It is cloudy at sunrise and a thick mist envelops trees and individuals. Divining what is more than two metres away is nigh on impossible. It is now that I realise that the pavements of Suez are too high and they are full of potholes. In Latin America it is the tree roots that cause concrete to crack. Here the holes seem to have been caused by mortar rounds, bullets and shells. The agent that is taking me to the canal is waiting for me in his office. I arrive late because I took the wrong street and I got lost thanks to the mist. It is hard to believe that he has an office in a building on the banks of the canal. I expected that he would be a boatman like those in Turkey but I now realise that he is an embarkation agent that has boatmen working for him.
I enter an office building and there are just men there who are smoking and watching the mist covered canal from the large windows. The launches are moored for now and all is so still that it is unnerving. When they tire of watching the mist and the water, they sit at their desks checking notebooks full of figures. They are agents, shipping agency owner and suppliers. These are the men with official passes that control all ship movements as well as what happens on shore. No-one says anything to me until the mist lifts. Two hours pass and then they rush me as there is a ship waiting for me and I cannot waste “more time”. Before I leave, one of them gets out a camera and they take a photo of me with them. They all smile.
The boatman has instructions to take me to the Columbus, the ship operated by the agent that I met 24 hours ago. He knows exactly where it is and does not ask me anything. So, I wedge myself in the bow of the boat to shelter myself from the spray caused by the speed of the launch. The journey along the canal is nothing like my sea voyages. In this ecosystem there are neither waves nor movement. The canal is filled with a calm, tense, dense sea of almost oil-like water. I can only hear the launch’s engine and the water running down its sides. The shore always shows the way and here it creates the profile of the canal. I suppose that nothing or no-one gets lost on the horizon in these waters.
I see it is the Columbus as the launch approaches its stern where it has its name painted. The man who has brought me here sounds his horn and a rope ladder is thrown over the side by someone I cannot see. While I am ascending the ladder I am conscious that this story is coming to an end. It is not because something has randomly changed; neither is it because I no longer want to continue. It is the end because it is impossible to go beyond this level of human misery.
On board this ship there are three young men that, thanks to a call from the agent, have been awaiting my arrival since they got up this morning. They are young men that should have a future but they are trapped in limbo. How do you contain these mercurial twenty-something year old lads on a dying ship? It is impossible.
To be honest, I am ashamed to write about how I worked here. I remained silent for almost the whole time that I was aboard this corpse-like ship. I drew in my notebook, and laughed and gesticulated with the three lads that understood almost nothing of what I was saying to them. They hardly spoke any English. At what point did I forget to bring an interpreter?
I am on the ship, the launch has gone and these three lads are so desperate for novelty that they accept my presence on board with a “yes”. I selfishly need an abandoned crew to justify that I have travelled to the Suez Canal and I interpret the yes as a sign that we will be able to communicate. We do so, in truth, but it is because I have to use my eyes more than my mouth. I perceive some things about abandonment here that I had not realised before. I hope I am correct.
Murat, Ismail and Mustafa are all twenty five years old. One is a mechanic; one a seasoned sailor of the Egyptian Mediterranean; and the other a sailor that does not have experience at sea, only of the canal. They are Egyptian and they are the second crew on board. I learn that they did not know that the ship was detained when they signed up and that are staying put because, at the moment, they are guaranteed food and a wage. Murat is the first who realises that we will have to interact through gestures and he takes me to what will be my bunk. It is the room belonging to Mustafa who has the least experience of the three of them. Once in the room, Murat gives me a worn but clean white towel to use, a bar of soap, and he points at the bunk and a little table where I will be able to write. It smells of the grime of abandonment but I am already so used to this smell that I think it has become part of me and my perspiration. From the porthole I can see the canal and I realise that they have given me this room because it has natural light and a small table. I have no idea if this young man knows what I do, who I am and, above all, what I want. However, he understands that I write and it seems natural to him that I am here. Catalina Catalina, he repeats and then he leaves.
I am not worried about these three lads or about being locked up with them. It seems inhuman that they are here and almost sheer madness that they have decided to open a window onto their lives that I can peer through. The only way I can think of explaining to them what I am doing is to show them some photos of the other crews I have worked with. I leave the room and find Ismail and Mustafa watching television in the galley. Murat, the mechanic, is the only one that has something to do and he is down below with the engine. Ismail rushes out to find him and they return at a sprint. They sit down in front of the laptop and push Mustafa out of the way. He ends up in a corner but says nothing. Istanbul, Ceuta, and Gibraltar. When I show them a photo taken in Peñón of some abandoned Indonesian sailors wearing orange overalls, Ismail lets out a shout. He recognises one of the men. He worked with him in the Suez Canal and the young man realises that the other sailor is going through the same experience as he is.
