“A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there.” – Cormac McCarthy
“You must make your heart hard,” the sailor says.
We are steaming to Arabia on a vessel the length of a soccer pitch.
The ship is packed with nearly 9,000 souls—8,000 sheep, 855 camels, and 24 human beings. (The roster of the latter species: 20 crew, three veterinarians, one passenger.) The sailor seems unnerved, ashamed, embarrassed. He is worried about how his job is perceived. It is his ship’s humble merchandise: live animals that must endure the sweltering crossing of the Red Sea. Sheep bleat in metal pens on the upper decks. The lumbering camels mill far below, their necks swaying in the semidarkness of the ship’s hold like trees in a strange subterranean forest. We are an anti-ark. The animals are bound for slaughter in the Middle East. But the sensitive sailor protests too much. He is young. He doesn’t seem to understand that we hardened our hearts from the very start—long before our ancestors first crossed the Red Sea 60,000 years ago, abandoning Africa, eating their way across the world. What was eaten is gone. Today we haul our tamed food with us.
The Motor Vessel Abuyasser II: my gritty ticket out of Africa.
Flagged to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Built in Italy in 1978. (The bridge’s engine controls still read like opera: Adagio, Mezza, Tutto, Finito.) Originally, a transporter of vehicles. Back in Djibouti, the stevedores had hazed livestock up the ship’s car ramp after midnight, under the flaming orange port lamps. (The silence of this operation, the complete noiseless pad of soft camel feet on corrugated steel, was like a hallucination.) Bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, we will now rock at sea for three days. We are a floating barnyard. We trail bits of straw in our wake. The ship’s officers are Syrian. This only increases our cargo of pathos.
“Why kill the children?” Captain Abdulla Ali Nejem says. “Why kill the mans? Why kill the womans? Why? The fattoria? ‘Stroyed! The streets? ‘Stroyed! The hospital? ‘Stroyed! The school? ‘Stroyed! My country? ‘Stroyed! All ‘stroyed! Syria—finished! Finished!”
War has obliterated the brightly lit but dated images of a homeland inside Nejem’s mind, which is all the country that mariners own. He sits cross-legged like a swami on the bridge, an aging descendant of Phoenician traders, peeling small tart oranges with a pocketknife. He is a friendly and emphatic man. When he repeats himself in triplicate it is not an opinion rendered. No: it is a law of the universe expounded. Captain Abdullah repeats himself often because there are many such laws. (The universe is a complicated place.) This one is the false seductions of technology:
“Everything electronic! Everything electronic! Ev-very-thing electronic! By hand! Do by hand! Do by hand! Better! Better! Better!”
Nejem shows me his old-fashioned sextant. It gleams like a gold nugget in a teakwood box lined with green baize. He once steered a freighter all the way to India and back using this beautiful mechanical instrument. But when I climb to the bridge later that night, I spot an iPhone glowing on the ship’s console. Nejem is using a GPS app to help him bump north through the waves. In the pale blue light of the phone, I glimpse his face, crumpled inward in sadness.
There is a lot of this—absentness, escapism—aboard the Abuyasser II. The chief engineer sits before his laptop for hours, chain-smoking, eyes closed, listening to birdsongs downloaded from the Internet. The first officer stands at the helm, sipping tea, gazing empty-eyed at the slate-blue horizons.
This mood of wistfulness is infectious. I peer backward, watching Africa recede astern: a chalky line, a white disc seen on edge, a pale host that melts away on the tongue of the ocean. With every olive eaten at mess, we pull closer to Arabia. The porthole to my cabin looks back. The tiny chamber is a surprise. An officer has surrendered it to me for the duration of the voyage. It is decorated with red Christmas tree bulbs. They dangle on strings from the ceiling. A large stuffed heart swings above the narrow bed. Love motel decor. Yet there is little love aboard a camel boat, except perhaps self-love.
We chug past the Bab-el-Mandeb—the narrow Strait of Grief between Africa and Arabia. I watch straw fly in our wake. Another name for this bottleneck into the Red Sea is the Strait of Tears.
“The Red Sea”—Captain Abdullah declares—”is saltier than the Mediterranean.”
Of course it is. Of course it is. Of course it is.