El Qantara, or Kantara as the English call it, is south of Port Said and north of Suez. It is the busiest city in all of Egypt. Straddling both sides of the Suez Canal, it is the central supply depot for all the Allied forces.
On any given day, ANZACs bloodied from Gallipoli and looking for a fight invade Kantara before shipping off to another front. Of course, the Brits believe Kantara their base of operations, and visiting Kantara during their downtime does wonders to keep the ANZACs and Brits at bay from a bloody thumping they would give each other, after one too many pints of ale.
El Qantara is also the collection depot for too many bodies returning from the front. A while back, the British started a cemetery outside of town, as the parade of bodies continued. I ventured to the graveyard after the war first broke out in early ’15, almost two years ago, after a young soldier I traveled with on my first reporting assignment to the front fell in battle. He was not much older than me, and I accompanied the body back to Kantara. I have forgotten his name as I have witnessed more soldiers falling in battle. Now I remember him merely as Seventeen, not because of his age but because he happened to be seventeenth buried at the cemetery. Today, well over five hundred are buried here; I vow never to return.
The Brits have recently given the Turks a bloody bashing across the Sinai to make up for a most embarrassing defeat during the Siege of Kut, which the Brits prefer to call the Defense of Kut. Perhaps now the body count at the cemetery will slow.
Kantara lives for the war, and when this war ends, so will Kantara. Kantara is not a real city; it is a staging area for soldiers coming back or heading to the front. You can feel death in the air. After two days, I need to take my leave. I have come to collect my stipend for my stories about the front, at the makeshift London paper office. Closed for lunch, reads the handwritten sign; I will come back later.
I sneak into the British officers’ mess to have some fresh lemonade and, of course, read up on the news from the rest of the world. The bartender has let me enter the servants’ door in the back alley. I take my usual seat at the end of the bar and enjoy my lemonade in peace, listening to newly arrived officers pontificate on the war effort.
They regurgitate headlines from the very paper I write for as if they have grasped an understanding of this war. They speak loudly for all to hear, as their pent-up excitement for battle is barely containable. The seasoned officers, with eyes hollow from battle, remain quiet and simply nod. They have their own private term for these new officers: fresh meat. They know most of the fresh meat will be dead by year’s end and that those who survive will learn a vital lesson: No one knows why we are here.
This is the cycle I see play out time and time again in the officers’ mess. Oh, Kantara, the purgatory for soldiers, a waypoint to death’s door. I hope never to return.
The Desert Sea has become the canvas for this theater of war, soaking up the blood of the dead and sucking the souls from the living. The desert hungers for fresh meat, and when the hot lead and cold steel of battle does not kill, the desert does.
I do not notice how quiet the officers’ mess has become until the smell of camel fills my nose. My eyes catch a glimpse of a once-white robe, now stained and dirty. I turn to see the piercing blue eyes, sun-bleached hair, and darkened face weathered by sun and toiled by war. His parched lips utter a whisper to the bartender. “Lemonade.”
I have heard the talk—the rumors—but to see him ... Now I understand the fascination; I cannot put it into words. The rumors do not do his presence justice. There is a quiet calm about him, but I feel he could move mountains if he commanded it. He lives in his own world, figuratively—and judging by his dress—literally.
He turns toward me, raising his glass of lemonade, and I return the gesture of silent respect. After offering a becoming smile, a quick wink, he drinks the entire glass of lemonade in one go. He nods to the bartender, places the empty glass carefully on the bar, turns, and exits as quickly as he entered.
Rumors have spread that he took Aqaba by land with a small band of Bedouins on horseback and camel. He must have crossed al-Houl, a section of desert considered unpassable even by Bedouins. If true, it is a miracle. The British failed to take Aqaba by sea, and no one dares try by land.
Several officers have frozen, staring at him as he leaves. A few glance at me, and I nod in recognition of their attention. Too many of them, I will not see again, I know; many will never return home. But not him, the blue-eyed, blonde Bedouin; he will survive this war, perhaps become a legend if the rumors are true.
I keep to myself and enjoy the rest of my lemonade. Occasionally, some fresh meat will join me at the bar; today is no different.
“Looks as if everyone has just seen a ghost,” comes the loud crack of a highborn English accent near me.
“Ey?” I turn to the young British officer.
“What’s with everyone?”
“He was just here enjoying a lemonade.” I return to my own drink.
“Who?” Clearly, the young officer is another piece of fresh meat and has not heard the rumors about Lawrence. Taking notice of my drink, he adds, “That scrumpy doesn’t look too good.”
“It’s lemonade with a touch of fruit paste—tamarind, I think.” A while back, I traded for tamarind from the far east of Arabia; a Bedouin friend often brought the fruit paste to me for a shiny penny, knowing my fondness for it.
Without asking, the officer pulls up a stool and sits next to me. “Tamarind? Wog-talk. It’s all gibberish.”
“Actually, I’m fluent in Arabic.”
