The Middle East – Now and Then

Gary Shilling

The ongoing civil unrest in the Middle East brought back memories stretching over 50 years. In February 2009, my wife and I were on a splendid Stanford-sponsored tour of Egypt. It concentrated on the pyramids, Sphinx and other ancient monuments and artifacts, but also covered Islamic and Coptic art and architecture.

We also toured modern Cairo and its bazaar and ate lunch in a restaurant there. The news that a bomb exploded outside that restaurant a few days later certainly got our attention.

That wasn’t my first trip to Egypt. I took a year out of college in 1958-59 and traveled the world on oil tankers owned by a friend of mine’s father. Tankers travel from where crude oil is produced to where it’s refined, so I visited a number of Middle East countries where turmoil was as much a fact of life as it is today.

From Sidon in Lebanon, I hired a car to drive to Beirut. On the way, the driver pointed out the place U.S. Marines were encamped just months earlier while trying to quell the perennial animosity between Lebanon’s Muslim and Christian populations.

To get to Kuwait, oil tankers traverse the Suez Canal, which then was lined with smokestacks of ships sticking out of the water. They had been sunk in the 1956 Egyptian-Israeli war, and pulled to the side of the Canal to allow traffic to flow, but not yet removed.

When President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to back the British and French occupation of the Canal in 1956, Gamal Sasser and the Eqyptians took over. They gradually replaced the Canal pilots, then predominantly Europeans, with Eqyptians. One of our pilots, a gregarious Eqyptian, was obviously picked for his nationality, not his ability.

The pilot give steering orders directly to the helmsman, but technically he is advising the captain, who remains responsible. We were moving through the Canal at night be when I awoke in the morning and looked outside, the buoy that marked the edge of deep water was on the wrong side of the ship. Thie Eqyptian must have thought he was turning a kiddie car, not a 30,000-ton tanker, a huge ship by the standards of the day. We were aground and blocking the canal. It took two powerful tugs and high tide 12 hours later to refloat the ship and let normal traffic resume.

The workers who came on board to hook up hoses and lines while a ship was in the Canal were also Eqyptians. It was the first time I’d heard Arabic spoken, and I thought they were clearing their throats before I realized that they already had two or three sentences out. It was also the first time I say Muslims pray. I got out a compass and map, and sure enough, they were properly pointed southeast toward Mecca.

In Kuwait, however, I first thought the prayers were headed the wrong way until I realized that Mecca is southwest of Kuwait. That country’s oil wealth was then being used to turn all the streets in Kuwait City into boulevards. To widen the streets, they simply took bulldozers and knocked down the first row of mud huts. That forced some of the money changers to move their gib glass cases of American, Indian, British and other currencies. It seemed risky to display all of that money in the open air until I learned that thieves got their hands chopped off.

To get from Kuwait back to the Suez Canal, tankers pass the coast of Yemen and on one trip there was an uprising in progress. I heard a shortwave radio broadcast from Aden, then controlled by the British, that was aimed at quelling the riots. The announcer in British English emphasized the importance of respect for the law and noted that in official British processions, the Lord Chief Justice is fourth in line, preceded only by the Queen and the two Archbishops. That broadcast was repeated many times, but I wondered about its effectiveness on Arabs.

At the northern end of the Canal, near Alexandria, I had dinner with the parents of Costas Joannidis, my friend who had graduated from the American University of Cairo, learned American English by watching Hollywood movies and was in the U.S. for graduate work. It was a surprise when I learned that this Greek family had lived in Egypt for generations, were Greek citizens and had no interest in becoming Eqyptian nationals. Quite different than the American melting pot. I was also surprised by Mrs. Joannidis’ armload of heavy gold bracelets. You never know when you might need to leave Egypt in a hurry, she explained, and the gold on your arm is something you can take along easily.

Sadly, political instability was as prevalent in the Middle East 50 years ago as it is today. Let’s hope the next 50 years are better.


Gary Shilling is President of A. Gary Shilling & Co., Inc. and publisher of INSIGHT.
Copyright 2010, author retains ownership. All Rights Reserved.

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