How do rumours get started?
Often appearing out of nowhere (or so it seems at times), rumours have a way of spreading rapidly. Whether spread by word-of-mouth or, more often these days, by social media, the most popular rumours have a tendency to confirm the basic beliefs people have about other people and the world around them. And thus, these rumours are believed because people often want them to be true. Still, by the time these rumours run their course, the damage left behind in the form of ruined reputations and mistrust can often take years to heal. If it ever does.
And so it proved in 1996 in the Egyptian city of Mansoura. Located in northern Egypt about 120 kilometers north of Cairo, Mansoura didn't seem to be a likely target for a strange Israeli scheme involving HIV-infected women and hormone-laced gum, but the panic generated by a series of stories published in a popular opposition weekly would soon change that. As a forum for the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party, the weekly newspaper Al-Arabi had a reputation for publishing lurid stories about Israel and their continuing struggle to destabilize Egyptian society. Still, despite the sensational nature of their stories, they certainly knew their audience.
Beginning in July, 1996, Al-Arabi began publishing a series of stories with titles such as "Israel Launches Sex War" and "Pharmacists Sell Sex Bombs." All of the stories had the same basic theme: that Israel was engaged in a covert campaign to corrupt Egypt's young people (particularly its young women). Since none of the HIV-positive women supposedly planted by Israel actually materialized, Al-Arabi's coverage quickly shifted to the "sex gum" that had supposedly surfaced in cities like Mansoura.
Said to be laced with "sexual stimulants", the tainted gum (sold under brand names like "Aroma" and "Splay") reportedly inflamed the sexual passions of the young women who chewed it. Spurred on by the newspaper stories, rumours quickly spread about the bizarre sexual antics of formerly demure college students under the influence of the gum. Along with stories about female students chasing after their male classmates, female students interviewed on campus described how fearful they were that they might become affected as well. Not only were women warned not to accept gum from males they didn't know, but fathers in Mansoura began keeping their daughters at home rather than let them attend university classes.
Though western journalists largely dismissed the story as propaganda, members of Egypt's parliament openly denounced Israel and its presumed plot to poison Egypt's youth. One member of parliament, Fathy Mansour, insisted that fifteen female students had been sexually assaulted by males who had chewed the gum. Local mosques began using loudspeakers to warn the community about the tainted gum and about the orgies believed to be occurring at the local university campus.
While chemists at the Ministry of Health tested different brands of gum and found no suspicious additives, Egyptian police started investigating Mansour's claims. No actual victims came forward but police still closed down many of the shops where gum could be purchased. Some store owners were even arrested though they were soon released after police failed to find any incriminating evidence. Soon enough, the rumours died down as people moved on to other stories though "sex gum" stories occasionally appeared in some newspapers.
Until the following year when a new tainted gum scare sprang up, this time in the Gaza Strip and along the West Bank. Said to be strawberry-flavoured and sold under brand names such as "Thunder in Paradise" and "The Legend of
Pocahontas", this new gum was supposedly laced with sex hormones that would render women sterile, but only after turning them into sex fiends with uncontrollable urges. Much like in the previous tainted gum scare, extremist politicians jumped on the story and demanded that authorities confiscate the gum before it was too late. As some western journalists reporting on the story pointed out, the tainted gum rumour was becoming more fantastic as it continued to spread. Along with claims that hundreds of tons of tainted gum had been seized, some health officials suggested that Israel was planting the gum to turn Palestinian women into prostitutes who could be recruited by Israeli intelligence.
Of course, given that Israel was being blamed for the entire mess, other Palestinian officials insisted that the tainted gum was part of yet another plot to destroy the Palestinian people and Islam. Abdel Aziz Shaheen, the Palestinian Authorities' supply minister, the man who was in charge of importing food and supplies into the Palestinian territories, there was no question that Israel was putting sex hormones into the gum. And the effect of these sex hormones were pretty versatile. Along with corrupting and sterilizing women, the gum was also capable of "completely destroying the genetic system of young boys." As proof of this plot, samples of the gum were sent to a laboratory in Egypt which reportedly found traces of progesterone (a female sex hormone). Meanwhile, the Washington Post decided to check these findings by arranging for independent tests on gum samples they obtained from Palestinian authorities. In testing carried out by Dan Gibson at Hebrew University found no traces of any sex hormones in the gum.
Much like before, the rumours surrounding tainted gum died down and things more or less returned to normal. Perhaps not surprisingly, Yasser Arafat himself remained silent on the whole matter though he did nothing to rein in the rumours either. In much the same way, then-President Hosni Mubarak refused to comment on the sex gum rumours that were still a popular subject in Egypt's press. Political commentators weighing in on the tainted gum panic pointed out that anti-Israeli rumours tended to be especially popular whenever Israeli-Palestinian relations were particularly strained. During the 1970s, rumours that Israeli agents were poisoning Arab water supplies were especially popular and several cases of mass hysteria involving female students being affected by tainted water were also reported.
While never particularly destructive as panics go, the sex gum epidemics that occurred in Mansoura and the Palestinian territories are graphic examples of the way that rumours can be used to serve a particular agenda, whether political or otherwise. In an era where Internet panics are becoming more prevalent, it also helps highlight the need to check the facts rather than relying on something spread by word-of-mouth.
So don't be afraid to chew that stick of gum, but be sure to keep your hormones under control just in case.