I couldn’t imagine what Annie was doing or where she was going. She didn’t speak more than a few words of Arabic and didn’t have any Egyptian pounds. I suppose she might start by seeking to hire a translator from a British or American consulate, a western news bureau, or a hotel. From there, what? Catch a boat or train back to Port Sa’id? And then try to cross Sinai to Gaza? Whatever her plans, she was either the bravest or most foolhardy person I had ever met.
By the time Ibrahim and I caught up with Neko II, she was already into the canal cutting that connects Lake Timsah to the Bitter Lakes. The Captain was glad to see us. I returned my passport and headed straight to my bunk. I didn’t even hear the diesel engine pounding away on the other side of the wall when my head hit the pillow. The last thought I had before dropping into unconsciousness was of Annie.
I awoke sweaty, stuck to my sheets, and my hair a matted cowlick up the side of my head. Climbing the stairs to the deckhouse was a massive undertaking for my still-asleep legs. Several of the crew were lounging in the salon and evening was approaching. Neko II had already sailed across the Bitter Lakes and was chugging its way through the final canal cutting to Suez. The scenery had not changed much: barren landscape in every direction, although some reeds were growing in the canal shallows and poor settlements lined the western bank.
On deck my eyes adjusted to the light of the setting sun. Dust and smoke on the horizon marked the city of Suez, where at last we would be able to unfurl our sails and escape the tension that had gripped us since we entered the canal system at Port Sa’id. Plans to rest and re-supply in Port Tawfiq were scrubbed. We were low on diesel fuel but could make it as far as Port Sudan if needed with the food we had.
I wandered to the upper deck and joined Piest in the wheel house. The Captain joined us a few minutes later.
“Alright, boys. A few more miles and we’ll be in the Gulf. That’s our first big hurdle, but I won’t relax until we see the Red Sea.”
He laid a chart of the region on the map table and pointed to the Straights of Tiran, the narrow neck of water to our east between the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia that separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea.
“The Egyptians have been aggressively blockading Israeli ships from passing here since March. They shouldn’t bother us, but I want to steer clear of Sharm el-Sheikh, here, where the Egyptian Navy is running their blockade operations.
“My business contacts in Tel Aviv have warned me that Israel’s days as an independent country are numbered. They say Egypt has mustered as many as 100,000 men and 1000 tanks to Sinai to attack Israel from the south. That’s certainly consistent with what we’ve been witnessing. To the east, Syria, Jordan and Iraq have amassed another 130,000 troops and 400 tanks and say that they intend to push the Jews into the sea.
“So, my friends, I will be mighty glad when we leave Egypt behind for good. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be rid of that Jew photographer.”
“Annie Cobb is Jewish?”
“Well, I doubt she walks to synagogue every Saturday, but her mother was a Jewess, and that’s an unforgivable sin in these parts. If the Egyptian Navy had figured that one out, we would never have gotten past Port Sa’id.”
My chest tightened. Whatever concern I had for Annie’s welfare now took on dimensions. Why I cared, I don’t know. I barely knew her. But I was devastated to know that she was navigating herself through the streets of a country filled with millions of Arabs who would kill her for no reason other than her heritage.
My worry finally chased from my mind when we rounded the final bend in the canal and saw the Suez Gulf opening before us. An Egyptian patrol boat waited in the channel, its deck guns bared and pointed at us.
“Ibrahim,” the Captain yelled. The pilot quickly joined us on the upper deck.
“They say they must tow us to Port Tawfiq,” the Egyptian said, interpreting orders shouted from the naval vessel. “They are throwing us a line we must attach to our bow.”
“Do as he says,” the Captain ordered. “Piest…” the Captain motioned his hand across his throat and Piest cut Neko II’s engine.
Dusk was upon us when we arrived at an old dock separate from the rest of the Tawfiq shipyard. An Egyptian naval officer came on the scene and barked orders in Arabic. He was a short, stocky man with narrowly set black eyes, a hawkish nose and sported a Nasser-style mustache. Our entire crew was escorted off the boat and we were lined up on the pier while half a dozen armed Egyptians searched Neko II. The sky darkened and a lamp at the top of a pole above our heads switched on casting harsh shadows across the boat’s deck.
When the search was completed, the boarding team reported to their leader, who in turn confronted Ibrahim.
“He wants to know where the photographer woman is,” Ibrahim interpreted for the Captain.
“Tell him she left the boat at Ismaïlia.”
“No!” the Egyptian officer yelled. Then in guttural Arabic he spoke sharply to Ibrahim.
“The Navy knows we did not stop in Ismaïlia,” Ibrahim said.
“Ibrahim, you took the girl ashore yourself. Tell him.”
The conversation continued back and forth in Arabic. Finally everyone except Ibrahim was ushered back onto Neko II.
