Every trip can always be your last.
Way out in the middle of nowhere, past any semblance of civilisation, you’ll see cars taking odd detours into the desert. An offshoot of the Cairo-Ismailia Desert Road leads to a stretch of sand and sadness that a car can only take you so far on. Though seemingly dead, it’s quite the populous place – even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.
You’ve undoubtedly heard a thing or two about where Cairo’s mainliners and addicts get their powder from, but you don’t really get to know much in the way of transactions, behaviour, and the danger surrounding it all. Throughout my adult life, I’ve come into contact with folks who’ve both quit entirely, and others who occasionally dabble in the substance; and they had quite a few stories to tell. These are just a few eye-witness stories from no-man’s land, and whether you choose to believe them or not is entirely up to you.
Names have been changed for anonymity.
Though most would have you believe that the area known as el se7r wel gamal is the only place you go to get heroin straight from the Bedouin folk out in the desert, there’s more than one spot where you can obtain it from the (somewhat near) source. “There’s like three spots in all of Cairo where you can directly get your shit,” Says Ragab – a former heroin addict who’d go the extra couple dozen miles to chase his high, “I mean yeah; you could get it from a dealer around here without having to trek across the desert, but a gram a few years ago from the source was EGP 120, and a dealer would sell you half a gram for EGP 100. Bit of a raw deal if you ask me, and you’d never know what they do to it after they got it to up the quantity. It’s not like the heroin we have here isn’t already mostly paracetamol, barbiturates and god-knows-what else.”
So what about these locations around Cairo? What’s the M.O involved? What’s the deal? “There’s everybody’s favourite- el se7r wel gamal – but there’s also Gheita; a little spot off the Belbis - 10th of Ramadan road where a bunch of farmers – who don’t actually make the stuff – operate. Thing is, you had to know them beforehand, be introduced to them, that way you could call them a while before and they’d be ready for you. You can actually talk to these people and fuck around. You absolutely cannot do that in the desert. As for the third place, I’m not quite sure where it is; I wasn’t exactly in the explorative mood back then. Suffice it to say that these two are the most visited.”
Ragab had made the trip to el se7r wel gamal more times than he could remember back in his abusive days. So he’d become accustomed to the process as if it were hardwired into his code. “You drive up to a certain spot on the Cairo-Ismailia road called El Markeb – it was this huge boat just propped up like any roadside advert. Obviously there’s more than one spot you can slink in through, but that was mine, and you’d know the Bedouins were active if you saw fire in the distance; it gets cold out there, and it doubles as a nice “Bat-Signal” of sorts.”
A detour into the sands to the right of the boat would take your car into the middle of the desert, up to a point where cars can’t advance, and you’d have to go out on foot. ”You’d always see a shit tonne of cars parked out there; the fancy, the poor, the in-between, all walks of life would go there to get their fix. That’s how you know where to stop and get off on foot. It’s only a few minutes-walk to where two of them would be chilling on a rug on top of a little hill. They weren’t always the same two, but one thing was always the same; they’re all called Ahmed – as if Ahmed was more of a concept than a person.”
A typical day at the desert will see an alarming amount of traffic – the kind that doesn’t go unnoticed. Every section surrounding the “Ahmeds” is monitored by their heavily-armed affiliates; with general purpose machine guns and assault rifles in tow, as well as a motorbike kept idling in the background throughout the day.
“There are dudes with guns hidden all over the place; it’s a hilly desert full of nooks and crannies after all, think Russia and Afghanistan back in the 80’s. Each dealer has a bag on them; one full of heroin, and another they use for the money. The one with the drug bag always carries a rifle off-safety, just in case anyone tries anything, or if a chase where to ensue; hence, the running bike. They ask you whether you want Shakk or Shadd; the former’s “optimised” for injection, while the other is more suited for doing lines, but it was all shit anyway. Sometimes they’d sell syringes for two pounds too if you’re that impatient. They pull out a little scale to measure exactly how much you want, bag it for you, and then you fuck off. No looking back.”
“You do not fuck around with these people. You do not act a fool; you do not talk too much beyond saying what you want. They have zero patience, and are continuously ready to fuck with you or anyone else messing up their workday. That bike is on standby in case somebody comes to raise hell; as soon as an alarm goes up in either of their heads, they’ll mount it and go; with the armed Ahmed taking the backseat for a clearer shot if need be.”
