Hunting for Guns and Drugs in Upper Egypt

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
May 9 2014 5:05 PM

Tea and Guns in Upper Egypt

The country’s southern rural stretches are said to be awash in guns and drugs. But if you go looking, what you will find is something far older and more entrenched.

Guns and ammunition.
Tools of the trade in rural Egypt.

Photo courtesy Yassin Gaber

Each Friday, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.

CAIRO—We are hurtling along a dusty track in a Peugeot 504 Estate, and somewhere in the car, there is a gun. “Of course I keep a gun in my car,” I mouth anxiously, repeating the guide’s words. I fumble with my Dictaphone, as my eyes scan the floor of the haggard and wheezing automobile, searching for the concealed weapon. I can’t see Bassem’s face. He is sitting next to our guide and driver. But I sense his fear. Our fraught excitement.

Somewhere ahead lies one of the most notorious villages in the Sa’id, Egypt’s south. The village, Hamradoum, is regarded as a center of the Sa’id’s arms and drugs trafficking. Locals refer to it and surrounding villages as the “circle of blood and fire.” Hamradoum. There is something chilling even about the name. In Arabic, it sounds a bit like “red blood.”

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Bassem, a fellow journalist, had the local connections and a spare bed to boot. On the journey from Cairo, he had filled me in on the local do’s and don’ts. The trick, it seemed, was never to refuse any offer of hospitality—cigarettes being the supreme gesture of good will.

I take a puff of the harsh Cleopatra cigarette thrust at me by our guide and reflect on my decision to venture into the Sa’id in search of arms dealers.

I had first been drawn south by a tucked-away newspaper article about feuding families and bloodbaths in the Sa’id. These were distant gunfights that were physically and politically worlds away from the political uprising in Cairo. With the rest of Egypt distracted by crisis after crisis, this part of the country is making headlines of its own, about rising militancy, the attending threat of armed conflict, and the proliferation of weapons.

I thought about my conversation the day before with Abdallah, an anxious taxi driver who moonlights as an arms mule. He had refused to escort us to Hamradoum, taking pains to dissuade us from even trying.

But our young guide—known by locals as the “omda,” or mayor—had guaranteed a warm reception. I wasn’t to worry. A major criminal family was looking out for us: his own.

The car slouches toward this lawless country. Looking out the car window, I catch sight of a man passing on his motorbike with a turn-of-the-century Mauser semi-automatic slung round his back. Outlaw, overeager civilian, or lawman? I settle with civvy. His gun doesn’t seem particularly trendy, unless there is a market for antique pieces. The clip appeared to be fastened to the barrel with surgical tape. Definitely not worth smuggling, I think.

The omda’s concealed gun isn’t bothering me anymore; he seems affable enough, preoccupied as he is with his approaching wedding. Before leaving the town, we had stopped to pick up his dry cleaning for the wedding, along with a strange, hybrid chandelier—part stereo, part disco ball.

The landscape continues to break in front of us, revealing stratified layers of green fields, sandy ridges, and the Nile’s teal blue waters. It is breathtakingly beautiful.

Village outside of Nagaa.
A village outside Nagaa Hammadi.

Photo courtesy Yassin Gaber

The village soon comes into view. Surrounded by sandy escarpments on one side and lush green fields of sugar cane on the other, Hamradoum seems devoid of any police presence save a sparsely manned checkpoint on its border.

“We first saw arms in 1941. Shotguns. … Because of a dispute. A big, big one, you know. … Between two of the three families, Hindawy and Suleiman. Five people were killed.”

The omda keeps narrating: “The conflict got bigger and bigger until 1979, when six people died. It was then we first saw the Mauser rifle.”

The man on the motorbike comes to mind. Are they still settling disputes with Ottoman-era rifles?

Family disputes and blood feuds had triggered the community’s demand for guns. Gun ownership became commonplace. Arms traders found themselves a market.

The night before, we had sat down in nearby Nagaa Hammadi with the patriarch of the Abdel-Aal family—one of the larger families in northern Qena province. He wore his trimmed mustache haughtily.

“What do you want with them? They are godless people,” he had said, invoking the usual stereotypes about nearby Hamradoum. “Fathers are willing to kill sons for profit.”

We then crossed town to meet with a former Mubarak-era lawmaker, Fathi Qandil, at his guesthouse. He lounged outside beneath an old campaign billboard with a gigantic image of his face glaring outward. The billboard proclaimed him “the representative of the poor.”

The burly, mustached ex-politician sat before us in a traditional galabiya, smoking a shisha. Windows swung warily by their rusting hinges, and pockets of sky pierced the thatch above our heads. Qandil’s fawning entourage of five men lingered at a distance. His stony demeanor and hoarse voice mingled with these surroundings to give the unmistakable impression that this was a house unaffected by the recent uprising or change of any kind.

“Hamradoum provides arms to the entire country,” he said, taking a long drag on his pipe. “After the revolution, everyone here is an arms dealer.”

He spoke in hyperbolic terms about the proliferation of weapons—claiming arms had increased tenfold in Egypt since Libya’s revolution. All the more reason, he said, for a strong and iron-fisted security apparatus and even a return to emergency law.

I had found his claims hard to believe. Cudgels and canes were two a penny in Nagaa Hammadi. Even rifles and handguns didn’t seem terribly uncommon. Nothing showy, just local accoutrements. But no weapons bazaar.

* * *

The Peugeot 504 pulls away from the village and draws closer to the escarpments, where beneath the rising slopes, surrounded by green sugar cane fields, a small concrete villa rests.

It stands out, primarily because it is fully constructed and uniformly painted.

Hamradoum’s minimal infrastructure—the absence of paved roads and the prevalence of shanties—coupled with a scarcely visible populace lends the place a shadowy character. It is very much the ghost town, peppered with vacant huts, grazing donkeys, and the occasional traffic of armed individuals on motorbikes.

Five hoary men stand up to greet us as we pull up to the house. Next to them, a machine gun rests against the outer wall.

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