By AYA BATRAWY, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — Their kidnappers gave them tea and dried fruit, and talked about religion and tribal rights. The California women were allowed to bring their Egyptian tour guide with them. One even put out his cigarette in the car when a hostage said the smoke was bothering her.
The women abducted for several hours Friday by armed Bedouin tribesmen in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula hesitated to call the men "captors," saying that the kidnappers were kind, polite and hospitable.
"All of this is an unforgettable memory," Norma Supe, a 63-year-old nurse from Union City, Calif., told The Associated Press. "Maybe God had a purpose for this. It was probably to encourage more faith in me."
Supe and Patti Ganal, of Los Gatos, Calif., were snatched Friday from a minivan on a tour of Sinai, a restive region that has seen security crumble since Egypt's popular uprising last year. There have been attacks on police stations and bombings of gas pipelines running through Sinai.
The abduction happened after Ganal, Supe, Ganal's husband and two other Americans had finished a tour of the sixth-century St. Catherine's Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai where the Old Testament says Moses received the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.
Their Egyptian tour guide, Hisham Zaki, was allowed to go with the women. Ganal, 66, who works as a leader on tours to Egypt, Jordan and Israel, offered herself as a hostage after the tribesmen demanded that two Americans get off the bus. Her husband was too physically challenged to go, she said.
"I was not afraid at all because I know God has sent us here," Ganal told the AP in Cairo, where the group was continuing with its tour.
Supe also volunteered when she noticed the two other tourists crouched under the van's windows in fear.
The Bedouins, known for their traditional way of life and hospitality, were dressed in long white robes and checkered head scarves, had Kalashnikov rifles visible, but did not hold their hostages at gunpoint, the women said.
Zaki, who had translated the kidnappers' demands from Arabic to English, asked to accompany the women as their translator. The kidnappers let him.
The Bedouins drove for a few hours through the mountains, and suggested to the women that they were doubling as new tour guides. "They reassured us, they are just continuing our tour in the mountains," Ganal said. "I said, 'Yes, what a beautiful scene.'"
Ganal, a devout Christian, said she began talking to the men about God and faith while Zaki translated.
The kidnappers said several times they would not harm the women. Zaki said they were seeking leverage to pressure the government to release two relatives, including one of the kidnappers' sons.
Both women said they were not robbed, denying earlier reports that they were.
At one point, Ganal asked Zaki to tell one of the captors to put out his cigarette since the smoke was bothering her in the car.
"I told her, 'Are you joking? You are kidnapped,'" Zaki said.
She insisted; after Zaki relayed her request, the Bedouin kidnapper threw his cigarette out of the car window.
The kidnappers stopped, made a fire for the women to stay warm and made the women coffee. But Ganal does not drink coffee.
"So they made me tea," she said. The women were also served pita bread, dates and other dried fruit.
A security official told the AP the Bedouin captors are from the el-Qararsha tribe in South Sinai Peninsula, home to some of Egypt's most lawless tribes and some of the country's top tourist sites, like the popular Red Sea diving town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
Bedouins have long complained of discrimination and random arrests by the government and the area was restive even under former president Hosni Mubarak. But security has deteriorated and tensions have spiked, echoing a nationwide trend since Mubarak's ouster last February.
Earlier this week, armed Islamic militants also seized 25 Chinese factory workers after forcing them off a bus elsewhere in the peninsula, but they were released the next day. The kidnappers were demanding the release of members of their group arrested years before on charges of terrorism.
The volatility since Mubarak was ousted has hit Egypt's vital tourism industry, which had $8.8 billion in revenue last year compared to $12.5 billion in 2010.
The Bedouins released Zaki and the women after negotiations with tribal leaders in the peninsula, security officials told the AP.
Security officials promised the group from the el-Qararsha tribe that they will take another look at case of the two detained men that prompted the kidnapping. A police official from the Sinai Peninsula said that the two men in custody were known drug dealers who were detained on Jan. 28 in Tor city, the capital of South Sinai governorate. Three police officers were wounded and a Bedouin was killed in their apprehension.
Ganal and Supe were invited by the South Sinai Governor, Gen. Khaled Fouda, for dinner in a hotel in St. Catherine and for a night at a hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh. The official paid for flights from Sharm el-Sheikh for the tour group.
The five Americans visited the pyramids this weekend and were planning a visit to the coastal city of Alexandria. The group planned to return to the U.S. on Tuesday.
"Even though this happened to us, people are nice to us," said Supe. "I feel that people here are considering us as family."