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Driving through the Sinai Desert

In the late forties – early fifties, after the iron curtain had come rattling down and the cold war was getting hotter and dangerous to life and limb, or so we thought – there was a flurry of activity in the offices of Middle East Command. The Jews (Israel existed only on paper then) and Arabs were busy having their slugfest in the northern Sinai Peninsular, in the area of the Mitla Pass. ME Command of the British Army was worrying itself silly with the paranoid notion the Russians would at any time sweep south from the Caucasus Mountains and barrel through the Fertile Crescent (i.e. Iraq and Syria – once known as Mesopotamia) to take control of the Suez Canal. That would have been unsporting behaviour as everyone agreed considering the pally cooperation among the allies during the World War II.  
As ME Command thought the Soviets were absolute rotters at the time and maps were so out of date they relied on maps from the 1914-18 War to find out who was where (the global positioning system was then unknown) they knew it was time to act. Scouring the ranks of the Command for every Armenian, Greek, Arabic, French and Turkish-speaking officer they could lay their hands on, they sent them scadding around the Fertile Crescent to gather military intelligence. (Please! No smart aleck reminders about an oxymoron here). Military intelligence in those days meant assessing the state of roads, bearing loads of the bridges, the salient features and topography of the land, describing likely troop landing zones, and locating defensive structures – I shouldn't need to go on. Difficult as it might seem to some, there were still large clumps and gobs of the earth then as yet unmapped. We used 1/4" squared 4" by 5" field service books (AB 28 as I recall) for making notes in those days. It was our equivalent of the Blackberry and other electronic gadgets for instant messaging. The pages were serrated at the top to detach easily. Tucked somewhere in the leaves of one of my books is a sketch I made of the Wadi Sufra (the Yellow River, which was hardly a river of course, the bed being bricky dry most of the year). I came across it the other day and put it back for safe keeping. Someone will find it one day, dismiss its sketch and notes, and screw it into ball to toss it away. They'll have no idea what youthful sweat and enthusiasm went into its creation: the first sketch that never went into my report. To get back to the main thread, I hope that I've put 'military intelligence' in the context of the time. The main thing is that when they got to the bottom of the barrel, they got me.
I was Garrison Engineer of Tel el Kebir at the time. though I might have been assistant GE. for a while. It meant managing the power generation and distribution system, the water supply, filtration plant, a 20-ton ice-making factory, and the sewage disposal system (someone had to shovel it). To assist me in this absorbing occupation were 350 fellaheen (machine minders, machine wipers, sweepers, cleaners, labourers, pole hole diggers and makers of hot sweet tea to lubricate parched throats); 20 ex-Afrika Corps POWs who preferred staying on to repatriation to East Germany; and half a dozen sappers who strung the power lines, did the cable jointing, and kept the transformers topped-up (ex-RE apprentices would turn their hand to anything). The POWs, likewise were diesel mechanics and skilled in other trades who kept the Alco diesels going, the Deutsch generators, Ruston & Hornsby single stroke pumps with their massive flywheels – the names of the other machinery escapes me now. Enough to say that nothing daunted those Germans in keeping the diesel generators going, re-babbitting and scraping big-end bearings, maintaining the fuel injection systems, and doing all those things we were supposed to have learned during our apprenticeships. My real apprenticeship I served with the ex-POWs, cable jointers, switchgear technicians and linesmen. 
The fellaheen spoke no English. One or two of the rais (foremen) [pronounced rice] had a smattering, but to communicate at all without an interpreter, one learned the fellaheen brand of Arabic, which was something beyond the basics of shufti, bukrah, marleesh, beit, cliftiwallah, arabeyah, and galahbeyah. Egyptian Arabic is to the so-called pure Arabic of Saudi Arabia what, say, Cockney is to educated English. Not exactly, but near enough. That said, it's a lovely, expressive language I've now all but forgotten.
  And so, educated to perfection in the lingo of the fellaheen from the Delta, villages and hamlets strung along the Sweet Water Canal (from whence came some of our water made potable through a Patterson filtration plant) I sallied forth across the Sinai Desert. We kept well south of the Mitla Pass where the Arab-Jewish donnybrook was in full swing (and has yet to stop). I might mention in this age of guns-for-hire mercenaries that a good many Jewish squaddies of ME Command – one of whom, fine fellow, had served his time with me – took off to fight for the fledgling Jewish Army. An equal number (I'd like to be bi-partisan here) who found the headgear of the Jordanian Army fetching, took flight to join Glubb Pasha.
