Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Suez Canal: Through Dr. José Rizal's Eyes

Southern exit of the Suez Canal; Port Suez.I
Southern Exit Suez Canal.
What an international buzz the Suez Canal created in 1868 at the opening ceremony!!! The Egyptian Pasha pulled all the stops.  The guest of honor was Empress Eugenie, Napoleon's wife.

The effect on the Philippines was overwhelming. The voyage from Manila to Spain which normally took 4 to 5 months, now averaged about a month. The so called "filibusteros" of 1872 (the Three Martyred Priest, Burgos, Gomez, Zamora) would have been saved had they self-exiled themselves via the Suez Canal to Spain, where the environment was more liberal than in the colony.  Many illustrious Filipino families like Pardo de Taveras took advantage of the Suez opening and emigrated to Paris and Spain.

Many sons of well-to do Filipinos were sent to Madrid to study and become lawyers (Paternos, Lete; doctors (Pardo de Tavera, Apacible, Cabangis;  artists (Luna,  Resurrecion, Figueroa); writers, (Sanciango, Lopez Jaena, del Pilar);  musicians, (Calero), residents, skilled workers, and many more. The Suez Canal passage made the trip easy, affordable and worthwhile.

It was not one-way though. Many Spanish functionaries were assigned to posts in the Philippines to enlarge the Peninsulares' population in Manila. Communication and liberal ideas from Europe flowed more freely to the islands.

Rizal left Manila on May 3rd and was at the Suez Canal Port Authority on June 2nd. His first trip abroad, he was like the proverbial bull in a porcelain shop. He noted everything. He sketched the scenery. He was loquacious and full of self-importance. He traveled First Class! He mailed postcards to friends and sent long letters to his parents at every sea-mail stop. He fed his daily journals with descriptive observations and factoids!!!

...It's not straight throughout its length; it has curves but small ones; sometimes it flows into a lake where it is believed Moses passed, and again enters the desert.  It crosses three lakes in its course.  On both banks, which are all yellow and white, where it is a real jewel to find grass, are erected some telegraph stations placed at several intervals.  (p. 18, Letters Between Rizal and Family Members, 1876-1896. NHI, 1962).

He wrote about people, animals, food, phenomenon.

...We have seen a traveler on a camel and two magnificent Arabian horses.  One of these, mounted by a customs officer attracted the attention of everybody.  

In my re-tracing of Rizal's footsteps, the Suez  I experienced was different. Instead of the mounted customs officers on Arabian horses I noted Army soldiers standing hawk-eyed along the canal.  It was  the end of August and I was caught up in the Arab Spring revolution in Cairo that brought Mubarak's fall  as president of Egypt.  Everyone on the Canal was on security watch.
Egyptian military forces guard post at the bri...II
Army sentry on the Canal.

I was unfortunately an unwilling participant in the Alexandria demonstration, having been swept into the throng.  I thought I was evading a street riot by docking into a street alley by the mosque.  Wrong turn!

Rizal made his readers' mouth water by the various fruits he tasted  in Suez:

...Here I have tasted cherries, apricots, and green almonds.

Rizal was extremely taken by witnessing a curious spectacle, a mirage:  in his own words...the reflection on the desert of seas and islands that do not exist.

In my re-tracing of José Rizal's Suez, the only camels I noted were dressed with tassels and draped with colorful Bedouin woven cloth saddles to attract tourists for a photo-shoot.

I did sample their green almonds. Great taste, a little bit tart but makes one chew with character (kasi ma-asim).  I came during the season for dates (August).  It was also the beginning of Ramadan when I arrived Suez.  That meant all the devout were on fast from sunup to sundown.  However, this is what I learned that Rizal failed to document: When Muslims break their fast, they sip a glass of water first and the first bite of solid food they take is a date fruit.  It is fresh, and very sweet, ensuring that a sugar-packed natural energy food is taken in first.

However, I admit that Rizal has the last word here.  He said he ate a fruit named dates!

The Suez Canal: Through Dr. José Rizal's Eyes

It was May 1882.  José  Rizal was on his way to Spain.  From Manila he took a boat to Singapore, changed to an ocean steamer, the Djenmah,  traveled on through the Indian Sea by way of Colombo Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and then on to the Arabian Sea.  He got off the boat at Aden, Yemen (http://penelopevflores.blogpot.com), and then his boat entered the Red Sea, the entrance to the Suez Canal.

My trip to the Suez Canal was a product of serendipity.  I was commissioned by the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and Mr James Espinas, the curator of the Rizal Exhibit,  to paint a Rizal Mural Travel Map for the special Rizal 150th Birthday Celebration and Exhibit. This mural (50" by 70") was to indicate his European trips and trace the routes he took.

I had been re-tracing the footsteps of Dr José Rizal in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain for the past several years and delight in blogging and sharing my experience with my many followers.

This site (Suez Canal) however was out of my radar sights at that time.  As I drew Rizal's itinerary from Manila--through the Indian and Arabian Seas, and then through the Suez Canal on to the Mediterranean and Europe--I realized Rizal had traversed the Suez Canal five times!!! (1882, 1887, 1891, 1896 twice).

Why had I not read any article written on this topic?  Answer: Because none had been published. To be sure timelines and matter of fact statements are found in Rizal biographies, but an article on his unique experience  in going through the Suez Canal several  times was sorely missing.

By default, it was left for me to fill up this gap, so  read on to my next blog.

José Rizal's papers were processed in this Suez Canal Port Authority building, 1882.

Dr. José Rizal on the Suez Canal

One of the first traverses in the 19th century.Image via Wikipedia
Suez Canal in 1882.
My trip to the Suez Canal, July, 2011 was the product of serendipity.  I was commissioned  to paint a special canvas for the Rizal 150th Celebration exhibition at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center curated by James Espinas. It was to be a world map of Rizal's travels.  As I started tracing the routes Rizal made, suddenly the top of my head lighted up as a function of a hovering light bulb. Rizal passed the Suez canal five times!!!  1882, 1887, 1891, and 1896 twice.  Why has this Suez trip never been analyzed, explained, or elaborated? By default, it has become my luck to be the one to explore its significance in relation to Rizal.

The canal was the brainchild of a Frenchman:  Ferdinand de Lesseps.  It was began in 1859 and completed 10 years.  Rounding Africa takes  12,300 miles. Going through the Suez Canal shortens the distance to 7,200 miles.
Ismailia canal supplies filtrated drinking water to Suez and Port Said workers.
Tanker on the canal, view from street.
Captured Israeli tank, Suez
Ismailia canal, parallel to the Suez canal.
Peace Bridge across Suez canal, donated by the Japanese Governent, 2005
Penélope re-tracing Rizal's trip through the Suez Canal
Right canal, right camera. Shoot!
Port Said--Two Girls: a Greek and a Turk, just as Rizal described
An Ismaili girl and her clay water jar.
Suez: Where the Red Sea ends and the Mediterranean Sea begins.
On the highway to Suez, Port Said
Suez Canal toll booth
Immigration Stop. Rizal's papers, his first passport read Jose Protacio Mercado y Alonso.
Signs in Arabic

Tanker navigating the canal seen from the street.