‘Welcome to my palace!’ The bearded stranger had been brought to me after he got off the bus. He had asked around and discovered there was no hotel: so someone brought him to me. I confess I was pleased to welcome him to stay, as I have little company and stimulation here. I am the Colonel in charge of 150 miles of Egyptian coastline, based at Marsa Alam on the Red Sea. I am an artilleryman, transferred to border patrol; my ships are out at sea; I have three soldiers with me, none with education - and so I welcome visitors. But Marsa Alam isn’t a normal place for foreigners to come. It has a café and a shop, one mosque, some shacks where the goatherds and fishermen lived – and the building where I welcomed him, where army colleagues sometimes come for their Rest and Recreation (R&R).
Over the next two days he beachcombed and swam in the sea. There is a reef across the bay which creates a deep green-blue lagoon, perfect for swimming in (and there are some buoys out there which stop you going to where the sharks can reach you). I fed him on the crayfish which the fishermen bring back for me as a thank you for handing them their daily permissions to sail out from shore. My sergeant had some 7-Up bussed in for him from the nearest town, confusing the stranger by calling it ‘sparrow’s milk’, a term we use for things which are hard to find. In the evenings I stuffed the waterpipe with hashish we had confiscated from smugglers: we weren’t sure whether knowledge or fuzzy brains led to the argument over which way the constellations circled around Qutb Shimali, what he called the Pole Star.
On the third day we put him on the bus to Quseir and Qena. That morning the bus, which came up daily from Aswan, travelled the coast road and finished back on the Nile, was the American-made one (we call it Carter, after the US President, while the Iranian-made one is called ’the Shah’). I was sad to see him go and asked him to return to our palace one day. I really did live in a sort of palace: Egypt’s last king, Farouk, used to bring his family here to swim in the lagoon, and the building where I lived, and where the army took its R&R, had been his Royal Palace.