I fly high on a lit­tle Si­nai ‘cho­co­late’

Find­ing weed in an Egyp­tian re­sort crawl­ing with se­cu­rity men dur­ing a con­fer­ence of African lead­ers is as dif­fi­cult as part­ing the Red Sea

Mail & Guardian - - News - Niren Tolsi

The Hun and I have a mis­sion — to smoke cannabis in some of the most se­cu­ri­tised parts of the world. We have man­aged to do it near the empty pool in the of­fi­cial res­i­dence of an al­most-pres­i­dent-for­life. It was dur­ing a photo op­por­tu­nity ses­sion for the sign­ing of bi­lat­eral treaties — so no need for the at­ten­dance of two sober jour­nal­ists. The wind di­rec­tion was just right and the se­cu­rity heav­ies far away enough for a proper ston­ing — the kind sur­pass­ing any­thing the Saudis may throw one’s way.

In the dark days be­fore South Africa emerged into the burn­ing cherry light of le­galised marijuana for per­sonal use, thanks to the Con­sti­tu­tional Court, we had even blazed a few me­tres away from a po­lice Casspir at the ANC’S na­tional elec­tive con­fer­ence in Polokwane in 2007.

Flip­ping a fin­ger at the po-po by ex­hal­ing into the smoke bil­low­ing out of a shisa nyama braai on which our peri-peri chicken was cook­ing, we also scored a Check­ers packet of ma­jat from the twen­tysome­thing who had mort­gaged his house to make some bucks off Kon­golose’s del­e­gates. He had se­cured a bum lo­ca­tion at an en­trance to the Uni­ver­sity of Lim­popo, which al­most no ANC mem­bers had used, and needed the cash more than we needed his herb’s 30-sec­ond high.

The Baby­lon were less than five me­tres away when we scored.

So. What’s a girl to do when stuck in the gilded cage of Sharm El Sheik, Egypt’s high-end Red Sea re­sort town on the Si­nai Penin­sula bor­der­ing Is­rael? Es­pe­cially af­ter a fall­ing-out with my travel com­pan­ion which, for bru­tal­ity, would have seemed fa­mil­iar to Pales­tini­ans up the drive? With all the flights in and out of the town booked up be­cause of the Africa 2018 in­vest­ment con­fer­ence? Dur­ing the worst hol­i­day imag­in­able? Alone?

“Find some hashish,” The Hun growls on What­sapp. “And smoke it.”

Eas­ier said than done, though. Sharm El Sheik has suf­fered a tourism slump since the 2005 ter­ror at­tacks — a se­ries of bomb­ings that claimed 88 lives. The sit­u­a­tion was ex­ac­er­bated by the 2015 bomb­ing of a Rus­sian plane, which had caused travel bans to be im­posed by Rus­sia and the United King­dom, re­mov­ing the area’s main source of tourism and poorly con­sid­ered free-spend­ing. The most strik­ing fea­ture of Sharm El Sheik when fly­ing into it are the rows of empty sun-loungers at sea­side ho­tels and beaches as va­cant as a New Year’s Day racist’s head.

“We only have Ukraini­ans and Khaz­aks com­ing here now,” says Ahmed, who sells tourist tat in a strip out­side the ho­tel, where over­priced per­fumes, kef­fiyehs and Mo­hamed Salah foot­ball shirts spill out of cu­bi­cles with names like CCCP Shop.

“They’re not rich coun­tries, the peo­ple don’t spend as much as the Rus­sians, so busi­ness has more than halved over the past few years,” Ahmed con­tin­ues over a tea he has brewed in his shop.

His face lights up when I say I am from South Africa. “Doc­tor Khu­malo!” he ex­claims, bring­ing a bit of joy to an Aza­nian wan­der­ing without charm in Sharm.

