I had very often heard the cliché “this side of Suez” in the Wardrooms (officers mess) of various ships and submarines that I had served in depicting any worthy achievement but limiting its boundary of fame. One had heard phrases like, “The food made in this galley (kitchen) is the best this side of the Suez” or “Our submarine was adjudged the best in weapon firing this side of the Suez” and so on in many other contexts. But I had often wondered what it must be like on the ‘other side of Suez’.
The Suez Canal as we know is considered as the border between Asia and Africa. The canal itself is a waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez. It is about 95 nautical miles (approximately 195 km) long with Port Said at the northern entry point and Port Tawfik in the city of Suez at the southern point.
Well, I got an opportunity to see life on ‘that side of Suez’ when my submarine on a routine voyage from the port city of Tunis in Tunisia having crossed the Mediterranean Sea was making her way back to the port of Mumbai intending to pass through the Suez Canal. Naturally, we would have to be on surface, firstly, as the depth of the canal was barely enough for a surface vessel and secondly, it being an international waterway would be crowded with many merchant ships waiting in line to enter the canal, traffic through which was strictly regulated. It is a pretty busy waterway with about fifty ships crossing it daily with most of the part being one way traffic.
Our first port of call after Tunis was Alexandria in Egypt also known as the Bride of the Mediterranean by the locals. It is located about 150 nautical miles (300 km) west of Port Said. I was thrilled to be stepping ashore in this historic city founded in circa 331 BC by Alexander the Great. Over the years Alexandria had become the intellectual and cultural centre of the ancient Mediterranean world. Modern day Alexandria was a major centre of international shipping and industry and lucrative trading place in Egyptian cotton. Eager to see the historic sights after our obligatory diplomatic exchanges with the Egyptian government officials were over, our band of merry men (officers) some tall, some short, some broad, some bald and some fair trotted off to enjoy history as it had been written by the Macedonians and Achaemenes in circa 300 BC and rewritten later by the Arabs in circa 640 AD.
After soaking in the sights the whole day aided by our tour guide Hassan, loaned as a goodwill gesture by the Egyptian Navy to escort us and do the rounds of the city, we decided to rest our weary legs at near sun down in an authentic Egyptian restaurant to taste some ethnic local hospitality. Apart from the delicious cuisine, the highlight of the evening was the world famous belly dance which some greenhorns would get to see for the first time. My first impression was that it was not vulgar at all but instead, showcased tremendous skill and dedicated practice by muliebral beauties by controlling their abdominal muscles and moving coins up and down the midriff in waves all the while slithering and dancing on the floor. I must admit, the modern day vulgarity we see on screen in the name of belly dancing is nothing like the original.
But our joy knew no bounds when the performer did her gig to the tune of ‘mera joota hai Japani, phir bhi dil hai hindustani’ (shoes from Japan, but heart from India), a famous song from the Raj Kapoor starrer ‘Shree 420’ of Bollywood fame. The lyrics of this song were so apt to our group, what with some of us wearing Russian cap (lal topi rusi), shoes from Japan (joota hai japani), trousers from England (patloon englistani) and last but not the least all our hearts from India (dil hai Hindustani). We were so delighted and the dancer so enthralled that she did an encore for us Indians once again. Now, this exhilarating experience could easily be classified as “that side of Suez”.
The next morning saw the usual preparations in the submarine for casting off from Alexandria for Port Said so as to reach the following day. The plan was to remain on surface but head out to sea and then enter port the next morning to get our priority place in the line of ships crossing the Suez Canal. After about 7 nautical miles from the coast, I was the duty officer (Officer of the Watch) on the open Bridge of the submarine, when I observed that a woodpecker type of bird, which I later learned was a hoopoe, was perched on the fin of our submarine. Immediately, I felt that this bird was out of its habitat and had no business to be at sea. Woodpeckers or hoopoes normally could be found in forests and some desert areas but never at sea. On closer inspection, it looked that this bird had nothing wrong with its wings and may have landed in an emergency on our submarine fin.
