My girlfriend Simone and I were in an Egyptian stamp store that smelled like glue and mothballs along a cul-de-sac near Talaat Harb Street. For some reason, the eerily strange profession of rare stamp hustling never manifests itself in very hygienic or organized environments, so you can imagine the hot and dusty squalor within the archaic hole-in-the-wall emporium where we came across a Liberian passport while sifting through sun-faded manila envelopes.
The vendor, Omar, who barely had enough room in the place for a cash register, didn’t even know it was in his shop. “Do you have anymore?” we asked, after buying the passport. He said he might and was instantly on the phone making lengthy Arabic calls to some sort of dead-person-identity dealership. An hour later, we had two other passports in our hands: Ihab Ahmed from Jordan, and Fatima Sheehad from the United Arab Republic.
We obtainedd our black market passports with such ease that it made us wonder what other illegal shit we could get our hands on in Egypt, so we embarked on a pharmaceutical excursion.
We taught ourselves to grift in one day, and I have to say we were pretty good at it. By the end of the afternoon, this is what I had in my backpack:
A box of sexy pink 30 milligram Motivals—a drug sometimes described as a "major tranquilizer"—which would likely net a lot of cash from the gay club waifs; three strips of two milligram bromazepam, an anti-anxiety medication; a box of Hypnor sedatives; five strips of Zolam tranquilizers used to treat anxiety and depression ; one box of .5 milligram Restolam, an arabic brand of Xanax; one box of one milligram Restolam; three vials of Valpam (that due to the balmy and polluted warm weather may or may not still be injectable); two boxes of soluble Solpadeine and one box of gel Solpadeine, which are both a mixture of codeine and caffiene; one strip of a painkiller called Eurocox 200s (you kink?); and 20 pills of Tramadol, which are used for chronic pain. Just to name a few.
While most of these scripts won’t ever make it to American shores, partly because of their low-grade production and high withdrawal tendencies and partly because of Big Pharma’s monopoly on the Western world, Egypt is stuck with too much.
I spent about 100 Egyptian pounds for the plethora of drugs in my bag, which equals about $17 USD. In the States it might cost me $1,000 for this shit, if not more. Egypt is in a unique position. With 30 percent of their economy once supplied by tourism now gone, the average Egyptian is hurting. Pyramidal souvenirs targeted to foreigners have been replaced with “Sisi″ bumper stickers sold to Egyptians. There is the facade of unity, but there has obviously been a paradigm shift. Falseness and scepticism has become a way of life.
We’ve been called “American spies” on the streets of Cairo so many times I’ve lost count. We’ve been lured into hibiscus oil shops and papyrus dealerships under strange pretences through a complex system of salesmanship. Once, after we turned down tea from a shop owner, he slapped the guilt card in our faces by pulling out a picture of his sickly grandfather. “My father’s father’s father started this business by himself. I have three children to feed.” He also conjured up a photo of some Arab guy with his arm around Mohammad Ali. “My father with my favorite American.” He said shiftily. We’ve seen the same famed photo all over the city. This Arab guy apparently had a lot of children.
We had been using the same story at each pharmacy all day. Simone was feigning a limp as I held her hand up the stairs to the dispensary. The burn on her leg from a hot motorcycle exhaust pipe over the summer became a scar from a very serious knee surgery that required a very serious pain killer, something of the opiate variety. We were just two poor foreigners out of their RXs in a foreign country.
The pharmacist at one of the last drug stores we visited was very suspicious, so we decided to crank our story up to 11. When he gave us a disapproving look we produced a small, tattered piece of paper with the name of a nearby hospital scrawled in Arabic. We don’t speak Arabic, which somehow validated our query. We scored the note from another pharmacist after we convinced him of Simone’s “debilitating” condition. If someone was on the fence about giving us what we wanted, that “prescription” was our ace in the hole.
“We’ve been to this hospital but they ran out! Please, look at her. She can’t even walk!” I yelled, and then another man behind the counter brought her a stool, which she slowly, ever so slowly, slumped upon. “Let me see what I can do.” The man said as he rustled through two dusty and slanted cabinets that looked like they had been there since the Nasser era and were about to fall off the wall at any moment. He slid us some Celebrex, which we had too much of. I told him she had taken that and it wasn’t strong enough, so he dove into his collection once more and took out two strips of Tramadol. If we took a strip each, eight pills, it would be enough to kill us both. He charged us 15 Egyptian pounds, less than three dollars, and we left.
Back on Talaat Harb street, the cats had eaten all the rats and were meowing hungrily, a pack of fly laden dogs held their territory by a decrepit gas station, trash was piled high along the fringe of the road, and above it all the second storey wall of a building was blown out, leaking dirty stone. It was not a pretty scene. A boy dressed in Mecca-brand clothing was selling a variety of toy guns without orange-painted safety tips—the kind that are banned in Iraq. Someone said “welcome to Egypt” with potential sarcasm, and we didn’t turn around because we knew he would follow us if we acknowledged him. But he did anyway and then shouted “Barbie!” at Simone and everyone on the street, maybe 50 people, looked at us for a moment. Later, a small explosion happened somewhere (probably from a party) and people clapped.
We decided to try one more grift before heading home. There was another pharmacy across the block anyway. Actually, there is a pharmacy on every block in Cairo—way too many. This time Simone put on a subtle quiver and we ducked in. “I just got off a flight from Vienna and I can’t sleep, could you help me? I’m prescribed something called Zopiclone back home. Do you have that? I can call my doctor if you want. I have insomnia – trouble sleeping.” She shook slightly and made a pillow with her hands, closed her eyes, and pantomimed the unconscious. We walked out with a box of generic hypnotics.
The feeling you get when walking through the dirty streets of a city in transition is difficult to explain. With forgery and exploitation existing as the pervasive norm, perhaps pharma-conning, as twisted as it seems, might have been our way of coping. I realize this sounds strange, but I think it brought us closer to the locals; it fit us into the complex mechanism of the city. Two cogs, high as fuck, just twisting around in a broken clock.