By Ahmed Kafafi
As a desert hunter of all things venomous, Sayed Guishi is an important asset to medical and scientific research. A resident of Abou Rawash – home to some of Egypt’s most skillful hunters – Guishi and his fellow hunters are the main providers of the venoms used in medicine and vaccines.
It is a privilege to visit Sayed Guishi – who is both a hunter and a fascinating man – in his home in Abou Rawash, just eight kilometers away from the Giza Plateau. Although not dissimilar to other Egyptian homes when it comes to hospitality, Guishi’s home is host to a myriad of snakes, scorpions, and other types of lesser known insects and reptiles. His son Youssef shows up frequently throughout our interview to show off the household’s reptilian guests, including a snake that he fearlessly allows to creep over his chest and around his neck, and later, tortoises, a box of scorpions, a monitor lizard, rats, frogs and other creatures. Seeing how Guishi and his family live side-by-side with these creatures is nothing less than fascinating.
Sayed Guishi comes from a long line of hunters and works in the dangerous business of extracting venom from scorpions and snakes, as well as hunting other reptiles and rodents used in medical research. This hunter’s life is a serious business and, handed down over generations, is not for the faint-hearted.
The profession began in 1945, when the Egyptian Ministry of Health acknowledged the importance of this work – which is needed to obtain the venoms necessary for manufacturing medicines and vaccines; because of its role in medical manufacturing, the profession is closely affiliated with and recognized by the Ministry of Health.
As I chat with Guishi, Youssef brings in a box full of scorpions and goes about carefully picking out all the dead ones with a pair of tongs. Guishi blows up a balloon, places a scorpion in a glass container and covers it with the balloon; when the scorpion bites the balloon, a drop of venom is released. “Five hundred drops, each from a different scorpion, produces 10 grams of poison,” says Guishi. “We milk them one by one.”
On the rooftop of his home, scores of mummified animals and birds are lined up in different corners. Guishi has mummified them himself and, with his natural flair for business, is currently looking for marketing slots to promote his products. He explains that spice dealers take mummified snakes, grind them and use the powder as treatment for arthritis.
Like many communities on the fringes, the buildings in the area have been built on former farmland and spread to parts of the surrounding desert; the combination of desert and farmland has made Abou Rawash a hunting hub. A dilapidated building in the Abou Rawash desert used to be the rest house of late King Farouk, who was fond of hunting in the area. The villagers had then served as guides to aristocrats before they became professional hunters as the Health Ministry began to use their services.
Abou Rawash was considered a launching pad into the rest of the Egyptian desert, which is rich with diverse wildlife. “Today, a larger number of people have begun to tap into the Abou Rawash desert, depleting it of its biological wealth,” laments Guishi. “Currently, there are approximately 1,000 hunters in the area, half of which are apprentices that help out the more seasoned professionals. Hunters retire at a certain age, leaving the business – which requires much physical effort – to their kids.”
When I ask Guishi about his ventures into the desert, he explains that while excursions are led all over the country including in Aswan, Sinai, Fayoum, and Nubia, most excursions require permission from the Defense Ministry since they are in military zones. “The authorities know each hunter by name and keep all of his official papers. Nobody who does not have a professional hunting license is allowed access to these places. For each venture, we have to specify the duration of the trip, and if we don’t show up at the specified time, they begin to search for us,” the hunter explains.
Different species are native to different parts of Egypt, although Guishi explains that there are only six types of poisonous snakes in Egypt; the rest, he claims, carry insignificant amounts of venom, and are used primarily for medical research.
He explains that, in Sinai and Saint Catherine, they catch the besbas snake, which is considered the king of all snakes, the ‘arkam’ snake with its sand-like color, as well as the ‘garbou’ rat and the ‘apricot’ rat. In the Amreya desert of Alexandria they hunt squirrels and the Egyptian Cobra, and in Baltim, they hunt the ‘khodeiri’ snake, which is native to the area.
I ask if being in the desert for ten days is dangerous, to which Guishi responds matter-of-factly that: “With practice we’ve learned how to do our work.” He explains that desert hunters work from 6 AM to 9 AM to avoid the scorching heat and for better visibility; he notes that sometimes they have to work at night, which poses a greater threat. “Hunting at night is risky since you can’t see the reptiles’ traces clearly, not to mention the threat of foxes and wolves that can easily attack you. At night, we either wear sleeping bags to protect ourselves against dangerous reptiles and insects, or take shelter in fishermen’s boats, which are protected by the water.”
As we chat, Guishi shares his ideas about how to develop the industry, from hunting tourism and an Egyptian natural wildlife museum, to an import-export business of rare species, revealing that – although worlds away from the lives we city dwellers lead – Guishi is not out of touch thanks to his ambition and knowledge of the desert.