Um Salma’s tiny café is tucked in a maze of alleys in the Sayeda Aisha slum, home to the tomb of Aisha, the Prophet Mohamed’s youngest wife.
Pushing through the café’s saloon-style doors, a haze of acrid hash smoke assaults the senses. Inside, a dozen-odd workers sitting on wooden stools cluster around water pipes.
The water gurgles with each puff on the hookah’s long, slender hose. Traditional Egyptian music — the kind you can imagine a woman belly-dancing to, evoking the Sahara — rasps from an ageing cassette player.
Under the glare of neon bulbs, patrons banter about the slum’s latest news.
And they get utterly, convincingly high.
These men are a community, they say, but political discussions are "haram," or forbidden. Politics breeds divisions. Shared hits of Um Salma’s hash builds bonds.
Sixty-years-old, widowed and strictly religious in a gray-brown scarf draped over her hair and chest, Um Salma is an unlikely guardian of one of Egypt’s oldest pastimes. Although she enables an illegal activity, she is by no means an outcast here.
Her café “Dulab” — the Arabic word for a cabinet where prized possessions are kept from prying eyes — is one of this ancient city’s many sanctuaries for hash-smokers.
Despite Egypt’s conservative Muslim government and its harsh drug penalties, Um Salma’s guests don’t fear law enforcement as they smoke the sticky brown resin, or its sister schwag known here as “bango.” They say they have an understanding with local police, who rarely bother them.
From the 19th-century laborers who shocked Napoleon with their unabashed love for the intoxicant, to contemporary elite professionals — including, it is rumored, former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — Egypt is perennially up in smoke. (...)
Egypt traces its hash habit to roughly the 12th century, according to a Columbia University report. Back then, Muslim Sufi mystics smoked the drug to reach spiritual ecstasy.
Today, it is more popular among the vast working poor like those at Um Salma’s, who inhale pipes and joints to unwind amid the crescendo of political and economic turmoil.(...) Drug prevention workers and rehabilitation therapists in the capital say there are likely 10 million, but perhaps as many as 15 million, casual users.
There’s a deep irony to Egypt’s widespread drug use. Using hash or other drugs is a serious criminal offense here. Trafficking illicit substances is punishable by death, while possession of small quantities can draw life sentences, for addicts and infrequent users alike.
Egypt is one of 32 countries that have laws mandating the death penalty for some drug offenses, though it ranks below places like Iran, China and Saudi Arabia for the number of offenders executed. (...)
According to Amnesty International, over the last decade Egypt saw a marked decrease in the number of criminal executions. Because Egypt’s prisons are run by the highly secretive interior ministry, there are no statistics available. (...)