“They think you are spies. You are all under arrest,” Ibrahim said. He was nodding and smiling nervously with his horse teeth. “You must stay on the boat. I have to go with them. Do not try to get away. They will shoot you. Farewell.”
Ibrahim was whisked off with his captors and disappeared into a warehouse. Two guards with Kalashnikovs settled into a building at the foot of the pier. The remainder of the Egyptians returned to their patrol boat, which remained tied to the dock next to them.
Once again, my cabin had been thoroughly upended but my secret stash of arms remained undiscovered. I spent the next two hours cleaning up the mess.
No one on board slept much. Not knowing how things might turn out, some of us wrote letters to our loved ones. Some I think wrote wills. Others huddled and spoke in low tones. There were no card games or talk of drinking or of women that night. We were all alert to the sounds of military machines in the background: the near-ultrasonic pulse of diesel truck engines; the squeal gears turning tank treads.
I finally found sleep in the small hours of the morning. I dreamt of Annie. She was dressed in a silk evening gown of shimmering silver. She was running barefoot through narrow crowded streets chased by bearded men in white robes wielding curved knives. The searing sun cast deep shadows among the tall earthen walls of the city. She dodged and weaved her way through the press of people, the movement of her body casting silver light through the shadows. She ducked under the belly of a camel and through a cloud of buzzing black flies. She gasped desperately for air and the sheen of perspiration painted her olive skin. She sent clay jars sprawling when she recklessly cut through a store. But everywhere she turned another bearded man in a white robe appeared and slashed at her with his curved blade. Madly, she ran and ran.
And then I heard popcorn popping and I became aware through my closed eyelids that light was streaming through the porthole into my cabin. I kept my eyes shut and listened, wondering why the cook was making popcorn early in the morning. I imagined him using Jiffy Pop Popcorn and that a shimmering foil mound was growing out of an aluminum pan. Pop, pop, pop, pop… And then I realized that it was not popcorn at all.
Adrenalin spiked through my heart like a defibrillator charge. Immediately I was on my feet and leapt up the companionway to the main deck. The gunfire was coming from the City of Suez. The Captain, disheveled and wearing white boxer briefs, hustled up to the wheel house and I followed. Simon was climbing through the rigging to the top of our fore mast.
“North,” he said, pointing. “Jets!”
The Captain went to the map table.
“There,” he jabbed the map on a peninsula of land that used to separate the Greater Bitter Lake and the Smaller Bitter Lake. “This airport. We sailed past it yesterday.”
BOOM! The noise was dissipated by distance but there was no mistaking its violence in the sharpness of the sound. The timbers under our feet shivered and a pillar of black smoke began to rise form the direction of the airfield. Machine gun chatter from in and around the city began to pick up and then we heard another distant explosion from the direction of the airport.
“Here they come,” Simon announced.
Two aircraft curled high over our position, quickly gaining altitude. The Captain grabbed his binoculars for a closer look.
“Vautours. French made medium bombers. They must be Israeli.”
We were startled by a rip of deafening machine gun fire from the Egyptian patrol boat beside us. The Egyptian sailors had finally uncovered and loaded their weapons and were indiscriminately sweeping the sky.
“Get down from there before they shoot you,” the Captain yelled at Simon.
The patrol boat kept firing until they ran out of ammunition. They reloaded the magazines and began firing again. When their barrels became too hot, they poured buckets of sea water over them and then fired some more. The jets were nowhere to be seen, but they continued firing, as did the guns in the city. Eventually they ran entirely out of ammunition. While they waited for re-supply, they started the boat’s motors and prepared for castoff. An hour later, the patrol boat shoved-off and disappeared up the canal. Neko II remained the prisoner of two guards in the dock house.
Later in the morning Egyptian radio confirmed that the Israelis had launched an unprovoked attack and that the Egyptian air force had wiped out dozens of the invaders’ aircraft. But we didn’t see any Egyptian fighters and the Israelis did not return again that morning. The immediate danger seemed to have passed and we settled into nervous boredom. Piest monitored the boat’s marine radio and we heard military communications, mostly in Arabic but some in Hebrew. No one aboard spoke either language, so we didn’t know what any of it meant other than Egypt and Israel were clearly at war.
Once the shooting died down a flotilla of fishing boats launched from Suez and fanned out across the northern gulf waters. The fishermen frantically retrieved their traps and overnight nets, dumping their catch, and then returning directly to port. By midafternoon, most vessels were off the water and the city as a whole quieted as the people hunkered down in their homes. The only boats that continued to operate were the ferries that ran non-stop to transport troops east across the canal.
Late in the day a plane flew overhead at high-altitude tracing a long vapor trail and inciting an eruption of machine gun fire from every quarter of the city.
I had attempted to avoid war but war found me. And I was a prisoner trapped in the middle of it.