As all this was happening, our submarine was going farther away from the shore and the chances of this bird making it back to land would be very thin. After watching him for an hour, I decided to call him Hassan, after our Egyptian tour guide, as he was displaying the same pep and confidence that was shown by that young man. By this time, Hassan who was initially suspicious of me and the lookout sailor appeared to get more courageous and walked around a bit on the submarine fin. I could see that he had no intension to fly off anywhere. I told the chef down below to get some grains and a bowl of water which I very gingerly pushed towards Hassan. He didn’t like the gesture initially but slowly came around to eating a few grains and drinking water. Time passed on and I handed over my duty to my colleague Kondal who was also intrigued to see the bird. By this time, word got around in the messdecks that we had a stowaway on our submarine. Many members of the crew came to the Bridge to take a look at Hassan on some pretext or the other. At nightfall the Captain too made a remark on seeing the bird, “he looks like a determined fellow”. Hassan roosted for the night silently.
The next morning saw us in Port Said in our waiting station to enter the line of ships. The jetty in Port Said had a majestic building adjacent to it housing the office of the Suez Canal administration. Amidst all this activity, Hassan continued to keep sitting steadfastly at his place. He did not appear to be wanting to fly off despite our proximity to land. The passage through the Suez Canal was indeed an experience to remember which took up nearly the whole day. As we passed the War memorial dating back to World War – I on the banks of the canal with its arid desert coastline, I could feel and relive history as it was written on every grain of sand there. Even the Egyptian Harbour Pilot who had embarked on our submarine to guide her through the waterway remarked about the rarity of seeing such a bird steadfastly sitting on the Bridge fin. By sun down on the second day, we had managed to exit the canal having disembarked the Harbour Pilot and now had entered the Gulf of Suez. It appeared that Hassan knew exactly what he wanted. He continued to roost through the night at the same spot eating the grains and drinking water from his bowl.
The third day went in passage on surface in the Gulf of Suez due to the intensity of merchant traffic. Now that we would be entering sufficiently deep water of the Red Sea on the fourth day, it was decided by the Captain that we would dive the submarine when we were abreast of Yanbu a coastal town near the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia. As we were in the vicinity of our diving position, immediately, I looked at Hassan to see if he was still there. Hassan appeared to be very alert now having sensed something was going to happen. As our activity levels of preparations to dive increased, after nearly four days of resting on our submarine’s fin, Hassan decided to take wing and fly off in the direction of Medina beyond Yanbu in Saudi Arabia.
The legend of the hoopoe originates from Persian literature. As per ancient folklore, the bird appears as a guide that directs mystics towards God. The hoopoe is considered as a symbol of the perfected man, messenger of glad tidings and guide in Persian culture. Also in ancient scriptures, Solomon, King of Israel who ruled circa 950 BC was guided towards water in the desert by the hoopoe bird.
Technically speaking in maritime parlance, this hoopoe bird would be classified as a stowaway as it had taken passage on our submarine without permission
So many questions come to my mind now, being of Persian descent. In the first place, why was a hoopoe so far out to sea at seven nautical miles from land? Why did this hoopoe, nest on our submarine and not the numerous ships leaving harbour in between our submarine and land and why only on my watch, a Parsi? Was it showing us the way towards the holy city of Medina which was exactly behind Yanbu? Mind you, the decision to dive off Yanbu was only taken on the third day because of intense merchant ship traffic encountered in the Gulf of Suez. Or, was it bringing good tidings to our submarine? Or could it be that the hoopoe was an allegory of my initiation into Freemasonry without my knowledge, as King Solomon is considered the Grand Master of the ancient craft of Freemasonry, a fraternity of which I became a member only in 2016. I guess all these questions will forever remain unanswered.
However, technically speaking in maritime parlance, this hoopoe bird would be classified as a stowaway as it had taken passage on our submarine without permission and it’s journey from the port of Alexandria in Egypt till it got off in Yanbu in Saudi Arabia after spending 4 days on a submarine’s fin could indeed be categorised as a journey from “that side of Suez” to “this side of Suez”.
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