I feel it unnecessary to mention how violent heroin is; it’ll drag you out to the ends of the earth, through all manner of circumstance, just to get your fix. The things I’ve heard from folks are fully disturbing, though not entirely unheard of. One friend – let’s call him Mahmoud – recounts only a few of the things he’d seen there.
“For whatever reason, you could sometimes find these two young girls sat close to the dealers. All they’d do is shoot up or take a line and just…be there. I’m not sure if it was just for entertainment –seeing as it’s a desert – or if it was a marketing ploy. I guess seeing somebody that fucked up could easily pass as a sign of quality.”
When it comes to payment, money wasn’t the only thing the dealers would accept; meat was always on the menu. “A lot of the time, I’d see women go somewhere with one of them; either in a tent or behind a rock formation or something. You don’t need much foresight to know what was up.” Says Mahmoud. “Other times, you’d see guys offering up their sisters or wives – both of which were just as hooked as they were. A little while passes, and they walk out with their stuff in hand, but not quite the same as they were before. I remember seeing a dealer accompany a couple – I’m not sure whether they were married or just siblings – and the dealer would ride in the back with the girl. The guy drives off wherever the dealer tells him – a lot more romantic than a desert setting if you ask me.”
Ragab also had his two cents to throw into the misery pile. “I remember this one time that stayed with me for a bit: While I was parking, I saw this woman with what I assume is her baby. She obviously can’t take a kid with her to score fucking heroin, so she cracked the window and left it in there while she went. I saw her score a gram and then go back to the screaming kid. It’s not necessarily graphic, but you never think that somebody with a newly-born child would be hooked to something like this. I don’t even know if she was a junkie while she was carrying it, nor do I want to know. But scenarios like these aren’t rare, and they do a great job at showing you how “rock bottom” is pretty much bottomless.”
"A lot of the time you'll drive by a toothless guy or a couple, begging you - and I mean begging you - to shoot up in your car. I wasn't about to let another junkie fuck around a few centimetres away from me."
Though you’ll hear sporadic news here and there about law enforcement and military raids in the heroin-infused desert, most have ended in massive bloodshed, and virtually no damage to the drug trade. The Bedouins there know the lay of the land better than you know what’s in your pocket, and with so many places to hide and operate out of, it’s nearly impossible to try and staunch the flow. “There have been times when folks got shot just out of suspicion, other times, there have been raids that ended up in massive firefights.” Says Hakim – a recovering addict – about some of the violence he’s seen. “I remember at one point, there was this attempted bust, and you have to know that it isn’t a private affair there; there can be dozens of people waiting around for their fix, or just shooting up. The police showed up, and bullets started flying everywhere. The dealers don’t care who’s down-range; that firefight ended up killing a lot of people going to score, but barely any Bedouins or police were killed, most were just injured. That can happen at any point if they’re suspicious of you, and I’ve seen guys getting roughed up bad just for getting on their nerves.
Ragab had a story that I found both miserable, and entertaining at the same time. “There was this kid who showed up with his friend once. Remember when I said not to fuck with these people? This is the mildest example of what can happen when you do. This idiot started getting playful, and at one point, he decided it would be funny to grab one of their rifles and pretend he was hardcore. I want you to let that sink in; a junkie going to score heroin from a bunch of desert-dwellers armed to the teeth, fucking with one of their guns. Needless to say; they were pissed. They beat the shit out of him and then stuffed him in his own car’s trunk; later calling his parents for a ransom. Yeah, that happened.”
Even on your way out, you can easily find yourself in a life or death situation – although it leans more towards the latter. Ragab tells me about a near-fatal situation he had encountered on his drive back. “I was driving behind this one guy, and he’d been stopped by some regular looking dudes. My mind immediately went to “police,” and as soon as they started raising their voices, I put my whole weight on the gas to get by. They shouted at me to stop, and one of them started firing his gun at me. Luckily, it hit my tire, but another one had thrown a massive fucking rock at the window; shattering the glass and fucking up my arm. I’d escaped, and had to drive for 10 fucking kilometres on a flat tyre. I went back again to score the next day.”
These are just a few of the stories and happenings you’ll hear from beyond the Cairo-Ismailia road, from people who’ve been there more than they’ve taken showers. Like I said, whether you choose to believe it or not, that’s fine by me. However, if you do come into contact with a recovering addict – and hopefully not an active addict – show them this; see what they have to say, and maybe you’ll hear even worse stories than this. Regardless, try not to do hard drugs and don’t fuck with anybody’s rifle.)