Attack of the killer rumours

By Khaled Diab

Rumours of deadly SMS messages are symptoms of a worrying trend in – the unstoppable rise of .

March 2009

Some scientists suspect that the radiation in may be having all kinds of detrimental long-term health effects.  But it seems that mobile phones may be deadlier than any of us ever suspected and may, in fact, cause instantaneous death.

However, it's not microwaves that are to blame but text messages. At least that's the theory according to a rumour that has been circulating in Egypt.

The word is that SMSs from “unknown foreign quarters” – although rumour has it that they originated in Saudi Arabia – are killing their recipients. But who could be sending them out?

I recently reported that, in a sign of the changing times, God had gone from voices in the head to voicemail in the Netherlands (no I don't mean the Underworld). Perhaps like a good subordinate, the Angel of Death – or E'zrael in Arabic – is now following his Lord's example.

Imagine how much easier, and cheaper in these times of recession and cutbacks, it must be for the Grim Reaper to text his bleak message rather than pay a home visit to every doomed soul.

So, what kind of death can the unlucky recipient expect? Well, according to press reports, one supposed victim vomited blood and then died of a stroke.

But what I can't figure out is how these SMSs are supposed to kill the recipient. Do they concentrate all the radiation in the handset into a single killer pulse or death ray? Or are the text messages cursed in the way that videotape is in the Japanese horror classic, which I've never seen, Ring?

Despite the sheer farfetchedness of death by text, apparently enough people believed the rumour to prompt the Egyptian health ministry to take the extraordinary measure of issuing a statement in which it assured the public that “these rumours contradict all scientific facts”.

Despite the comical element of this episode, it does reflect a worrying trend. Undereducated, sceptical of the lies they are fed by their government, feeling disempowered and disenfranchised, certain segments of Egyptian society treat the rumour mill as a reliable source of information.

Of course, there are some rumours which are harmless urban myth. For instance, one old legend has it that some Cairo kebab joints, in order to save money, cooked up feral dogs for their customers. This could have something to do with all the food scandals that have shocked Egypt and the kelabgi pun, which combines ‘kebabgi' (kebab maker) with ‘kelab' (dogs).

However, there is a more serious side. The knowledge that the government routinely lies to the people means that some Egyptians will believe pretty much any dastardly motives and conspiracies attributed to it, including the death of the president and his replacement by a body double.

Sometimes this can have deadly consequences. During the bird flu epidemic, when the government banned the raising of poultry on city roofs and balconies, many people moved their birds inside, despite government warnings that it could kill them. “The problem is people think we fabricated the whole bird flu thing to cover up the ferry disaster [which killed over a thousand people],” admitted the head of the health ministry's bird flu committee back in 2007.

Egyptians are just as distrusting of the designs of foreign powers as they are of their own government. For instance, there is a belief, like in may parts of Africa, in some Egyptian quarters that Aids is a western conspiracy to destroy Egypt's moral and social fabric.

Also related to sex, some years ago, there were rumours that Israel, in order to corrupt Egypt's youth, was secretly distributing chewing gum that made them horny. In fact, there is an entire sideline in Israel-related conspiracy theories, including radioactive seatbelt buckles, shampoo that makes your hair fall out and creams that gnarl the skin.

The media has also remarked a worrying growth in superstition in recent years. In fact, it has become a booming industry. One study estimates that it is worth about 10 billion Egyptian pounds annually and employs some 300,000 people. And aimless and silly superstition is creeping even into the media.

For example, rather than call for scientific funding into serious and useful issues, Zaghloul El-Naggar, a religious affairs columnist at the semi-official al-Ahram, last year called upon the Saudi authorities to analyse parts of the Black Stone in Mecca to prove that it originated in paradise and not on earth.

Sahar El-Gaar, a columnist at the independent al-Fagr, hit back at what she saw as superstitious and unscientific nonsense. “I support El-Naggar's call to analyse part of the Black Stone. However, he must bring us a sample of the soil of paradise to draw a proper comparison with the black stone”

“Superstitions spread in societies in times of difficulty and distress, when problems afflict them and life becomes unbearable. Superstitions also spread when there is political and social oppression,” Nabil Sharefeddin once opined in the independent weekly al-Dustour.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 28 March 2009. Read the related discussion.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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