A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it... We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive... And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us try then what love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
William Penn

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone...
George Fox

Friday, April 12, 2013

Along the Suez Canal, Then and Now

In December of 1979 the USS Tattnall, a guided missile destroyer of the US Navy, anchored off of Port Said, Egypt, waiting to pass through the Suez Canal. The Tattnall was on its way to the Persian Gulf. The revolution was underway in Iran, American hostages were being held in Tehran, and the USS Tattnall was going to save the day. At least, that’s how I saw it at the age of nineteen.
I was a signalman on the Tattnall, and I was excited to have a look at the famous canal. From our radio, exotic strains of Arabic music were heard across the signal bridge. Vendors in boats tried to approach the ship but were waved away. There was a stiff, cold breeze, and I remember thinking it odd that it could ever be cold in North Africa. We had a long wait at anchor before entering the canal, and I remember being impatient. I wanted to see this canal, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf; all places that had intrigued me since I had heard childhood stories of Aladdin or seen the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I couldn’t wait to leave the Western world behind and to enter this intriguing world of the Middle East.

Two weeks ago, walking out of Port Said, I pass through several military or police checkpoints. The general rule seems to be that if the checkpoint is an army checkpoint, the soldiers just smile and say “Welcome!"       If the checkpoint is a state police one, several policemen in black uniforms rush out to me before I reach the checkpoint to see my passport and to ask if I speak Arabic. After showing my passport and replying “No,” to their question, they wave me on, also saying, “Welcome!”
So as I approach a checkpoint and toll station on the highway leading to Ismailia, I take note that all I can see are soldiers in tan uniforms. I won’t have to dig out my passport. However, as I walk past a young soldier, ready for my welcome, he demands to see my passport. As I dig it out of my bag,  two men in civilian clothes run over to me. They are smiling, and waving something at me; something they want to sell me in a clear plastic bag. They ask where I am from and I don't reply. One of them tells me to open the plastic bag to have a better look at what he’s selling.
“La,” I say.
I hand the soldier my passport and one of the vendors snatches it out of his hand to have a look. I then snatch the passport out of the vendor’s hand to hand it back to the soldier. The vendor pierces me with a hard look, and the soldier stands smiling. The other vendor says, “Police.”
“Ah! Sorry. Didn’t know.”
The ‘vendor’ accepts my apology. The soldier and the ‘vendor’ have a good look at my passport, then direct me to the other side of the checkpoint. I walk to the other side where several soldiers are hanging around with another man in civilian clothes. They wave me over, take my passport, and tell me to open my bag and backpack. They all seem to keep a distance as I do so. Then they tell me to empty the contents. I start to do this when the man in civilian clothes gets his own hands into my bag to have a look for himself. He finds a knife that Inge had given me back in Bosnia. It has etched into the wooden handle the words, “Let the unexpected guide you”. The man indicates to me that I cannot carry this knife, it is forbidden. He examines the knife, opening and closing it, then he puts it into his pocket. 
“Hmmmm,” I think. But I allow him the knife, wishing him many unexpected events in his life to help guide him.  Then a soldier asks for my mobile phone. I pull it out of my pocket, still not savvy to what’s happening, but I draw back when he tries to snatch it from me. The man in civilian clothes has some words for the soldier.
“Can I go?” I ask. There is more conversation between them in Arabic.
“My knife?”
“La,” says the man.
“Can I go?”
“Yes, yes.”
I repack my things and start down the road again, oblivious to shouts behind me. As I pass the toll station, one of the civilian-clothed police, or vendors, or whatever they are, runs to me, trying to sell whatever it is he has in this plastic bag.
“You must pay 20 dollars to pass!” he shouts at me.
I stop, get close to him, and give him a good, solid, “LA!” to his face, then continue walking down the highway. No one comes to arrest me. Of course.

