I board the launch and, to my surprise, we do not head for shore. There are two ships anchored in this area and it appears that they have suffered some type of abandonment. One is a chemical tanker and the other is a passenger ferry that they will take me to in a while. Once in front of the chemical tanker the boatman sounds his horn over and over again as if he were sounding an alarm. I am left half deaf and I shout at him to calm down. When he stops a man appears on deck and tells us that we are not allowed to come aboard. The captain radios the launch and asks me for my telephone number.
He does not want to talk with Egyptians and he already knows who I am. This is why he has called me. They have impounded him because of a case of mistaken identity, according to him. In 1978 a petrol tanker with the same name caused a disaster in the canal. They do not have the same identification number (IMO), they sail under the Panamanian flag (of convenience though it is no longer necessary to write that) and above all, it is not a petrol tanker. What is going on? The man shouts at me and I want to hang up. Once again I have no answers.
I make one last attempt. Of course, the boatman does not want to take me as he has wasted too much time in front of the other ship. I signal to him to calm down. When he realizes he will have to take me he tries to scare me by driving his launch at speed off the top of large waves. I hold on, as best I can, to the top of the gunwale. He comes alongside the ferry and a hatch is opened. There is no rope ladder and I have to slide into the bowels of this ship through a rectangular hatch. There I am stopped and they tell me that I cannot move until the manager arrives. He is on his way. I am in the entrance area. I perch on top of a box in front of the open hatch and for an hour I just watch the reflections of the sun in the water. The canal is not as calm as I had thought it was from the deck of the Columbus. Now that I am at the level of the sea I can view the cresting waves disturbing the sunlight reflected on the water. When the waves break against the iron figurehead I realise that this stagnant sea also has its own voice.
I hear the sound of footsteps on the stairs and some men appear. As best they can, they tell me that they are abandoned and they ask who I am. ITF? No. We are abandoned, we are abandoned, they repeat and they ask me for my telephone number. The sound of a launch can be heard and the shaken sailors vanish up the stairs.
It is the manager and, just behind him, a man wearing a shirt and tie. We head up on to the deck and, for the second time in Egypt, someone interrogates me. It is the manager who does the talking. The other man introduces himself as a lawyer and then remains silent. I get out my laminated pass but this does not impress them in the least. They have told me that they are abandoned and that is why I am here, I tell them. The lawyer laughs and the manager is silent. He is watching to see if I have lied and if I am actually from the ITF. The lawyer opens an envelope full of money and then immediately calls all the sailors who line up. With an air of grandeur he pays them one by one, smiling as he does so. He allows each man to count the bills in front of him and even slaps them on the back. They look at me, take the money and leave dejected. Those that came down to see me are between a rock and a hard place. They need the money and I imagine that they are silently cursing the man in the shirt and tie. They have to resign themselves to the situation. They bow their heads and take the money. When the man has finished he tells me that I have to leave the ship. His tone and his glare leave me with no doubt about that.
They have served me beans for breakfast but no-one has eaten anything. I am escorted to the store room. On the way I pass a dusty plastic plant that serves only a decorative purpose on a ship that is itself just decorative. I am so keen to point out the irony that that I am forced to bite my tongue. The bearded boatman is already there and I am ejected from the ferry via the same hatch through which I passed on my arrival. Seventy six hours later when I am in Jerusalem, in front of a painting of Elizabeth of Bavaria (the empress who arrived in this part of the Mediterranean in a ship paid for by the Mallorcan people) this ferry’s sailors will get in touch with me and beg me to believe them. They are abandoned and what I witnessed was an act. Right now I am on a launch with a bearded man and I do not even know that I will be going to Israel. However, I do know that the envelope and the back slap has been pure comedic theatre.
I have nothing more to do in Suez and my seventy two permitted hours are almost up. I take a bus to Port Said. When I arrive I discover that it is a public holiday and the city is celebrating the sacrificial lamb. The city is covered in lambs’ and cows’ blood. Each family kills one, two or three cows, or lambs if they can, and they do so in the street. As a result there is warm blood all over the pavement, the houses and the shops and it sticks to the soles of your shoes. I am in the market and my sandals are covered in the warm viscous blood of dead animals. I eventually realise that there is blood on my toes and on my notebook. There is no-one in Port Said that is not covered in blood.
There is a huge difference between the Mediterranean port that is Port Said and the sad dusty city on the Red Sea that is Suez. Port Said is a European city in Egypt. However, the picaresque Mediterranean has made it more down to earth than Suez or the nineteenth century Paris which inspired it: flat checkerboards, French doorways, chipped Venetian balconies, blue and white striped awnings, squat domes and boardwalks full of romantic arbours. It is a port of agents who deal with embarkation, travel, contracts, launches and anything related to maritime business. And it is a tax free port just like Ceuta. This opens up the possibility of making any type of exchange you care to imagine as long as there is money involved.
I stop in a teashop but there are only men present. I feel uncomfortable so I leave. Today more than ever I am being ridiculed. I cross the market and there are just men praying on large green mats. I enter a shop and there is a man there using a cleaver to chop up a cow.
I leave the market and I set off in search of the protection of the seawall. I imagine that there will not be so much blood and partying going on there. I turn a corner and there is a cruise liner in front of me. The canal is so much part of the city that the colossi become part of the streetscape. They look like luxury white hotels with a postal address but they are actually moving.
From the waterfront I watch the unloading of a heavily laden ship. It is on the other side of the canal and for a while I see sailors coming and going in orange launches like the ones I used in Gibraltar. I read the name and it is the Danube, one of the ships I found in Gibraltar. It still needs a coat of paint and they have removed the company name! I ask a boatman to take me there and I request permission to go aboard but the captain is not there. What is he called? It is not the same man. The Admiralty Marshal clearly won the hand. Once again, the Mediterranean reveals itself to be circular. Those that sail around it are doing so in a spiral.
There are no abandoned crews in Alexandria or in any of the Egyptian ports. In the afternoon a young journalist from Port Said interviews me in the ITF office. She has brought her younger brother along because she cannot walk along the streets unaccompanied. I am tired of the world of men that exists on shore. On ships this world of masculine rules attracts me because it seems to be more honest than on land. It is what it is. It may be crude but at least it is not deceitful. On land it is all about pretence, appearance, lies, and hypocrisy. I want to get out of Egypt.
Monday. Crossing the Sinai Peninsula.