Len A. Hynds
THE SWEETWATER CANAL
The Sweetwater Canal is the lifeblood,
of the villages along its banks.
Their cattle trample its edge to mud,
only crossed by rotting planks.
The water the villagers had to drink,
and they used it for sewage too.
From it comes an appalling stink,
and the mud becomes like glue.
I was driving along the Treaty Road,
heading north towards Port Said,
and at a crossroads, the jeep I slowed,
because of something I espied.
I saw small children; my heart went cold,
as I looked at that foul-smelling mess.
They were screaming at a two-year old,
who’d wandered deep into that cess.
She was so near to the canal’s deep edge
that I thought she would fall in.
So I swerved up to that awful sedge,
leaping out with the children’s din.
Boots and socks and puttees came off,
and I waded to that child.
She teetered next that watery trough,
as I clutched her to me wild.
Slowly but surely, to dry land we came,
In Arabic I tried to soothe her.
My pristine uniform now a shame,
but at least we didn’t lose her.
I was going to give evidence in a court that day,
so smart as I had made my way hence.
White webbing, red cap, the full array,
the court would shortly commence.
Now I could see I was smeared with slime,
covered from the chest to my feet.
To change my uniform there was no time,
the court were in for a treat.
We reached dry land and the babe ran off,
to her mother all dressed in black,
and as I climbed from that malignant broth,
the villagers ran down the track.
I soon had a crowd around me,
as I scraped the mud from my clothes.
Women in black, with eyes just free,
their sounds of approval grow.
“Mushaka howie” was said many times,
in voices so deep with meaning,
meant, “Thank-you – thank-you”, quite in rhyme,
as against my jeep I was leaning.
Beneath the veils, I heard some sighing,
as the babe she clung to her mum.
What eyes I could see, with joy were crying.
The men just stood there numb.
In some mortal danger the babe had been,
but I had reached her before she fell in.
Even if, and I had seen,
I knew I would have dived in.
I poured water from my goatskin bag,
over my stinking feet and legs;
but when that too began to sag
I was down to the last few dregs.
I sat on the bumper of my jeep,
wondering just what to do,
when four women, with eyes so deep,
brought water to clean me, true!
The four knelt down before me,
and gently bathed my feet.
Embarrassed, this just cannot be,
to stop I did entreat.
Only Bishops, Popes and Pharaohs,
had such treatment in the past.
Not a young corporal from Peckham,
in that desert, oh so vast.
When ready to go and the jeep turned round,
then men came and shook my hand.
The women set up strange shrilling sound,
which echoed across the land.
From that place, as I drove away,
notorious for ambush and death,
the angels had been smiling that day,
giving that babe life and breath.
Was it God’s deep plan to stop me there,
amongst the people who hated us so?
And in his wisdom give a cause to share
as the life of that child did show.
I expect I’ll be shot at, the next time I drive by,
I know that my thoughts are banal.
But I’m sure that his hand, it had stopped me,
at that dreadful Sweetwater Canal.
©Copyright 2006 by Len A. Hynds
Author’s Note: Written as a story in note form a few days later in the Sinai, and eventually as a poem in 2006.
I was serving as a Military Policeman at my station in Egypt in 1948, when the newly formed state of Israel was attacked on three sides by Arab nations, and the 1st Israeli War started. Not only did the Israeli civilian army hold them back but were forcing their enemy back on all fronts.
The Egyptian army were in full retreat across the Sinai, the two ferries across the Suez Canal being in a state of chaos, and the fast approaching Israelis were warned that the British Army guarding it, would allow no incursions, or foreign armies to cross it,
On the day in question, I was in full regalia about to set out on a journey north to a courts martial when I was told that GHQ had mobilised 2 Infantry Brigades, the 8th and the 17th, together with supporting arms to cross by landing craft into the Sinai, the assembly point being Abu Sultan the following day.
I had been posted to the HQ Section of the 8th and was, from that moment, under orders for involvement in that conflict. We were to get between the two warring armies. I still had time to get the courts martial done so long as my evidence could be heard that first day.
This poem is of an incident, as I raced north, and approached the infamous Kabrit Cross-roads, where one travelled as fast as possible because of sniping from the dunes by certain villagers on occasion. It was Kabrit village on the banks of the ill-named Sweetwater Canal.