1930s Egypt and the War on Drugs

A few years ago I remember looking through the Egyptian Drug Smuggling files in the British National archives. They were full of zany schemes to get drugs across the border and dubious kingpins. One of the most memorable plan was the attempt to smuggle walnuts full of Hashish from Istanbul, just because it seemed such an intricate way to get them across.

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I do remember, though, that these files were almost exclusively concerned with hashish above any other drug.

When you turn other sources from the same time in Egypt, it is Cocaine that turns up much more often. In fact, there seems to have been something of a Cocaine epidemic in Egypt in the 1930s. From popular singers to slum dwellers, everyone seems to have been doing it. Najib al-Rihani and Badi’a Masabni are both said to have used the drug as did many others. It is said that the great singer Sayyid Darwish himself died from a cocaine overdose. He certainly sang a song about the drug, which was also covered by Munira al-Mahdeyya, one of the biggest stars of the time.

The drug was certainly not welcomed by everyone in Egypt and the cocaine use of the 1920s and 1930s was also accompanied by a great moral panic. The Church Mission Society said that Bulaq was referred to as the “Cocaine Factory”.

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It is in this context that a pamphlet was printed in 1930 (in a second printing. I do not know the details of the first printing but I assume it was quite close) called “The War on Dangerous Drugs”:

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It was published by the League of Coptic Women for the Banning of Intoxicants. If you look at some of the further details in the pamphlet, we can see that the league is headed by Mrs Azar Jubran in Assiut and that they printed 20,000 copies of this little book, which was the text of a speech given to a Christian youth group in Tahta.

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The speech began by saying that the drug problem that the world was facing then was worse than even the First World War. “Cocaine” the speaker said “is everywhere in this country; in the North, South, East and West; in the markets and shops and alleys and houses.” He told stories about a man who stole the doors of tombs to sell them for drug money, of the woman who sold her clothes, the man who exchanged his last chicken and flour for cocaine and the man who prostituted his daughter to get money to buy drugs. He told the story of a drugs bust in Minya in 1927. The officer burst in and a woman who lived there consumed all the cocaine so he could not get it. She died very soon after and it was discovered that she was eight months pregnant. He ends the anecdote with this poem:

How many are the victims of Cocaine and Hashish

Even despite the investigation of the Bashgawish [Sergeant Major]

They left the orphan in wretched misery

So take heed from the madness you have seen.

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For the reverend who gives the speech this is clearly a nationalist issue. He has the idea (seemingly supported by the words of Russel Pasha the chief of police in Cairo) that Egypt is the most drug addicted nation in the world and this is a source of great shame in front of the international community, as well as being a drain on the vitality of the nation.

However, it is unclear how confident this pamphlet is, as illustrated by this cartoon printed near the end.

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The Ostrich is “The Youth of Today”, the man is “Destruction” and the ground is “The Pleasures of the World”.

Well, at least the Coptic Women Against Intoxicants tried.

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