As a part of a heavy construction crew, I was sent along with about thirty others, to a top secret location in Egypt to renovate a dining hall. We couldn’t tell anyone where we went, so we referred to Egypt as “Down South”. The existing dining hall was built sometime in the 70s out of an old soviet aircraft bunker. We spent the first day gutting the building. Between the wooden paneling and the crumbling soviet concrete were critters. Remember scene in the Indiana Jones movie where the cave is covered in improbably large insects? Yea, it was like that. The phrase “Plague of Egypt” was commonly used. We taped shut all the openings on our uniforms, it only helped by making it hard for the bugs to get out… We spent three days taking everything that wasn’t made out of sand or stone and dumping it into a pile outside. I asked the NCO in charge if we were going to take all trash to the dump. “Naaa, the Jippers will take care of it.” Jippers were what some American servicemen called the Egyptian solders. The Jippers lived in another part of the base, the part with buildings made out of what we threw away.
One of the things I took away from my experiences in the Middle East and Europe was a better perspective on people and messed up places. Sure there are some messed up places, but they are populated mostly by good people. The vast majority just want what everyone wants. To live in comfort with dignity and make life better for their children.
When living and working in a messed up place it is important to understand the setup. The first thing I learned is that there is a serious difference between how we lived and how the Egyptians solders lived. I also learned how we take for granted all the comforts of modern life.
We had showers. Sure the pumps only ran for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening and there was no hot water (Who wanted it?) but we had showers. It’s an unbelievable luxury to have a shower when you live in a messed up place. I noticed once, while driving across the base, an Egyptian solders bathing in a 55gal steel drum, outside on the sand. There was a line waiting for that steel drum.
During the demolition we had two piles of materials. The insect infested crap we tossed out onto the sand was one pile. The other was pallets of new materials flown in from England. Every night the insect infested crap disappeared and the new material was left un-touched. We never had to ask for a clean up crew. On the second day we started to pile the crap more carefully and pulled the nails out. This got us in trouble with the NCO in charge because we were wasting time.
Every morning at sunrise we heard a peculiar wailing sound coming out of the east. It lasted for about twenty minutes. Morning Prayer was held in a court yard around an Egyptian flag, they sat on crushed stone surrounded by sand and rocks. The sun just came up and it was already over 80. Some of my co-workers, who have been there longer than I, complained about being awakened by the ‘song of the screaming Jipper bird’. I over heard a carpenter say: “Why can’t they prey with dignity like us?” I wish now that I said something clever like, “Oh, like dancing in the isles and speaking in tongues?” I had visions of the Blues Brothers dancing in my head.
We didn’t have to lock any doors, theft was almost un-heard of. Out in the middle of an open area between the chow hall and the exchange tent there is a steel pipe sticking out of the ground with a faucet on the end. On top is a little steel box, welded to the pipe with combination lock. Inside was a bar of soap. For some reason soap theft was rampant.
Looking back, I can’t believe that we bitched about our living conditions. We had showers, air conditioning, and beer. They had what we threw out.
After seven weeks of working twelve hour days, six and a half days a week, we were getting to the end of the project. The NCO in charge gave us our first weekend off. By then it was such a luxury that most of us didn’t know what to do to pass the time. Two whole days off! There is nothing more dangerous, than a bunch of young construction workers, bored out of their minds, in a messed up place, with nothing to do but drink beer.
Friday night an Egyptian officer came to our little compound to see our NCO in charge of the project. Upon reflection it was really quite brave of him. Not because he was in any danger, but because of the atmosphere. He met out NCOIC in the “Corral” which was kind of a game room that was built to keep the workers entertained when not working or sleeping. Inside was a refrigerator, a foosball table, card tables, a bar, TV, and air-conditioning. Everyone was smoking, drinking, eating hotdogs, and watching a movie that someone brought from the states. He probably felt as out of place as we would in a mosque. He came to see if we wanted to play “futbol” against his men. He spoke perfect English and was quite friendly. It was also obvious that he was uncomfortable being there and left quickly but tactfully. The officer really impressed me, he was man of style and grace.
It turns out that many of our construction crew was from the Midwest and were football players in high school. Everyone thought it would be a hoot to play against the little brown Jippers. The next morning we all met out of the sand and found that the Egyptians already had an area all marked out with rope. We were told to be careful and not to go after any balls that went out of bounds over the fence to the north. The fence enclosed an old soviet minefield and the mines were still active. It became obvious that even to the thickest of us that we would soon be playing soccer; some actually thought they meant Football. The cocky American Construction workers were eager to show the little Jippers a thing or two.
To say we lost the game would be an understatement. I do not think we even finished the game. Eventually we ran out of balls and no one would go out into the minefield to get them. It was 130 degrees and the Egyptian solders effortlessly ran circles around us. They used skill, speed and stamina. We had size, strength, and attitude. We also had our asses handed to us. They stopped keeping score by half time to keep from embarrassing us too much. The Egyptians smiled a lot, they really enjoyed the game. At first I thought it was because they were kicking our big American asses. But then I realized that they were simply enjoying the game and the time off. The Americans that didn’t play sat on the sidelines in the shade, drank beer, and cheered. The Egyptians that didn’t play were working.
The next day all the soccer balls were gone from the minefield.
The most valuable less I have learned when living in Europe is that the vast majority of people on this planet are just folks. They may live in odd or bad circumstances, they may be different looking or have odd customs, but they all want basically the same things, food, shelter, dignity, and a better future for their children.
I am sure that there are Egyptians living in luxury on the banks of the Nile. I a sure there is a thriving middle class living in nice little houses. I just know that we got to meet our counter parts in the Egyptian military. They were making the best out of the situation there were in, just like we were. They could kick our asses in soccer and we could drink them under the table.
Good thing we had beer.