Troubling Fields: The Opium Poppy in Egypt

By Hobbs, Joseph J. | The Geographical Review, January 1998 | Go to article overview
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Troubling Fields: The Opium Poppy in Egypt

Hobbs, Joseph J., The Geographical Review

One summer day in 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge felt a "slight indisposition," perhaps a touch of the rheumatism from which he suffered all his life. To ease his discomfort he consumed an anodyne, probably several swallows of laudanum (a tincture of opium), the panacea of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Drifting into an opiate dream, his mind filled with vivid and exotic poetry. Reconstructing the lines later in the afternoon, he wrote:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were girdled round: And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills Where blossom'd many an incense-bearing tree; And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

(Coleridge 1979 [1816], 354)

Coleridge would not write much longer. The opiates fueled such classics as "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Christabel"but eventually consumed his creativity. By 1800 the poet was swallowing two liters of laudanum a week, and his writing ceased (Scott 1969).

As it did with the creative genius of Coleridge, the opium poppy seems always to give and to take away. It yields powerful alkaloids including morphine, perhaps the most effective analgesic ever known but also the source of heroin, the most addictive of all narcotics and a major medium for the transmission of AIDS. The poppy gives pleasure to its users and then enslaves them. The illegal plant provides the peasant farmer with a ready access to the cash economy but endangers his freedom and his family. In "The Devil's Dictionary," Ambrose Bierce defined the opiate as "an unlocked door in the prison of identity. It leads into the jail yard" (quoted in Booth 1996, vii).

Against a historical background of the curses and opportunities posed by the poppy, opium poses a dilemma for the bedouin of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Historically pastoral nomads, the Sinai bedouin have recently joined the wage economy as day laborers, guides, guards, and mechanics (Hobbs 1996), Capitalizing on rugged topography and remote locales in their desert wilderness, some bedouin have also turned to growing drugs for ready and reliable income. With the white, pink, and purple poppy blossoms waving atop tall green stalks amid dark and barren mountain slopes, these farms are as evocative as the landscape of Xanadu. Far from Elysian, though, these are troubling fields, where bedouin growers exchange gunfire with Egyptian troops and where legitimate development efforts are all but impossible.

In this article I present a brief history of the poppy and its increasingly ominous role on the international stage, tracing the plant's career in Egypt up through the recent emergence of the Sinai as Egypt's leading opium-growing region. I then describe bedouin poppy husbandry and its impacts on local ecosystems and community relations. After examining national efforts to eradicate poppies, I recommend an alternative approach. Much of the information comes from my fieldwork in the Sinai in June and July 1997.


The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is exclusively a domesticated annual plant. It is found today only in association with people, either in planted fields or in disturbed environments near cultivated areas. No wild progenitor of the plant is known, and firm evidence of the plant's origins is elusive (Merlin 1984; Kapoor 1995). Most biogeographers regard Asia Minor or the adjacent Balkan region as the area in which the poppy was first domesticated for human use, perhaps early in the fourth millennium B.C.E. The cultigen probably spread eastward quickly. The Sumerians, who called it the "joy plant," grew it in Mesopotamia by 34oo B.C.E. (Simpson and Conner-Ogorzaly 1986, 391). They probably infused the capsules - the seed pods, also called poppy heads or bulbs - and stalks in water, mead, or wine to produce the potent analgesic tea the ancient Greeks called meconium (Husain and Sharma 1983).

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