The following is an account of my arrest and subsequent interrogation by Egyptian security forces after paddling a kayak illegally across Lake Nasser from Sudan in 2007. It is the first of a five-part excerpt taken from To the Brink, the concluding volume of my circumnavigation trilogy, published August of this year.
“What contree, you?”
I blinked at the mesmerizing eddies of smoke swirling towards the fluorescent ceiling tube. “UK,” I replied. “I’m English.”
Mid-forties, hair thinning and cheeks pitted, my interrogator sat behind a large mahogany desk, cigarette smoldering between his fingers, leafing through my passport. He looked coldly efficient in his narrow framed glasses, yet so far the major had been courteous, disproving Mazar’s assurances of being beaten on sight by the Egyptian military. Perhaps he was just treading carefully? Egyptians were paranoid about their tourism industry. The curtains were drawn and the air conditioning turned up full blast. For the first time since crossing the Himalayas, I was freezing.
Three hours earlier, a white motorboat had pulled up on the beach where I lay face down, being used as a mattress by the fishermen. Major Hassan and two henchmen jumped out, revolvers drawn. The fat skipper immediately began waving his pudgy hands and yammering, boasting of his ruse. Bastard will no doubt be rewarded handsomely for this, I thought bitterly. The henchmen bundled me into the launch along with my gear, and after a short ride down the coast, we disembarked in a little harbour below the Mubahath el-Dawla detention centre, General Directorate for State Security Investigations. It was the same inlet I’d paddled into earlier under cover of darkness, where the night watchman had shone the flashlight.
It was then I noticed the camel whip coiled on the major’s desk. How many prisoners had been coerced into spilling their guts by this instrument of torture, I wondered? Putting my passport down, the intelligent officer began fiddling with the mouse on his desktop computer. His English was better than my Arabic, but this wasn’t saying much. For many of the questions, he had to resort to using a Windows translation program.
Without looking up, he said, “So, going … round Egypt?”
This is what I’d communicated to the fishermen: that I was sightseeing. The problem with this story was that my passport contained neither an entry stamp for Egypt, nor an exit stamp from Sudan. All I had was an expired Sudanese visa, leaving me in political limbo. The major would find all this out in due course. My only hope in the meantime was to play the dumb tourist card.
“Yeah, just paddling around. I think I might have got lost, though. Is this Egypt or Sudan?”
He stared at me, his eyebrows raised. “You choking?”
“No, no, I’m not.”
“I thought it was Sudan.”
“No, no!” He stabbed his desk with a finger. “Egypt!”
“Oh dear, then I really am lost.”
He turned his attention back to my passport. “Where is—” And he made a stamping motion with his fist, a reference to the missing visa and entry stamp for Egypt.
I took a deep breath. “Well, I was in Sudan, doing some kayaking around the lake—for tourism—and I must have gone too far north. So, this is definitely not Sudan?” I winced.
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