Ismaïlia and the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal may be the only place where blue water mariners find sandstorms a hazard to navigation.  There’s something otherworldly seeing a huge container ship gliding toward you through a golden brown silicone fog looking like it’s riding on sand.  The camel is not the true ship of this desert, SeaLand is.  The MV Hanjin Helsinki glides by, name written in Chinese characters and Latin letters, hailing port, Hamburg, Germany carrying Costo containers through an Egyptian sandstorm — globalization.  On Saturday we visited the Suez Canal, Ismailia, near the canal’s center, where the waterway cuts through Crocodile Lake (people swim there.)  Ismailia was the headquarters of the Suez Canal Company, a pleasant “colonial” town with shaded streets and well laid out squares.  Now this formally sleepy town is home to more people than live in Alaska.  I picked this town rather than one of the ports on either end of the canal because I wanted to see the image of a ship gliding through the desert.  I hadn’t thought of a sandstorm.

And then there is the Bar-Lev line, not a multinational shipping conglomerate but a former Israeli defensive fortification.   It sits in the Sinai, just across the Canal from Ismailia’s suburb Number Six (that’s its name).  The fortification is a steep sand dune 80 feet high that had been seeded with land mines; designed to be difficult for Egyptian tanks to climb, designed to withstand an Egyptian attack for 48 hours.  In the event it failed.  Egyptians crossed the canal in rubber rafts, aimed high-pressure fire hoses at the line and washed the sand berm into the canal, punching holes for the tanks that followed.   Now the line is a place to watch container ships and have a picnic.

To get to the Bar-Lev we took a ferry across the canal, from Africa to Asia.  At the ferry stop we were marked as Americans.  Isamilia is the city where the Moslem Brotherhood was founded and being the Easter-Passover season the area is under security alert.  Police search all vehicles crossing the Canal.  After enjoying a coke in the Bar-Lev Park the police picked us up at the re-crossing to escort us wherever we wanted to go.  This meant no line at the ferry.  This meant admission to the grounds of the Ferdinand Lesseps house, normally closed to the public,(Lesseps was the mastermind behind the canal).  This meant that no beggar dared approach us in the market.  We whisked through town in a two-car motorcade with sirens and lights.  At one point the police tried to beat out an ambulance.  At another point we were stopped at a grade crossing waiting for a train.  The police escort car waved us around the line of cars into the oncoming lane so we could cross the tracks as soon as the train past.  A chain protects the grade crossing.  A crossing guard drops the chain when the train is past.  The police car didn’t wait for the guard so became fouled in the train chain, rollers rolling, siren bleating, crossing guard shaking his head — police.  All this protection cost us 80 Egyptian pounds (around $13.)  Suzi thinks the cops must have been bored, looking for an excuse to use the siren and to pick up some protection money.

When the day began I was unhappy because it was stormy.  But I don’t think I would have traded the experience of riding through a sandstorm.  The sand swirls on the road surface the same way dry snow does during a blizzard, but the road is not slippery.  It’s a hot blizzard.  Instead of a white-out it’s a tan-out.  When the wind dies down there is a yellowish suspension of sand in the air that makes me think I should be smelling sulfur.  The bushes along the roadside and the concrete Jersey strip between the lanes snag every free piece of litter from a 25-kilometer radius.  Watching people in the storm I understand the utility of Bedouin costume.

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