Egypt Plans Wider, Deeper Waterway
Back in Ismailia once more, Admiral Carroll wished me luck on my inspection trip.
"You've got a surprise in store for you," he said. "Americans tend to think that Egyptians don't much care for them because of our policies in the Middle East. But the U.S. role in clearing operations has made a tremendous difference. You'll find many unexpected friends along the canal."
I found not only friends but also a surprising awareness that work on the canal has only just begun. Simply to restore the waterway to its prewar operating level will cost Egypt at least $288,000,000. But to recapture world trade lost during the blockage, especially oil shipments from the Persian Gulf to Europe and the United States, Egypt must greatly enlarge the canal.
"In this age of giant tankers," a U.S. authority on world shipping had told me, "the Suez Canal has become an antique. Nowadays a fully loaded tanker may draw 73 feet of water—about 25 feet more than the canal's depth. Eight years ago, most of the world's tankers could use Suez. Today only one out of four can make it. The route of the future lies around the Cape of Good Hope."
Not if Mashhour Ahmed Mashhour and his fellow engineers can help it. As chairman of Egypt's Suez Canal Authority, Mr. Mashhour is already thinking far beyond the reopening of the canal. At his headquarters in Ismailia, he gave me a view of the waterway as Egypt foresees it in the 1980's.
"Time, not Israel, is the great enemy now," Mr. Mashhour began. "We have lost nearly eight precious years and we cannot spare another day, for the job ahead of us is enormous. To handle today's traffic, we must vastly enlarge the canal. The original waterway required excavation of 97,000,000 cubic yards of earth. Within the next decade we must excavate more than 300,000,000 cubic yards. This gives you an idea of the final result."
Unfolding a diagram of the canal in cross-section, he pointed to successive layers shaded in various colors.
"The top layer represents the canal as it is today," Mr. Mashhour explained. "The diagram shows the width to be approximately 200 yards, with a channel depth of 49 feet. The dark-blue layer below indicates our initial goal, with the channel dredged to a 51-foot depth. The pink layer represents 64 feet, and the final one, forecast for the 1980's, shows the canal expanded to a width of nearly 350 yards and a depth of 77 feet.
"At that point," he added, "supertankers of 300,000 deadweight tons can pass fully loaded through the canal and cut 4,000 miles off the Cape of Good Hope route."
Pipeline Will Lighten Supertankers
I remarked that tankers of nearly half a million tons were already in service on the high seas. Presumably these would still have to use the long route.
"Perhaps the real giants will have to use the cape route," Mr. Mashhour answered. "But we have begun construction of a double pipeline from the Gulf of Suez to a point west of Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea.
"The main purpose is to transmit oil from our offshore wells in the Red Sea to mainland industrial centers, but the pipeline will serve canal traffic as well. Many tankers with a loaded draft too great for the canal will be able to pump their cargo ashore at the port of Suez, pass through the canal partially loaded, then fill up again at the pipeline's Mediterranean end. The entire process will take less than 24 hours, compared to ten extra days around the Cape of Good Hope."
"Disobedient" Wife Rescues Husband
If Mr. Mashhour's plans go through for widening the canal, Ali Tawab very likely will have to move his house. Considering that he stoutly refused to abandon it to a terrible war, the government may find him reluctant.
I met him near El Qantara, a ghostly ruin of a town bisected by the canal 20 miles north of Ismailia. Despite its name—the Bridge—El Qantara's west bank never suffered invasion, though many residents would have preferred a human assault. What crossed the canal instead was a years-long hailstorm of artillery shells. Israeli guns devastated the west bank, and Egyptian guns the east bank.
The effect was that of a giant road grader, first leveling the town, then piling it back on its own foundations. Here and there a ruined house still stood amid giant mounds of rubble, like some solitary desert outpost abandoned to the dunes.
The devastation is doubly painful to Ali Tawab, for he built a number of houses in the town. During my search for refugee families recently returned to El Qantara, I found him one afternoon at his house on the canal's west bank, a mile or two south of town. A handsome man in his seventies, with white hair and a glint of humor in his brown eyes, he sat surrounded by a group of children and grandchildren in front of his partially destroyed house. It was some time before I realized he was blind.
Over cups of sweet tea Mr. Tawab spoke of his life as a builder along the canal. His career had been interrupted by five separate wars, starting with World War I and ending with the October war of 1973. During the latter, he told me, El Qantara's few remaining inhabitants had finally abandoned hope and fled westward beyond the war zone. He himself refused to join them.
"I said to my neighbors, 'Stay and keep me company,'" he recalled, "but they could not bear to watch the town die. As for me, I no longer had the use of my eyes, and I would only have been a burden on the road."
Packing his family off to stay with distant relatives, Mr. Tawab remained in the house with his wife, who refused to leave her husband in the care of one of their children. Her decision probably saved his life.
One afternoon several weeks later the room in which the Tawabs sat simply exploded around them, whether from a bomb or artillery shell they never learned.
"The roof began to collapse," Mr. Tawab recalled, "and I lost my direction. I realized I could not reach the door, and I thought the end had come. I called to my wife to run for safety"—he paused, smiling—"but she never learned the Moslem law of obedience. Instead she took me by the hand and somehow led me through the falling wreckage out into the yard. Allah was with us that day."
Elsewhere along the canal, faith took the form of endurance and devotion to things dimly recalled. One morning during a visit to an elementary school in the city of Port Said, I met Hoyida Mohamed, aged 11. She and her family had just returned home after seven years as refugees in a Nile Delta town 43 miles to the west.