I’m a Buc­ca­neer, though, so I hag­gle hard on the kef­fiyehs, be­fore pop­ping the ques­tion. Ahmed doesn’t know where I can pick up some brown cho­co­late, but warns that it is safest to smoke it in my room, not wan­der­ing around on a pri­vate beach.

Which made sense.

The Egyp­tian army is still bat­tling Is­lamic in­sur­gents in the Si­nai, a piece of land oc­cu­pied by Is­rael since the end of the Six-day War in 1967 un­til 1982, when it was re­turned af­ter the Camp David Ac­cord and the sign­ing of the 1979 Egypt-is­rael Peace Treaty.

With Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah el-sisi in town, to­gether with other dig­ni­taries like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, se­cu­rity is tighter than Don­ald Trump’s squint. De­spite the West’s jazz hands about the for­mer evis­cer­at­ing the Mus­lim Brother­hood and the lat­ter’s pro­vi­sion of high-speed in­ter­net con­nec­tions back home, both men ap­pear to have scant re­gard for dis­si­dents with opin­ions and a crav­ing for the herb.

Al­most ev­ery kilo­me­tre of road in Sharm El Sheik is marked by masked bomb squads sta­tioned be­hind shields re­sem­bling over­sized metal hi­jabs. All cars in and out of the ho­tels, shop­ping malls and the con­fer­ence cen­tre are given a sniff­ing by jaded dogs who have the look of con­stant dis­ap­point­ment that comes from only find­ing ex­haust pipes where a bum is prefer­able. Bags are checked and metal de­tec­tors passed ev­ery time one walks out the ho­tel’s foyer for fresh air.

A del­e­ga­tion from the United Arab Emi­rates and an­other from Namibia are stay­ing in the Royal Vil­las at the ho­tel, so the drive­way and walk­ways around my not-quite-hov­el­with-a-view are crawl­ing with suits with crack­ling ear­pieces and shades darker than Ja­cob Zuma’s heart.

With no res­o­lu­tion in sight, I jump into the Red Sea. Its beau­ti­ful co­ral reefs and trop­i­cal fish soothe for all of 10 min­utes.

The fight with my trav­el­ling com­pan­ion and sub­se­quent im­pris­on­ment gnaws con­stantly. I am Ra­pun­zel, mi­nus the blonde hair. Or the “blonde hash” North Africa is syn­ony­mous for.

As a trav­eller, I pre­fer pol­i­tics and Tahrir Square to all-you-can-eat buf­fets and spa ther­a­pies. Give me Cairo with its Egyp­tian Mu­seum, con­stant traf­fic, bazaar hag­gling and prox­im­ity to the pyra­mids over what I have here — a gilded cage of sea­side re­sorts with swim-up bars in the mid­dle of pools the size of Mid­mar Dam, tan-tack­lers on sun-loungers, over­priced beer and tourist-tem­pered food, where ev­ery­thing tastes like a blander ver­sion of rice crack­ers on rice crack­ers.

Whereas five years ago the ho­tel was filled with Rus­sian oli­garchs and the Egyp­tian elite, it is now cater­ing for Ukrainian and Khazak cou­ples and fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing some sin­gle moth­ers with young kids hol­i­day­ing to­gether. De­cent types. Or­di­nary folk. The kind who bath and dress their kids in their py­ja­mas be­fore hit­ting the ho­tel din­ner buf­fet.

Aside from those cou­ples.

He: Much older, heavy-set and grumpy-look­ing — as if he has mis­placed his Eno af­ter spend­ing the last fort­night bing­ing on cheap vodka. Some­one who runs a night­club-bouncer racket reg­is­tered as a laun­dro­mat.

She: Much, much younger. With the aug­mented perma-pucker lips of a duck-billed platy­pus and the docile af­fec­ta­tions of an heir-pro­duc­ing ma­chine. Some­one who may have been a model or a porno­graphic ac­tress be­fore re­tir­ing from the busi­ness at the age of 22 and mar­ry­ing at 23.