He laughs. “Are you now? And I’m the man in the moon. Now empty your cup of that dirty water and have a proper stiff with me. Name’s Benjamin Wright; just plain Ben does the trick. And you are …?”
“Mare. My friends call me—”
Another hearty laugh as he pours me a drink. “ ’f a bloke called me Mare, I’d knock his head and tell him my name’s Stallion.”
His laugh is infectious. I smile. “Mare’s short for Marion—”
“Another womanly name. Say, you’re not a poof?”
My smile vanishes. “I’m named after my mother’s greatuncle,” I reply, bristling. “Fellow named Francis Marion. You Brits called him the Swamp Fox because he outthought and outfought you at every turn of a minor event called the American Revolution. Ever hear of it?”
“Indeed, I have, my Yankee Doodle friend. Lost an ancestor or two in it. Perhaps at the hand of yours. Ah, well. War’s war. Let’s drink to it, Mare.”
Ben swallows his drink in a gulp. I try to do the same, but the stuff is so intense, I erupt into a fit of coughing. A couple of fresh officers at the bar laugh, but Ben silences them with a glare.
With a twinkle in his blue eyes, Ben refills both our cups. “Drink hearty, Mare. It may be a while until our next opportunity.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Tomorrow I head out to Rafah, to join up with Second British Battalion.” He pauses, then adds, “The Camel Corps,” as if I have no clue. He continues, “Be serving under Captain Wilson of the Fifth Company.”
“That’s Major Bassett’s Battalion,” I reply.
“Why yes, it is. Bassett’s raid on Nekhl is already legendary.”
“Oh, is it, now?” Little does Ben know; I saw this supposedly legendary raid firsthand. I was with Captain Wilson’s Camel Company, reporting from the front during the raid. It is a small world.
“Why, yes, it’s even written up in the London papers.”
“Here’s to the London papers!” I raise my glass barely off the table, in the weakest of efforts, thinking my story, well received in London, is barely making a pound sterling, which I must beg for. No doubt, Ben probably read about the raid on the ship from London on his way to Kantara.
“So, you can ride a camel?” I ask.
“Went to Abbassia, learned what I needed. Rode horses as a boy. I’m meant for the cavalry. Anyways, we’re headed to battle. No doubt.” He raises his cup. “To action, Mare!”
We clink cups and drink. This time I do not cough, although I am perplexed. Here is another young man, eager to see battle, no doubt, but on a camel. I am surprised Ben is so excited, but his khakis are new, so perhaps he has just arrived in the theater of this little-known part of the Great War in which the British Empire is engaging the Ottomans.
“Say, Mare, what’s a Yank doing here with His Majesty’s Army?”
“My employer is a London newspaper who pays me a pittance to dispatch news from the war, but Europe and Gallipoli are where all the news is. Not much interest here. Except for your Camel Corps.” I wink.
Ben looks shocked. “That was your story?”
“Yup, rode with Captain Wilson myself and even took the photo. I’m just the news dispatch, don’t get any credit for it.” I never receive credit for any of the stories. The pompous English reporter who never leaves his office in Kantara takes the credit. “Now … unfortunately, my stipend is overdue, so perhaps I’m unemployed. I wish you the best of luck in Rafah, or wherever you’re headed. Me, I’m headed back to London or somewhere.”
“Without a job?”
“Seems so.” I grab my rucksack, place a penny on the bar, and give the bartender a nod.
“Wait! Why not accompany the battalion? Once at the front, you’ll have stories galore. If the fogies in London are not interested, you could write a book.” This stranger seems to have taken a shine to me, which always seems to be the case with the fresh-faced boys arriving at war. I have seen it before, a young man seeking desperately for a friend in this foreign land brimming with the horrors of war.
“A novelist on a camel? I write—I should say wrote— for a newspaper, about this part of the war no one else is interested in covering. I hear there’s an opening for a cargo master running goods up the Nile.”
I begin to walk out, and Ben follows.
“Cargo master on the Nile? Come now, you’ve ridden a camel and already know Major Bassett and the Camel Corps.” He can see I am not buying it. “My father’s friends with the brigadier general.” As if that will change my mind.
I have grown tired of the battlefield, and I have a sinking feeling Ben will become another number, like Seventeen. I will not—cannot—begin making friends with another young man just to see him die. War rots the soul.
I stop and turn. “Ben, I’ve ridden my share of camels and seen too many a fine man fall. … I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t take too long; we leave by train to Rafah in a couple of hours.” He waves as I take my leave.
I head a few streets down, to the London paper office to collect my fee and get word of a possible assignment. Although the pound sterling awaits, my services are no longer in need, as I expected, and to my chagrin. The English reporter in Kantara has left for London, perhaps to a hero’s welcome for his excellent reporting from the front. The thought of him taking credit for my stories give me pains, but not so long as to generate genuine concern. I have other plans, and they do not involve writing for the London paper. Perhaps I will take Ben up on his offer.
I quickly head back to the officers’ mess. If Ben is there, I will join him on the way to Rafa.