I chose the middle path, which put me firmly on the Lord Baden-Powell path of duty and loyalty to King, country and the flag. For a time, too, it put me far up the Wadi Sufra from which journey the only surviving images in my possession of that epic journey are to be seen here. I originally wrote that we travelled in Land Rovers, but one of our number, a former vehicle mechanic now in Australia, wrote to say, "Rubbish! They're Jeeps!" so I stand corrected.
A word on the Sinai and its central area, somewhere between the Mitla Pass and St. Kathrine's Monastery. The mouth of the Wadi Sufra, about forty miles south of Port Suez, is about seven miles wide. This feature of the wadi is not obvious to the casual eye because it is pancake flat and identical to the land of the coastal strip that bears the hard-top coast road, but it's probably a four-lane super highway today. The land form rises some distance inland, appearing as low hills and, further east, is the higher craggy landscape. The wadi bed is dry for most of the year, naturally – this is desert. When the rain comes, however rarely, it crashes through the wadis more thunderously than any tsunami you've ever seen on television. When the rains do come, they arrive within a two-week window in February as far as I know, mostly, however, when the itinerant traveller least expects, and often under a clear blue sky. Impossible you say, but there is a rational explanation.  
All perfectly true. The sky above can be an intense aqua-blue without a hint of a cloud in sight and the sun bears down like a hammer on Adam's anvil (no one's ever heard of Adam's anvil unless they've read James Thurber. It's a reasonable simile here anyway). Miles away, beyond the horizon, a fierce black sky of moisture-sodden cloud bursts its sides and the rain comes bucketing down. Anyone familiar with the bucketing rain of Kampala on the north shore of Lake Victoria or the monsoons of India will know what I mean, but take it as a given. The high barren landscape is saturated as a water-logged blanket. Dry land can't absorb that much water, so it fills every crack and crevasse and runs into the next and larger channel. It has nowhere else to go but stream in rivulets over the baked sand rocks, joining with other streams of run-off to gullies of rushing water that becomes a raging and ferocious torrent. Nothing can stand in its path.
Meanwhile, far away from the deluge, gingerly picking a route through the boulder field of the wadi under the blazing sun, one, two, three jeeps, agile as mountain goats, work their way east along the bed. We were confident of our route at the time and debated which defile to take next, occasionally getting it wrong and going back to try another route. From the outset, we had heard the distant noise of heavy artillery in the desert air. The pattern was distinctive and unmistakable, a clear bump! bump! bump! noise, hard to mistake and, once heard, never forgotten. Mid-morning, however, we heard a distant rumbling that could not be guns. It was a constant rumble. What was that? Thunder? No, too sustained.
Then someone said, "Water! It's the sound of rumbling water." You could feel it coming from the ground. We didn't wait to debate the matter, but gunned the machines for the nearest escarpment. These projections are hard-packed sand, symmetrical formations not unlike sand dunes. They commonly occur where a wadi changes direction. The escarpments are invariably positioned on the inside wall of a bend in the wadi. Unlike dunes, however, they are firm, solid and smooth with sometimes gentle, sometimes steep, inclines. We ran the machines onto the nearest projection, got as high as possible, shut off the engines, and waited. The distant rumble got nearer and louder and louder and nearer until, like a destructive tsunami, it came thundering through the wadi, a twenty-foot high wall of water pushing boulders half the size of houses, sand, debris, flotsam and jetsam in its churning waters like a giant bulldozer. The noise was deafening and we, mere onlookers, were mesmerized by the destructive majesty of it all. Of course, as the wadi widens, the height of the water diminishes dramatically and never reaches the sea, being absorbed through the sand. Having seen the power of rampaging waters, however, it is easy to believe the biblical story of the flight from Pharaoh's Egypt. Of course, you have to accept that the scribes were giving an accurate report although it doesn't take much stretch of imagination to believe the tale might be derived from tumbling waters of the Wadi Sufra or Gerundal or some of great wadis of the Sinai. Unbelievable as it was, just as swiftly it was over.
  Boulder-strewn bed of the Wadi Sufra looking north. Tufts of vegetation can be seen in the foreground.   Stuck in the mud of the same wadi after the flood of Noah had subsided.  
A peace that defies all understanding came over the desert. Not a sound, no more rumbling, tumbling waters, nothing. All was quiet, all was still. Even the guns seemed to have fallen silent. We stayed where we were, in a safe place that night. We slept on our camp beds under starlight so bright you could read a book by its pleasant and comforting light. One needs to sleep under the stars at least once in a lifetime, in an atmosphere of breathtaking clarity, to understand the opening words of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – "Awake! For morning in the bowl of night, has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight."
