Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Young Soldiers of Port Said

One evening in Port Said, Mohamed called to get together with a few of his friends, all young soldiers. “Meet me at De Lesseps,” he said. I did not know where this was, only that De Lesseps had designed the canal. A café, maybe? Or a street? After a lot of confusion, he agreed to come find me. We hugged and he introduced his friends. Then the universal Moment of the Bored Teenager played itself out. “Where do you want to go now?” he asked. “I don’t know. How about you?” I answered.

“I don’t know. You decide.” 

“Where do you normally go?”

It was going nowhere. “Well,” I finally said, “I’d like to see this De Lesseps.”

It turns out that a common meeting point for friends in Port Said is a stone column (the more obscure term is ‘plinth’) where a statue of the Suez Canal’s planner once stood. The people of Port Said angrily pulled it down in 1956. Now, it’s a lonely, graffiti covered outpost where the canal meets the Mediterranean sea. It reads “De Lesseps” in Latin characters, though they are fading from the salt in the air.

We walked around on the boardwalk that overlooks the canal. Mohamed is from Kafr El Sheikh, a small agricultural city in the delta, where his mother teaches and his father practices medicine. Mohamed wants to become an English teacher in a high school, but he also wants to live in England or France for a while. He pronounces the names of the two countries in his own, idiosyncratic way, and when he mentions them as possible destinations my mind loops back instantly to weeks before when he told me about 1956, about how “England and France attacked our land.”

His friend Mahmood, also a soldier, also wants to live abroad. His uncle has a pizza restaurant in Los Angeles, so he’d like to go there, or maybe to London.

After crossing the canal, we stepped off the ferry and noticed some graffiti, which Mohamed proceeded to read out loud. “Askot Al-Nizam,” or “Down with the regime.” he mock-shouted, raising his fist slightly. This irked Mahmood, who chastised him. “We’re not supposed to say that. We’re in the army.”

“Whatever,” Mohamed shrugged, “I was just reading it. Not saying it myself.”

“Yes, but we could get in trouble. Don’t say that, even if you see it.”

Another friend, also named Mohamed, wanted to break the tension, so he proclaimed, “Down with your uncle!”

We spent the evening smoking shisha and talking about politics, before they had to be back at the quarters at 9pm, like high schoolers with a strict parental deadline. They talked a lot about smoking hashish, a common drug in Port Said, though most of them have only smoked it a few times, and Mohamed never has (he also strictly refrains from shisha, which is only tobacco).

The talk turned to Israel, Obama’s support for Israel (which they don’t support), and Obama himself (who they do still like, tepidly) “Israeli soldiers are weaker than Egyptian soldiers,” Mohamed said. “But they have all this fancy technology from the Americans, so it’s not fair. But if it was just a fight between men, we would win. I could swim across the canal right now, no problem.”

Before we left, they grew serious, or as serious as they could possibly grow on a fun night off from the service. “I’m interviewing your boss [the director of the military museum] tomorrow,” I told them. Earlier that day, Mahmood had introduced me to the Colonel and said, “He knows everything about Port Said. He can tell you all about it.” So I reiterated. “He’s going to tell me about the history of the city.”

“When you meet with the director tomorrow,” Mohamed said, “You cannot tell him that you hung out with us like this, or that we talked about all of these things. Pretend you don’t know our names. He'll kill us."

“Kill who? Who are you?” I said, wiping the expression off my face. They all burst into laughter. “Exactly!” Mahmood roared.

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