Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Other Canal

I am writing in this in the Mediterranean. My dear, much-missed Mediterranean. I feel somehow stupidly that I am ‘home’, even though I am just on a ship in the middle of an empty blue sea. But this sea is different from the seas over which I’ve sailed these past months. The air is different too. I felt it last night, around 5pm, when we burst forth from the Suez Canal … ‘home’.

The 10-hour traverse of the Canal made an interesting day. It must be more than a decade since I made my last transit and, goodness me, how things have changed. My old memories of Suez are vague and general. Sand, broken armaments rusting in sand, an air of despond and dirt, and bareness, all covered in sand. Just the odd town, and distant palm, to break the monotony.

Not any more. Oh, there’s still plenty of sand. I don’t suppose anything will ever change that, but now there are cities and monuments (such costly monuments!), now the palms come, in places, right to the canal and the Egyptians have piped water across to the Sinai side, where once there was nothing but pale brown war, and a huge city is bursting forth over there. The engineering, the cash, the enterprise are impressive. I wish I could say the same for the aesthetic. Too many square boxes, too few curved lines. But I guess the new Egypt has been, for the most, built for usefulness rather than for beauty.

We sat overnight in the pool at the south end of the canal, and set forth in the penumbras of dawn .. number twelve ship of convoy two .. at 6.45am. The city of Suez says farewell with a pretty mosque set amongst some splendid topiary work (when the mosques are so lovely why cannot other buildings be?) as you head into the sandy wastes peppered every few hundred yards by what look like pink and beige concrete portaloos. What they are is guardboxes, for heavens sake, each manned by an Egyptian soldier with a rifle and sometimes a pup tent. What are they guarding or guarding against? The canal? With a rifle? They are all looking inwards, so it can’t be an Israeli invasion. (Also I wondered where do they eat, and where defecate, in their tiny open guardboxes?)
Intermittently there are slightly larger military gatherings – roadblocks, barracks – at one of which the (bored?) occupants had inscribed ‘Welcome to Egypt’ in English and Arabic in the sand. It was a nice thought and made me wonder whether all the vile anti-foreigner activities and attitudes you hear of are the feelings of the real Egyptians or just those who live to get their names in the paper and their faces on TV.
I wondered some more when we passed a pretty white canalside mosque, standing head to shoulder with an equally pretty little Christian church and college. It seems the once high civilisation of Egypt is, after all, still alive.

One of my enjoyable canal memories from the last trip was of the little ferry boats, nipping from one side of the canal to the other between the convoying liners. Well, the ferries are much bigger now (and the canal has been widened), and they carry wall-to-wall vehicles as well as people, to the burgeoning network of roads on the Sinai-side, but they still perform that same nifty manoeuvre, timed to a nicety, for believe me there is only 1500 metres (at 10 knots) between the steamships.
At one of the busiest points on the canal the Japanese (why?) have constructed a vast state of-the-art grey suspension bridge. It was being used sparingly, however, while the traffic queues for the old ferries stretched down the road. Expense, suspicion or habit?

Past the city of Ismailia – it was never that huge before, and it certainly didn’t sport these vast cui bono memorials at the side of the canal, nor that pseudo-Caribbean resort with its umbrellas and jetties, nor those splendid roads which put the Pacific islands to shame – past the canal-straddling city of El Qantara which – oh! -- surely wasn’t even there last time I was here. If it was, it was but a village .. now it is evidently booming as its Sinai-side stretches far into the sandy distance. Past (at last) some more agricultural areas, with shabby farmhouses and neatly harrowed and surprisingly dark-soiled fields and busy people, past the place where the canal now divides … the tailings from recent works piled neatly and high along the banks … and then with an almost audible ‘pop’ we are out.

Time to lower the Egyptian flag, stow the pilot flag, don one’s European mindset and head into my Mediterranean.

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