Quoting the Rubaiyat is perfection here because some magic of the desert was at work while we slept. The next morning in the light of the sun Omar Khayyam calls 'the hunter of the east', the wadi floor had come to life magically as a Persian carpet of the deepest hues. From wall to wadi wall, the bed was alive with the myriad colours of an intricately-woven carpet: dominating anemones in scarlet, blood red, yellow and blue that hugged the sand like the elaborate knots in the weft of a carpet, miniature Bougainvillea-like flowers, delicate and deeply coloured that added grace to the magical and delightful pattern of the carpet. I am not a horticulturist; I know little about flowers of the desert, but what we saw I have never seen again among all my travels through the Middle East, through Libya, Saudia, Yemen and like places.
Under the Sinai sun, the plants of the desert that day went through their life cycle of flowering, withering, decaying, and the scattering of their seeds. Where the plants came from during the night is a mystery. One would have thought that deluge would have washed everything away, but no, it could not have done so, and some other year when the rushing waters flow the flowers no doubt will blossom and live another miraculous day.
Having bogged down as the not-very-good photograph shows and extricated ourselves from the mud, we pushed on further east. In a few hours, the desert was again as dry as a sun-washed bone. It was sometimes difficult to follow the main bed. One branch or channel looked as main as the other. Our maps were useless. I did a lot of sketching. Then, as though borne by the carpet of Sinbad, we came upon a water hole. It was serendipity at work, fate, chance, fortune, for we were having trouble with the cooling system of one of the engines. While the sergeant was organising things at the watering hole, I wandered into a separate defile and there heard the faint tinkle of bells. First guns, then thundering waters, now the tinkling of bells? No, I wasn't going batty. I really heard them and went forward to investigate.
There I came upon a hermit with a flock of goats. [Song of Solomon (6.5): "Let your eyes be turned away from me; see, they have overcome me; your hair is as a flock of goats which take their rest on the side of Gilead."] Could this be my hill of testimony, my mound of witness? I said "Ziak?" (Hello or how are you?) by way of greeting. He said "Ziak!" back, which told me he knew Egyptian well enough, the Egyptians being the only people I know who use this easy form of greeting, though I may well be wrong. Having exchanged greetings, we passed the time of day, talked about the weather – he knew the water was coming and herded his flock to safety in good time – the state of the desert, the infernal noise to the north. He invited me to take coffee with him and I accepted, but excused myself to return to the waterhole to get a tin of bully beef. Armed with this gift, I went back to the hermit and sat on a rock and watched while he made a goat's dung fire and boiled a pot of water. [From the waterhole? Full of bugs? Ugh! Never mind. The water was boiled, so it was protein on the hoof with thick coffee to hide the taste.] We got on well. He'd been in the Sinai about twenty years; couldn't have been above forty-five, but looked thirty years older with his brown and lined leathery skin. He had come from Cairo before the war. Too many people, he said. He sold his tobacco shop, crossed the Suez Canal at El Qantara el Garbiya, bought himself a few goats and had lived the life of a hermit ever since. He occasionally traded goat's milk or butter or meat for coffee and flour.
I gave him the can of bully beef for which he was extremely grateful. He removed the top with the key and ate the contents with a hooked finger while the coffee brewed. An interesting meeting. He said he was very sorry not to be able to return my courtesy with a gift of equal worth. The best he could do was to offer me wisdom and advice. He clearly knew that I was a stripling, barely out of napkins by his lights, but was exceedingly gentle and courteous in his speech. "My son," he said, "My gift to you is to own nothing and remember everything. That is where your fortune lies." It did! Worth explaining, but not here.
We drank our coffee, made our 'Peace of Allah be upon you" and "on you, too's" and bade one another farewell. Before I took my leave from this lovely fellow, I had one of the fellows bring a small supply of tea, sugar, canned milk and a couple of cans of bully beef for which my hermit friend praised Allah.
Here the record of my journey into the Sinai ends, but not without the necessary tail end piece. Eventually, I met those warriors of the desert who were to allow me to travel with them on my quest for military intelligence. They spoke and I replied; they questioned and I responded and they fell silent in helpless laughter. I write figuratively, of course, for they were well-mannered people. Only later did I get the gist of what they said in the evenings. "We were expecting an Arabic-speaking officer. Instead, they sent this idiot, for all he could say in answer any question, observation, or casual remark was 'SHIT!" I tell this tale without embarrassment. It was the language I learned from the fellaheen who dug holes for the transmission poles at Tel el Kebir and had rich store of expletives, which I thought natural to offer on any occasion.
There will be those, of course, who'll say this is a load of rubbish, which it probably is, for it's getting on for sixty years ago and the mind doesn't stay as sharp, fresh and accurate as it once was in the sweet bloom of youth. Still, it makes a reasonable tale and, I'd say it's mostly true. Who'll dispute it?

Army Apprentice Soldiers
August 2006


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