Part four of a five-part excerpt taken from To the Brink, the concluding volume of my circumnavigation trilogy, published August of this year. Read part one, two, and three.
It was time to come clean about my intent to cross the border illegally. I explained about the expedition, and my plan to kayak Lake Nasser at night. At the end of the confession, I motioned to the map case on the major’s desk, and said, “Can I show you something?”
I pulled out a laminated letter and offered it to him. Glancing at the letterhead, Major Hassan grunted, “Ah, the UNESCO.” Written in 1994 by the then Director General, Frederico Mayor, the letter appealed for people, organizations, and governments to assist the expedition on its way around the world. This was my ace in the hole, the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card. UNESCO had been instrumental in saving two temples built in thirteenth century BCE by Ramses II, relocating them stone by stone to Abu Simbel, before the Nile was flooded to form Lake Nasser.
“But dis name.” The major pointed to the first paragraph. “Pe-dal-for-the-Pla-net. Is not the name you say.”
This was true. I’d given name Expedition 360. “But I can explain,” I pleaded. “You see, we changed the name of the expedition in 1999—”
But the major wasn’t listening. He was back to yelling at his phones.
He left the room a little while later, leaving me in the care of the list-making orderly nursing his bandaged thumb. Perhaps still aggrieved at his injury, the man sidled over to where I was sitting, raised a hooked finger to my face, and whispered, “Jew spy!” He crossed his wrists, the sign for imprisonment, and bared a gold-capped tooth at me. “Forrrteee yerrr!”
Tens of thousands of innocent people languished in jails around the world, forgotten victims of politic crossfire, attempted extortion, or simply mistaken identity. If you were a big enough fish to come up on the political radar screen, either thanks to friends in high places, or a media campaign launched on one’s behalf, there was reason to believe your government would get involved. Otherwise, that’s where you would stay, potentially for the rest of your life. I imagined the response I could expect from the British Consulate in Cairo on hearing of my arrest, especially after warning me not to cross the lake without permission. Serves the idiot bloody well right!
With the prospect of spending the rest of my natural life in prison, all feeling drained from my body. My disbelieving gaze came to rest on a photograph propped on the bookcase beside the major’s desk. A serious looking boy and a smiling girl stared back, the major’s children, I guessed, and my thoughts turned to my own family, and to a far country. Being summer, the days would be long, stretching well into evening. My parents would be outside on the lawn, enjoying the last of the sun before it dipped behind the towering beach trees to the west. Trilling birds would be settling in for the night, roosting in the hawthorn bushes. The air would be filled with the aroma of freshly cut grass from nearby hayfields, blending with the lingering trace of honeysuckle blossom. In the local Spyway Inn, patrons would be lounging in the beer garden, quietly sozzled on IPA, the rolling green flanks of Eggardon Hill peppered with puff pastry sheep rising up behind.
Will I ever set eyes on any of this again? I thought miserably.
On the afternoon of the second day, some thirty-six hours after being seized by the fishermen, another military official entered the room. He was exceptional in that he wore uniform; in all other respects, he looked like the orderlies—pinched, hawk-like, dead hamster moustache, and smoking feverishly. The major brought him up to speed on the situation, gabbling in Arabic and going over the lists of gear. It was at this point that I twigged what was happening. I was about to be handed over to a different branch of the Egyptian military, and transferred to another detention centre, presumably in Cairo, for further interrogation.
Sitting there, contemplating this new turn of events, I heard a fax machine in a nearby room whir to life. The same orderly who’d been plying the major with cups of tea walked in holding two sheets of paper. Major Hassan took the dispatch and began reading it slowly. Every few seconds, he glanced up and eyed me through the cigarette smoke. My pulse quickened. Was this more bad news?
“Meester Jason.” He twirled the pages at me. “Ees from Cairo. You ask permission to cross Lake Nasser?”
I nodded. “Yes. Six weeks ago. But I heard nothing back.”
For the first time since the whole ordeal began, something approximating a smile took shape on the major’s face. “Yes, well, never mind. Application ees approved. Seems you tell trooth.”
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