Essaying: Sarah A Topol’s “Tea and Kidnapping”

I first read Sarah A. Topol’s “Tea and Kidnapping” from Best American Travel Writing 2013 over Christmas. The title caught my eye quickly, and the essay pulled me in from the start. It’s a quick read (you can find the whole thing archived at The Atlantic, where it was originally published in September 2012), but it sure has stuck with me, and it generated some great discussion when I taught it a few weeks ago. We all kept circling around the same question, though: what in the hell is going on here?

Bedouins who live in the Sinai peninsula kidnap tourists because the Bedouins have relatives in Egyptian prisons. They hope that agreeing to release the tourists will lead to the release of their relatives. But it rarely works. The tourists are treated well, so well that some of them comment on what a great experience they had being served tea and sometimes lamb by their kidnappers. The kidnappers even refer to their acts as “tourist safaris.” They do want to treat the tourists well so as not to incur the wrath of the government but also so as not to incur anger from the fellow members of their tribes. In the end, it works out for everyone but the Bedouins who often do not get their relatives out of prison. It’s confounding to a Westerner like me, but it’s also not like I’ve ever had to fight for my family under such circumstances.

Some great quotations from the essay that I hope make you want to read more:

“In recent months, the security vacuum has emboldened a handful of Bedouin in the southern half of the peninsula to lobby for the release of jailed kinsmen via a novel tactic: kidnapping foreign tourists and using them as bargaining chips. Between February and early July, Bedouin tribesmen took three pairs of Americans, three South Koreans, a pair of Brazilians, and a Singaporean on “safaris” lasting between a few hours and several days” (65).

“The recent rash of kidnappings is well timed to mortify the Egyptian government. The country’s economy is already in free fall, and beach tourism is a key source of foreign currency. So the government has worked to secure the release of each batch of kidnapped tourists as quickly as possible. But a strange thing has happened: some of those freed tourists have described their captivity in surprisingly glowing terms” (66)

“He added that he’d packed bread, cheese, and juice for his captives. What would he have done if they had become hysterical? Attwa said he would have left them, but they didn’t cry, so he brought them here” (67)

“The kidnapper explained that in addition to the customary tea and coffee, he had served his guests roast lamb, a dish usually reserved for special occasions. He said his uncle remained in prison” (67)

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