When Essam Youssef published ¼ Grams in 2008, he was on everyone’s lips. The book that was more eye widening than two lines of coke became a mega-seller and he travelled the world promoting its success. This is not another interview about ¼ Grams, this time; we met with the author to talk about his sacred message towards drug awareness and what’s on his mind for a better Egypt. With launching a NGO that aims at raising awareness against drug addiction he is trying to do his share towards society.
Egypt is a huge country and the drug problem is increasing by the minute, how do you work on creating awareness?
I began talking with young people through ¼ Grams book discussions. I met with around 30,000 young men and women from different schools and universities in Cairo, Alexandria and other governorates. I usually sit with young people and we talk about drug problems and drug related topics that were discussed in the book. I started developing a good knowledge about the mentality of young Egyptian people as I connected more and more with the youth. I learned that young people have a very wide exposure to drugs and the availability of cocaine nowadays is beyond thought. Tramadol is also widespread among drug users in Egypt. When I went to Tahrir Square during the Revolution, I heard drug sellers calling “Timo, Timo” and they meant Tramadol! That’s my job and things like that I could easily catch.
After all these years researching and linking with people, did you feel that you needed to add new things to the book?
Not at all, I didn’t feel like adding anything to the book. I think that the book wrapped up everything and anything that was related to the drug issue in Egypt.
People who never read a book stayed up all night reading 600 pages of ¼ Grams, what do you think was the attraction?
That was because everyone wants to read a real life story. People want to read something very interesting to them. I focused on bringing the real picture to the reader. Nevertheless, the characters and the story were both real and that was the main factor that grabbed the readers’ attention. Everything in the book was real why would I make up all this? Fiction is way difficult to write than real stories.
In your opinion, how could we deal with drug users in Egypt?
Today, when a few kids are busted in their car smoking hash, they are being sentenced to jail immediately. I don’t think that’s the right scenario that should be taking place; I think that we should treat them first because they are sick. The jury must send them to rehab and if they won’t abide by the institution’s rules in order to become better we send them to jail.
Do you think the Egyptian society realizes the importance of rehabilitation centers?
People began to grasp the concept and started becoming slightly aware with rehab centers. When people read ¼ Grams, they can’t believe the stories inside and they start to give a closer look to the issue.
Most parents say that bad company was responsible for their child getting into drugs. What do you think about that?
I don’t believe that bad company is the reason behind getting into drugs. Parents don’t get the whole drug problem in Egypt that’s why we are doing awareness sessions only for parents and these sessions are more difficult than sessions for young people. Parents are living in denial; they always want to believe that their kids are the best.
Is it true that drugs in Egypt are becoming a lifestyle?
I have a friend who works in the field of communication. This guy told me that they decided doing a drug test at his company and anyone who will be found positive will be fired. They found out that most of the employees are positive including the top sales manager. Everyone is smoking hash and there should be more awareness by the media. I want to be realistic; people who do drugs aren’t crazy. Drugs are nice and we should agree on this because it’s a fact, on the other hand, we should agree that drugs kill.
What do you think the role of the media should be?
The most important thing is that there should be awareness and people need to know that there is something called addiction and we should highlight this word. Addiction could be for chocolates, alcohol, sex, over eating, or Playstation. There are other factors that create a sick society other than drugs, for example people who are addicted to Playstation, that’s one of them. We also have a major problem that affects everything in our lives which is time management.
Is it harmful to be obsessed about something?
Everyone has an obsession towards something. You yourself have an obsession, but as long as this obsession doesn’t hurt you in anyway you could live by it and enjoy your life. A group of my friends have a real obsession towards Playstation but it’s really getting in the way of their lives. They don’t answer phones or open doors as long as the joystick is stuck to their hands. They play all night until 6 in the morning. I have a friend who thinks that he is really going to war because he spends months of his life playing a Playstation war game around the clock (laughs). He buys pistols, builds a factory for atomic bombs and keeps on planning for this throughout his day. This has been his only life that he knows for sometime now and it’s getting crazy.
Unfortunately, people still think of a drug addict as someone who is sick in the bathroom and his mum is crying helplessly, how could we highlight the real picture?
A TV presenter once told me “you’ve seen the world of drugs, tell us about it”. That was shocking to me because there is no such thing as “the world of drugs” it’s not another world that we don’t belong to. Sad but true, most of media people don’t have much information and they are the ones who come up on screen talking to the world. Very few who want to work on themselves and do good research, really few. I stopped appearing in the media for sometime now because of this. A lot of TV figures used to ask me “tell us about the hash crisis in Egypt”. The context of this sentence isn’t correct, ‘crisis’ means a problem that should be met with a solution and of course that wasn’t the case. In my opinion, it was a crisis but in another way. When hash isn’t available in Egypt, other stuff spreads such us Tramadol and many other drugs. Crime rates increase as well. The revolution was a good chance for drugs to spread in the country due to the lack of security and the disappearance of Ministry of Interior it’s now more available than before. Drugs came from everywhere through Red Sea, Mediterranean and Sudan.
In this day and age, I think that you have lots of tools to send your message across. New media is a wonderland and technology is unlocking lots of obstacles for everyone who wants to spread awareness, how do you get hold of this?
I think that today is more difficult than before. It’s a train that never stops and you have to be as fast as this train and that’s impossible. At this moment when I’m talking to you, someone is smoking his first joint. Media should teach us everything; it’s the solution. Media should teach me what to do when an ambulance is driving next to me on the streets, how to take action. The right scenario is to park on the right and let the ambulance drive through, but what happens in Egypt is that everyone squeezes themselves right behind the ambulance in order to move faster!
Any media related projects in the pipeline?
I’m making a new talk show that tackles everything from traffic problems in Egypt to sexual harassment. We have a lot of problems in Egypt that need to come out to light. When I was taking the corniche, going to work today, I found a huge pile of garbage and flies were everywhere. I can’t believe how families and kids manage to live in such a polluted area. Egypt needs us to sit together and come up with a plan to save it. I won’t be working in politics, my message is to spread drug awareness and entertain people at the same time.
Do you think we could see change any time soon?
Egypt has good people in all fields but they need opportunity. We need support from a lot of people, media, and awareness campaigns. According to CAPMAS, Egypt spent 23 Billion LE on drugs! I will make a fuss about it and I’ll make a program called Roa’ya and the first episodes will be about why people do drugs.
What’s in the pipeline for you?
I’m working on a new book. It’s a love story called Baron Palace.
Do you know what women want?
As far as I know security.
What’s your obsession?
I’m obsessed about Backgammon suddenly. It’s getting really crazy, I used to hate it and mock people who play it but when I tried it, I liked it a lot.
What do your kids think about your job?
I have three kids. My eldest one is Omar, 9. He likes the fact that I’m famous and I tell him that when he grows up and writes a book he’ll become famous as well.