They talk, they argue and they smile at me: I do not need to see more. For twenty four almost wordless hours they ensure that I understand how they pass the time and how they suppress the quantity of energy that a corpse like this one has.
The ship comes first. They show me their home and what they are given to eat. There is a seat in the middle of the deck: “Ismail”, says Murat but he carries on because he wants to show me the engine. Neither Ismail nor Mustafa come along. They stay in the galley because the engine room is Murat’s territory and all territories on a ship are owned.
The young man shows me the engine room and stops in every nook and cranny. It smells of oil. Murat is constantly moving around. The olive green pipes are shining because he keeps them clean. The vessel is old, he says, but he cares for it as if it were a new toy. Ismail calls me. Murat’s time is up. He has monopolised me for too long: now it is his turn. He takes me on a tour of the ship. He points at the seat and sits down. He points at the sky and covers his eyes: I will understand that night what he is trying to tell me. For now I only note that from that chair you can see the canal and three other ships moored in the water that do not show signs of abandonment. You can see the shores complete with towns, movement, roads and change.
The ship is not as old as some of the ones I have been on. However, if it wants to be a merchant ship again rather than a rusty corpse it has to escape from this limbo. Ismail has the most experience of all of them and he is aware of the predicament. He has spent two years two months at sea and he knows perfectly well what the future holds if he and the ship do not manage to escape from the vicious circle that is abandonment. At the moment he is being paid. The day he is not he will leave. This is Suez, his house is nearby on the shore and at any given moment he can abandon the vessel without suffering remorse. Unlike the older sailors he does not have a possessive, dependent and organic relationship with the ship.
Mustafa is cooking. This is his principle role on the ship. Physically, he is the strongest and he resemble a basketball player more than a sailor. No-one helps him: the hierarchy is strictly enforced here and knowing how to follow orders forms part of the rite of passage that one has to undergo in order to become a sailor. With his apron on and flour covering his arms and hands, he is preparing dough. He is from Suez like Ismail and he has always worked in the Suez Canal. Mustafa never talks to me. The only thing I manage to understand about him is that something does not square with his defensive attitude, his flour covered hands, his busy grandmotherly approach towards cooking and his bulging NBA biceps. Perhaps he is angry because they have given me his room or maybe there is just something about me that unsettles him. He always stays a few metres away from me.
As I write, I now remember that every time that Ismail or Murat wanted to tell me something they grabbed my arm and took me to their own territory. The shared space was the kitchen but they did not say very much there and the television was always on in the background.
I have spent all day on the ship and time has passed slowly. Now the sun is setting on the canal with its still water, its dead water and its artificial water. Murat turns on the lights at seven and will turn them off at midnight when they go to bed. The mechanic takes me to his cabin. There is an olive branch on the mirror. It is a present from his mother and a good luck charm. There is also an Advent Christmas star. There is still a month to go before Christmas. Here the calendars do not have any sense and Christmas could be today if they decided between themselves that it should be. Just through an agreement between us we could prepare a Christmas dinner or toast the New Year. Or we could decide it was 25 April or 7 March, the respective birthdays of Ismail and Murat.
For decades the economy has forgotten about people but it is now using them shamelessly and at will. Space, individuals, desires and morality has all been commercialized.
Murat’s cabin is full of books about mechanical engineering and he shows them to me. It as if these drawings of engines, sprockets and circuits will help me to understand something more about what is happening on this ship. Murat is from Alexandria and from what I gather it has taken a lot for his father, an Egyptian shopkeeper, to accept that his son wants to work with engines and at sea. If the situation has not changed in one month, he says, he will leave. This I understand perfectly. At this moment my phone rings. It is some sailors from Marseille asking me for help. I do not have my notebook with the number of the ITF coordinator in Marseille. They quickly realise that I am not the person that they need to talk to and hang up.
