Memory of Home Lives in the Blood
Hoyida's father, I learned, had been a bumboat vendor in Port Said harbor until 1967. When the six-day war abruptly put him out of business, he and his family fled the city along with 320,000 other inhabitants. The few thousand who remained behind lived anxiously as Israeli troops dug in a few miles away.
In the years that followed, Port Said lost all semblance of the once-thriving northern terminus of the canal. The harbor and waterway lay blocked by sunken ships and by the constant threat of attack from either side. Israeli artillery bludgeoned the waterfront, turning it into a honeycomb of ruin. Hunger, disease, and despair took their toll until Port Said became a derelict city. Yet all the while young Hoyida Mohamed yearned for home.
She had been barely 4 years old when she left Port Said. I asked how she could miss a place she hardly remembered. Her reply expressed the instinctive longing of refugees throughout the ages.
"When I was born," she replied gravely, "the first thing my eyes saw was Port Said. I was too young to know it then, but my father has always told me, 'Port Said is a drop of your blood. Never forget it.'"
By the summer of 1974, when Hoyida and her family returned home, Port Said had already begun digging out from under the ruins. While Egyptian crews demolished condemned buildings and cleared the streets of rubble, an American salvage firm concentrated on the canal.
Using explosives and underwater cutting torches, divers began dismantling two scuttled ships that blocked the main channel. As a giant section of hull was cut free, a floating crane would lift it to the surface and add it to a grim montage along the canal bank. Despite safety precautions, several salvage workers had narrow escapes. In one bizarre accident inside the passenger ship Mecca, diver Richard Trautman found himself facing an underwater fire.
"I was caught for only a few minutes," Rich told me later. An expert oil-rig diver from New Orleans, he had completed salvage work in relatively deep water at Port Said and turned to another wreck, when I met him near the city of Suez. During a break in diving operations, Rich described the Mecca episode in matter-of-fact tones.
"I was working 50 feet down inside the ship," he said. "I used my normal diving gear, heavy plastic helmet with an air hose to the surface, and was cutting access holes through steel fuel-tank bulkheads with an oxygen-arc torch to reach the starboard side of the ship.
"I'd already cut through five compartments, and that gets a little cramped, because the access holes are only shoulder width and you're dragging these long hoses behind, one for you and one for the torch. It was in the sixth compartment that I ran into trouble." He shook his head at the memory. "I sure was some surprised."
Unnoticed by Rich at first, sparks from the torch rose to the top of the compartment in streaming bubbles of fire. As the bubbles reached air trapped at the top, they ignited a leftover film of fuel, spreading flames across the entire bulkhead. While 50 feet underwater, Rich suddenly found himself beneath a roaring canopy of flames.
"It came a bit sudden," Rich said, "but the fire didn't really worry me. What mattered was the danger of explosion—it can burst your eardrums, give you a concussion, or even kill you."
It was a horrifying vision. I asked how he had gotten out.
"I didn't, at least not right away," Rich answered. "I let the fire burn itself out. It only took a minute or two, but while it lasted it was one crazy sound-and-light show."
Clearing Operation Takes a Toll
For all the hazards of underwater explosives removal and salvage work, only one Egyptian lost his life during the entire clearing of the canal. Those ashore were less fortunate: In the hazardous job of ridding the canal banks of land mines, 100 Egyptian soldiers died. Over a period of three months, demolition teams found nearly 700,000 mines set by Israeli and Egyptian forces.
On an inspection of the area north of Suez city, photographer Jonathan Blair and I had a tragic reminder of the unwritten law along the canal: "Walk only on paved surfaces or on footprints in the sand." Not far from where we had inadvertently strayed beyond a narrow path that bordered the canal, two Egyptian soldiers were killed soon afterward by a mine.
During long years while the maritime world awaited readmission to the Suez Canal, a small percentage of it waited patiently to get out. In the lightning onslaught of 1967's six-day war, a northbound convoy of 14 ships was caught while passing through the waterway's Great Bitter Lake and dropped anchor until the transit could be completed. It would prove to be a wait of many years.
Marooned Sailors Dwell in the Past
With special permission, I paid a visit to some of the marooned ships. Dubbed the Great Bitter Lake Fleet, these vessels represented many nationalities—Czechoslovakian, Polish, Bulgarian, Swedish, West German, British, French, and Norwegian. An American ship, African Glen, had been sunk during the 1973 hostilities. She rested on the bed of the lake with her decks nearly awash, the victim of an Israeli attack.
In spite of their forlorn appearance, the surviving ships lacked nothing in the way of hospitality. Several lay anchored side by side, and I was welcomed in the wardroom of Marit, a 10,000-ton cargo ship registered in the port of Kristiansand, Norway.
Over ice-cold bottles of Norwegian beer, Marit's chief engineer, Harry Jensen, and his colleagues explained that the original crews of the ships had long since been replaced by rotating maintenance teams who signed on for three-month tours of duty.
"It's not a bad life," Harry said. "We get shore leave in Cairo, and the ship has plenty of work for a dozen men, especially on the engines. When the time comes to leave," he added with a touch of pride, "Marit's engines will be ready to run. She'll be seaworthy, like a proper Norwegian."
The ship's crew was being provisioned from Cairo and Alexandria. As for clothing needs, Harry confided, Marit's cargo offered a wide variety.
I had begun to notice that my hosts' clothes, while obviously new, were slightly dated. Trousers seemed unfashionably baggy, belts a trifle narrow, and shoes somewhat pointed for today's tastes. I noted, too, several spotless T-shirts, each with a horseshoe emblazoned across the front, beneath the legend "EXTRA KICK"—an oil company slogan of the mid-1960's.
Ironically, one item in plentiful supply throughout Egypt had to be shipped all the way from Scandinavia. As Harry saw me off at the gangway, his eye caught an unsightly patch of rust on deck.
"Nothing to do about it till our sand gets here from Norway," he remarked wryly. "Then we plan to blast it clean and do a little repainting."
With thousands of square miles of pure desert sand all around us, I looked astonished. Harry read my thoughts. "Too fine," he said. "The Egyptian sand won't work in our blasting machine—we had to order ten tons from home."
Preparations were under way for the luckless internees of Great Bitter Lake to weigh anchor and complete their long-delayed canal passage. Marit expected to sail out on her own, perhaps in company with a master mariner named Ahmad Kamal Hamza.
As senior pilot of the Suez Canal Authority, Captain Hamza oversees all traffic through the canal. Given the slightest excuse, he cheerfully abandons his office ashore and takes to the nearest wheelhouse.
I found Captain Hamza on one of his shorebound days, beset by paperwork at his headquarters in Ismailia. With an air of reprieve he pushed the pile of papers aside and proceeded to give me a veteran pilot's view of the canal.