I chat up one of the Ukrainian ac­tiv­ity co-or­di­na­tors at the re­sort who may be hip enough to know where I can fill my cho­co­late crav­ing. She asks where I come from. “South Africa,” I say. “Where?” “South Africa,” I re­peat.

She has no clue where that is, so I use the pass­port to uni­ver­sal ac­cep­tance: “Nel­son Man­dela?” I say.

With a stare as blank as faded pa­pyrus, she is con­firmed, quite pos­si­bly, as the only per­son on Earth un­fa­mil­iar with Man­dela.

Fi­nally, I take out a phone and Google-map Cape Town for her.

“It’s a long way away,” she says, adding that a di­rect flight from Kiev to Sharm El Sheik takes three hours. She tells me that without th­ese kinds of con­fer­ences the ho­tel is usu­ally 20% full dur­ing peak sea­son.

In English as bro­ken as my spirit, she con­firms not know­ing where to source hash from, be­fore try­ing to con­vince me to join a group of Ukraini­ans who are hit­ting a club later that night to check out the big­gest-sell­ing mu­sic group in the coun­try, Vre­mya i Steklo.

It’s thirty US dol­lars for trans­port to the club, en­trance and a free drink. The duo look like Bo­rat had re­pro­duced with one of the gangsta-porn cou­ples from the ho­tel and mugged a stuffed ze­bra for their out­fits.

I pass. Without a puff.

In­stead I hit the con­fer­ence cen­tre where el-sisi has, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of Kagame hand­ing over the lead­er­ship of the African Union to Egypt, called to­gether a hos­tile takeover of cap­i­tal­ists from around the world. “Afr­icap­i­tal­ism” is the “new nar­ra­tive of African de­vel­op­ment”, ap­par­ently.

Both Kagame and el-sisi ad­dress the con­ti­nent’s youth with nods to the dig­i­tal fu­ture, which in­cludes “ven­ture ac­cel­er­a­tors” for star­tups and state “en­ergy” for youth en­trepreneur­ship.

El-sisi sounds like a man from the 1970s us­ing lan­guage from the 2010s. Kagame sounds like the smooth op­er­a­tor who has se­duced every­one from Tony Blair to the Ger­man gov­ern­ment into be­liev­ing that democ­racy in Africa equals clean streets and fast in­ter­net — not en­sur­ing free and fair elec­tions, which have been ob­vi­ated for his al­most 20-year rule of Rwanda.

I bump into some cats from Cairo, who in­vite me over to their ho­tel for some bed­time cho­co­late. It isn’t too hard — they think I’m in a band and, by this stage, I’m ready to ask el­sisi’s chain-smok­ing guards to hook a brother up.

Th­ese guys are solid, cool peo­ple. They’re in their 20s and com­plain about the chasm that ex­ists be­tween el-sisi’s tech-speak and the real­ity on the ground for Egyp­tian youth, which causes them to be wary of the army, of dis­sent­ing and of what the gov­ern­ment in­tends for en­abling their fu­ture.

We smoke and laugh and joke. We bitch and swear and are cyn­i­cal in a way that only a new gen­er­a­tion can be. Even Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring of 2011 be­long to an­other time for th­ese cats. Their present is a beau­ti­ful, shitty place in which they con­tinue to be ig­nored. They say Egyp­tians are a for­giv­ing peo­ple for whom it takes a lot to be­come an­gry, but there is al­ways anger when food be­comes more ex­pen­sive and life less pre­cious un­der el-sisi. They call me a brother and refuse to take money for the hash they pass over to me.

Later that night I watch the suits whis­per into their wrists as they pa­trol the path­way be­low me. I turn the air con­di­tioner on full, strike a match and toke. Then ex­hale.

Wait­ing to ex­hale: ‘Ahmed doesn’t know where I can pick up some brown cho­co­late, but warns that it is safest to smoke it in my room, not wan­der­ing around on a pri­vate beach. Which made sense.’ Photo: Rafs Mayet

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