It is very hard to be young in this first decade of the twenty first century. It is very hard to know that what you have been taught is of little value and the future is grey as there are too many interested parties banning colour. For decades the economy has forgotten about people but it is now using them shamelessly and at will. Space, individuals, desires and morality has all been commercialized. These lads were trained to be sailors in registered colleges but the job that they were taught to do is now only found in literature and it is worthless. At sea they prefer voiceless workers with temporary contracts who are out of reach of the unions. Labour rights are something found only on paper. Once again they are worthless. In this respect, the sea and the land are exactly the same.
Ismail arrives and urges me to go up on deck. “Sit down”, he says and I do so. Night has won the battle with day and there are almost no remnants of what was the blue hour. He points to the sky and I am lost in a sea of stars that I had only seen before in the Mexican desert. Without wanting to, perhaps because it is a game I play with a friend, I search for Orion. However, I do not know if it even appears in this part of the world. I do not find it but thousands of stars dazzle me. I have never seen anything like this at sea and Ismail knows it. He touches my arm and points at the shore. As I am looking they turn on the orange lights of the towns and part of the sky is turned off. Ismail has enjoyed these forty seconds every nightfall since he has been here, for over two months now. It is a fortuitous change of light and perspective when the coast ceases to be a black line and becomes orange and the sky switches off somewhat. I am always surprised by the seafarers’ capacity for contemplation. I wish that those of us on land could learn how to do it.
There is a football match on the television this evening. I look at the screen and read that a Suez team are playing. Ismail takes my arm again, never my hand, and takes me up on deck. The illuminated city stadium that I can see from the ship is the one on television. I note down that we are so close to life yet, at the same time, so far away. It is as if we can see life from the vessel but we are unable to enjoy it. It seems as if there is a window between limbo and life. On the shore the cars are moving. On the shore there are men, women and children. On the shore people are able to walk towards somewhere.
We are eating a delicious pastry when Mustafa explodes. I do not know why. I will never learn what caused him to explode but he is so angry that he gets up and paces up and down the ship as far as the dimensions of the vessel will allow. I recognise this anger because it is the type that I have seen or heard about on the ships. The lad will not be able to stand this incarceration for much longer. One day there will be a short circuit and he will explode in a choleric rage which will fill every corner of the ship. Ismail knows that this will end badly. I do not know if Murat has realised because I suspect that the only things that he cares about are his engines.
As the highest ranking sailor, Ismail wants to keep up appearances. The long and short of it is that I am his house guest. He asks me to follow him. In his cabin he takes out some drawings. Since he arrived on the ship he has spent time producing charcoal drawings of what happens aboard. It is just like a ship’s log. I feature in one of the drawings. Although I am not wearing them he has added a necklace and a pendant in the form of a cross. He point to me and then gives me the drawing as a gift. Little by little, he summons up the enthusiasm to show me this diary of his life aboard. It features witches with long hair that live in a fiery hell; a shipwrecked vessel; the stars that he can see from his chair; a lunch that Mustafa burnt; once more the same beautiful woman but this time bare-chested without dishevelled hair. Ismail blushes because he is twenty five years old and he is incarcerated. I just laugh.
Mustafa is smoking on deck to relieve his frustration and because the night air calms any flushes of anger. Ismail and Murat begin a game of backgammon on deck. It is a night full of flashes. They come from the towns on the banks of the canal, from the ships’ anchor lights and from the stars dispersed all over the night sky. I see the beam of a lighthouse that appears over the bow every forty seven seconds and that cuts through the blackness of the water. By 23.00 there is nothing more to do or say and everyone goes to their cabin. I go to mine. Ismail asks me if I am going to write. I tell him that I am not. Murat will turn off the light in a while
It is a silent night. I am keen to head outside and see the water of the canal but I do not know if this is forbidden. I am also worried about scaring the lads with the noise I will make by opening the iron door. I count the hours and I count the silence, if it is possible to do so. From the hold faint sounds of the anchor can be heard, nothing more. The silence is so profound that my own body becomes a source of noise: my stomach rumbles, my heart beats and each time that I turn the bunk creaks. At seven, Murat turns on the engine and Ismail knocks on the door of my cabin. As we are starting to eat breakfast we are interrupted by the sound of a launch’s horn. Whoever is sounding the horn does so relentlessly. I have only spent twenty hours aboard and someone, I do not know who, has decided that it is now time for me to leave. I have a look and it is the same bearded man that brought me to the ship. He signals to me and I tell him to wait. I grab my rucksack and descend the rope ladder. I hardly have time to say goodbye. Murat and Ismail run along the ship’s deck until we lose sight of them. I do not see Mustafa.
Friday. Thrown off a ferry.