Friday, February 24, 2012

Ismailia and the Suez Canal Part 2: "The People Who Dug, Who Died"

We climbed aboard a bus and headed to the home of Ferdinand De Lesseps, the man who is credited as the creator of the Suez Canal. “This building,” explained our tour guide Khaled, from the Suez Canal Authority public relations department, “is a historical building.”

I passed the kitchen and saw some lettuce on the counter and some men about to chop it. Several Qur’anic verses were posted on the wall above an old short wave radio. We entered De Lesseps’ living room and admired the old furniture, the old books, and the old antiques. “This is the horn of an animal,” he said, “Maybe to hold something?” He motioned to a tiny bed in the corner of the bedroom. “I think at this time,” he speculated, “they were very small, these people.”

A few students took down volumes from Napoleon’s Description de l’Egypte from a shelf and leafed through. Khaled gestured towards a small hole in the wall. “This,” he announced, “is a bullet hole.”

 “Which war is it from?” I asked him.

“There were many wars…1967 or 1973.” Then he squinted and leaned in. “Nope! It says 1941! It must be World War II!”

Back on the bus, to a compound labeled “Suez Canal Authority Maritime Training and Simulation.” Khaled led us up a stairway smelling of stale cigarettes and/or fresh paint to a sort of classroom with a big white dais and new cerulean movie seats. He wore a four button brown suit and spoke very, very confidently about the history of the canal. This is the room, he told us, where pilots spend a week learning about how to guide ships through the notoriously difficult waterways as they widen, narrow, and turn. “We have capable pilots,” he said, “to transit the canal firmly, and effectively.”

Khaled had a big, domineering voice. I have heard many public speakers pause for emphasis and repeat for clarity, but he did both to a sort of glorious excess. Examples:

“The Suez Canal was started in eighteen fifty-nine. Eighteen. Fifty. Nine.”

“Four million lived in Egypt during the digging of the canal. One point five million people participated in the digging of the canal. Four million. Four million lived in Egypt during the digging of the canal. And one hundred twenty thousand died during the digging of such a canal. One hundred twenty. Thousand.”

To Khaled’s credit, the facts are scarcely believable. The canal is over a hundred miles long and peasants dug much of it by hand before dredgers imported from France finished the job. Before the peasants could begin digging the canal proper, they had to dig a second, smaller canal to supply water. Forced labor led to cholera and the Frenchmen barely made their deadline, ten years after they had begun.

Egypt’s rulers originally owned much of the shares in the Canal company, but had to sell them to pay off national debts. Then came Nasser, who in 1956 nationalized the Suez, in what Khaled called a “brave decision.” Egyptians pulled down a statue of De Lesseps, leaving only a lonely plinth. After all, Khaled reminded us, “we, the Egyptians, are the people who dug, who died.”

I am consistently surprised by how many Egyptians I meet with limited English know how to pronounce, with near perfection, the phrase “tripartite aggression,” referring to Israel, France, and England’s joint attack months after the nationalization. It would be as if I could rattle off the Arabic for “Emancipation Proclamation.” Khaled told us about the tripartite aggression, which was “in vain,” because “it is our canal, whatever will happen.”

Now, he explained, “the canal is completely run by Egyptians.” Before nationalization, much of the canal was only 200 meters wide, but now it ranges from 300 to 350.

“There is no canal that is a rival with the Suez Canal,” he announced, although nobody suggested otherwise. “The Panama Canal is not a rival. We give them expertise when they need it.”

The unprompted competition gathered steam. “They have five locks. We have no locks. They depend on rainwater. We do not rely on rainwater. We are cheaper. We are unique in our potentialities. The biggest container ship in Panama,” he said, “is 500 containers. Here it is 20,000.”

Then, seeing us nod, he added a resounding “Yeah.”

The canal company employs 13,000 workers in three cities in expertise ranging from economics to engineering to technicians to pilots. Khaled told us a story. “A Chinese Ambassador told me that in China they study the history of the canal in primary school. Why is that?”

Nobody knew, so he told us the ambassador’s punch line: “Because it is the bottleneck of our goods to Europe!”

We left the bright room and boarded the bus again, this time to look out at the canal from the Beach Club, a sort of country club for employees. “It is forbidden,” read the sign at the entrance, “to wear pajamas or a galabiya [the robe associated with lower class Egyptians].”

Walking up to the water and looking across the several hundred meters to Asia, the power of the canal as both a reality and an idea hits you with a similar power to the Pyramids. The building of the canal was accompanied by grand speeches about the merging of East and West, the ideals of progress, and the inevitability of a more interconnected world. Numerous monarchs of Europe attended the opening. De Lesseps announced: “The names of the Egyptian sovereigns who erected the Pyramids, those useless monuments of human pride, will be ignored. The name of the Prince who will have opened the grand canal through Suez will be blessed century after century for posterity.”

This view across the water, to which had recently been added a large statue of a bayonet, a mural of battle scenes, and the words “WELCOME TO EGYPT” in big green letters, is still stunning, despite the kitsch. This, I remembered, is what the assembled royalty of Europe had seen when they attended the opening in 1869, what the French and English engineers who worked at the canal saw for decades over lunches of grilled fish and eggplant, eaten with engraved knives under lace curtains, what Egyptian soldiers saw facing Israelis during several wars, and what De Lesseps saw when his bombastic speeches about parting the two continents in order to bring them together finally became a reality. The tankers passed at a processional, almost stately pace, puffing yellow-black smoke and making the little tugboats and ferries look like toys and the giant containers stacked on the decks by the hundreds look like lego blocks: the romance and the sheer drama of world commerce. 

Eric, a professional sculptor who is setting up a bronze foundry at a local university, started talking about the Statue of Liberty. Originally, Frederic August Bartholdi had hoped to make a similarly grand statue for the opening of the canal. His original sketches showed an Egyptian peasant woman holding aloft a lamp, the “Light of Asia,” to entering ships.

“Why didn’t they accept it?” I asked.

“Probably because it was not as good an idea,” he answered, chuckling. "I mean, a peasant woman holding a lamp? It doesn’t make sense. They probably thought it was Christian, and maybe it was a little Christian."

“I just wonder,” pondered Natalia, an anthropologist, “Why we’re looking at it, the canal, at all?”

“Because it’s important,” Eric started to answer, before she interrupted, “No, it’s a rhetorical question.”

She gave a brief history of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, and the colonial impulse that guided De Lesseps as he had penetrated the isthmus of Suez to make it the center of world trade for at least a hundred years. “I guess,” Natalia said, remembering Khaled’s proud remarks earlier that day, “this whole genre of ‘we got it back’ redeems it.”

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