As the USS Tattnall passed through the Suez Canal, I stood on the signal bridge, mesmerized by my surroundings. On the right bank, Egyptian soldiers in earth trenches waved and cheered. Jimmy Carter had recently helped to make peace between Israel and Egypt, and we were apparently seen as friends. I was surprised by this friendliness; even back then we had all been programmed to believe the entire 'Arab' world was alien and hostile.  On the left bank of the canal was the barren Sinai desert. Bombed ruins and charred army vehicles and tanks remained on the Sinai side of the canal as monuments to the war between Israel and Egypt only a few years before.
I’d had my first lesson in Arabic when we were at anchor off Port Said, having been required to know numbers in Arabic to help identify markers as we passed through the canal. Now I searched for every marker I could find just to test myself on how well I’d learned. The right bank of the canal was the edge of the Nile delta, so there were palm trees and fertile fields on that side in contrast to the miles of lifeless sand on the Sinai side. I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer for the first time passing through the canal, and I am still  as enthralled by it now as I was then. 

On my three day walk from Port Said to Ismailia I quickly learn that Egyptian hospitality is not what Turkish hospitality had been. Though I am occasionally invited for tea along the road by truck drivers reclining in the shade of their trucks, or by a teahouse owner here or there, I am more often having to demand the ‘Egyptian price’ when I am overcharged for a glass of tea.
“Are you Egyptian?” asks one man in response to my demand.
And though many people question me about why I’m walking down this highway and where I’m from and where I’m going, many others put their questions in the form of an interrogation, even demanding to see my passport. There is more suspicion than friendly curiosity in these ‘interrogations’.
At the end of my first day I camp behind some reeds, with the highway just a few meters behind my tent and the Suez Canal not half a kilometer from my front door. As I sit in my tent eating pita bread filled with fried eggplant, and watching ships pass through the canal, a man comes and sits near the tent. He speaks no English, but manages to interrogate me anyhow. He may own the field I am in, but I am not sure. I offer him some food, he declines. I try to explain that I am walking for peace, for salaam. He asks if I am Muslim.
Again, the very useful word, “La.”
Then he marks a cross on his chest.
I nod yes.
He asks again, almost angrily, forcefully marking a cross on his wrist with his finger.
How can I explain my unorthodox Christianity to him? How can I explain that I am not a Coptic Christian? That Christianity as I know it is from within, and not from dogma? That I believe in peace, that my faith rejects violence? But I simply nod yes.
Then I say what so many Moroccan Muslims had said to me over a year ago.
“But Allah is for everybody!”
I say this smiling, pointing upward then stretching my hands out to form an arch across the sky.
He gets up and leaves without a word.

I spend one more night in my tent before reaching Ismailia. It is getting dark, and I duck into a fruit orchard, trying to find a discreet place to pitch the tent. There are footpaths all around though, and from inside the tent I hear voices everywhere. After nightfall I hear many angry voices approaching the tent, and a bright light shines in my face through the opening.
In English, “Who are you? Where are you from?”
I can’t see anyone because of the light in my face. I reach to the back of the tent for the only food I have, pita bread and jam.
“Something to eat?” I ask.
“Give me your passport!”
“Are you the police?”
“No police, give me your passport!”
By this time I can see a little as the light is now being held to the side. These are definitely not the police, unless the police are recruiting 12- year- old kids. Apparently several of  the males of the area have shown up to deal with me, and most of them are carrying sticks, including the 12- year- olds. Inge and I had been through this twice in Bosnia, and we’d learned that everything would be fine once we’d explained. They’re afraid, that’s all.
The leader of this group, a middle aged man, carries a white plastic bucket for some reason. He bangs on it. Is it his weapon?
“Your passport!”
I show him my passport.
“No visa? Where is the visa?”
I find the visa for him. Then things calm down, and the men and boys lower their sticks. I look at one kid and he looks disappointed. He may have been hoping for a little action. As the man in charge questions me in a friendlier manner now, some of the others crouch down to have a better look at me.
Before leaving, the man in charge assures me that I am his guest, and that he will see me in the morning.
Soon afterwards, my peace mentor, Selda, phones from Ankara. She is worried about me. As I am assuring her that everything is okay, I hear more voices approaching. Another bright light shines into the tent.
“What’s happening?” Selda asks.
“Don’t worry, I’m their guest now.”  
Another man has come with his son, without sticks, to see what the guest in the orchard is all about.
Early the next morning, as I pack up, the middle-aged man from the night before appears to give me breakfast; three pita bread sandwiches.

The USS Tattnall passed through the canal, through the Red Sea, into the Indian Ocean, through the Straits of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf, where she passed back and forth on a straight line for some two or three months. The day was saved through diplomacy in the end, not by the USS Tattnall or any other military means. I am glad now that I never saw a shot fired in anger.

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