There are three men. The youngest one speaks English. It is he who is speaking all the time. He is translating what the other two are asking as well as adding his own questions. It is obvious when it is his own question because he craftily constructs it hoping that I will take the bait and contradict myself. Then he smiles revealing a set of perfect white teeth. We have spent an hour trying to understand who I am. Each time that I stammer something the two non-English speaking officials interrupt me in Arabic. They hardly give me time to answer or for the young man to translate. Suddenly they are silent and just watch me. So I do not say anything either. I just wait.
The three are behind an enormous wooden desk. It is one of these bureaus with many drawers and half a dozen pen holders that mark a border between who is behind and who is in front. Between the three of them they have accumulated a veritable treasure trove of medals which are pinned onto their black uniforms. I thought that this only occurred in the films or in literature but I am now in a Suez Canal Port Authority office. I am sitting on a little bench that makes me feel the size of a cockroach compared to the three officials that are interrogating me from their office chairs. Obviously they say that they are interviewing me and I err on the side of caution by not correcting them. It is they who will decide if I can work in the Suez Canal and above all, whether or not this journey to Egypt has been in vain.
The official continues with his questions. It is the third time that he has asked me the same question: “What are abandoned crews?” I answer using the same words and I do not alter my emphasis one iota. “Crew that have lost contact with the ship owner and that have not been paid their wages since…” I feel as if I am hiding something even though the truth is that my answers are completely honest: “I have a grant from CONCA, from the Catalan government. I am collecting stories of abandoned crews in the Mediterranean”. All of them? “No, not all. There are more than five hundred around the Mediterranean. Although I would like to work with them all, I just can’t.” Why is the Catalan government interested in such an issue? “They’re not interested in the subject but they like the project so they gave me a grant.” A grant? “Yes, I am using the money to carry out the fieldwork. It is a humanitarian drama that doesn’t just affect Egypt.” So, why are you in Egypt? “Because they have told me that there are an awful lot of abandoned crews in this far eastern point of the Mediterranean.
The young man continues: Will you take photos of the canal? “No.” Will you just work with the crews that are, as you say, abandoned? “Yes”. A fan extracts the hot air. There is a red and black carpet that covers the room and I play with it with my toes. The three men are now arguing in Arabic and I disconnect. It is something I leant how to do while working next to the sports section in a newspaper office. Someone raises their voice and my mind starts wandering. I am now on another border, the one between Iraq and Jordan, because the attitude of the young Egyptian official reminds me of Jordanian soldier that I met in that part of the world.
On CNN, George W. Bush has just declared that his war has ended. An American marine interrogates, in Arabic, the Iraqi driver that has just got me out of his country. I am sat in the back seat of his car. The marine orders him to leave me at the border and to return home. Then he looks at me and tells me, in Spanish, what he has just said in Arabic. He points his machine gun at the car by way of a goodbye. I do not know what to say to the man sitting in front of me. I will be able to continue but he will have to return. We cross no-man’s land in silence. They stop us at the Jordanian border where a Jordanian officer interrogates the driver. He knows he must send him back because the American soldier has given the order. He is serious and he has green eyes that watch me like a hawk, just like the official that is currently interrogating me. The driver is sweating. I feel cold. The officer pretends to think and then bursts out laughing. “Get out of here!” The driver accelerates and we are heading for Amman. We do not stop until we get there.
This Jordanian had the same attitude as the young Egyptian office currently in front of me. I look at him and I recognise that I would love to act out the role of a spy (Mata Hari, Violette Szabo or Virginia Hall) just to confuse him. But the interrogation has finished without me even realising it. I cannot even risk acting out a role or asking whether or not I can stay. It is midday and without knowing it I have been given permission. I can work in the Suez Canal for seventy two hours.
I leave the Suez Canal Authority headquarters with a laminated authorization. I do not know if it had already been prepared when I entered this modern building on the banks of the canal more than an hour ago. It is almost a small work of art in itself: two columns complete with hieroglyphics, an Arabic text, and my name plus “Espanish” written in pen.
Sunday. The militarised port of Tawfig.