeup of the political scene. It’s not the president’s health, which remains ambiguous. It’s not  even spiraling meat prices.

The biggest topic of conversation here in Egypt is the disappearance of hashish from the local market, a shortage that has become known, at least in some quarters, as “the hash crisis.”

In many ways Egypt is a very conservative Muslim society. But that doesn’t mean people don’t love to get stoned.

Official estimates put the number of hash smokers in Egypt at seven million, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the real number was much higher. It’s not uncommon to see the butcher in a local market smoking a fat joint while he takes a tea break. Cabbies will occasionally drive around Cairo’s congested streets with a little spliff held under the steering wheel. The smell of hash often drifts from the seats of the doormen who sit in front of Cairo apartment buildings.

It’s not only working class types who get high, either. Egypt’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was rumored to partake on a regular basis. Wealthy, English-speaking Cairenes like to smoke. Even former president Anwar el-Sadat was well known to enjoy his hash pipe.

My favorite evidence of the ubiquity of hash in Egypt is that rolling papers are available at almost every cigarette kiosk and convenience store while rolling tobacco is almost impossible to find.

But over the past month or so, hashish has all but disappeared from this North African country. Nobody knows why.

Conspiracy theories-something of a national pastime-abound. Some people have told me that those who control the hash trade have created the shortage with the aim of raising prices. Other people suggest that the government controls the hash supply and everyone’s favorite intoxicant will reappear shortly before the elections in a few months, lulling Egyptians back into a stone complicity in time for President Mubarak’s party to steal another election.

Most likely, the disappearance of hash is due to a government crackdown. There was news of a major bust in Alexandria a few weeks ago and government officials have said in statements that the police are doubling down on their efforts to limit the supply of dope, the majority of which comes from abroad.

Whatever it is, it’s working. Nobody knows where to find any hash and when they can find it, prices are out of control. Some people have turned instead to the cheap weed known as bongo that is grown in the mountains of the Sinai. But this seedy, stem-y, shwag gives you a headache and a much more intense high than the pleasant mellowness of hashish. In short, it’s no substitute.

But in a country where more than twenty percent of the population lives below the international poverty line of less than two dollars per day, I have to wonder why the government bothers to deprive people of a national hobby that is deeply embedded in the culture. Will ridding Cairo’s streets of dope help to alleviate the overwhelming unemployment? Will making it hard to get high decrease the rate of illiteracy, which currently stands at about thirty percent? Will it help improve the status of women?

I have to wonder why the government bothers. Life is difficult for most people here. Let them get stoned.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user p.s.v.

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