I’m in the middle of a stand-off with our involuntary, shady “fixer”. Everybody, cars and people, are boarding the ship and we’re about to miss our boat. But all of a sudden a guy in a blue overall and an impressive amount of chest hair walks up to us. He introduces himself as Mohammed Salami, the chief operator of the boat, the second man in charge, just after the captain.
Without any hesitation he grab our papers out of the hand of old myopic man, gives them to us and tells us we can give that guy whatever we want. We give our involuntary “fixer” 50 Sudanese pounds. He refuses the money and walks away angry. Mohammed says we shouldn’t worry. He decides who can go on the boat and he grants us permission no matter what. He even invites us to join him during his shift from 4am till 8am. This time the roles are reversed: I’m not giving rides but I’m taken for a (boat)ride. We accept his offer and drive our motorcycles on the boat.
Men in white djellabas occupy the whole ship. It seems that there are no women on the ship or that they’re very well hidden. We didn’t order a cabin so we pitch our sleeping mats in the prayer room/mosque on the deck. The passengers are all African/Arabic but the crew of the ship comes from all parts of the world. We see a few short but beefy Filipinos and we have a little chat with a Pakistani mechanical engineer who’s happy to practice some English with us.
At five o’ clock I open my eyes and I see feet as far as my blurry morning eyes can reach. The Morning Prayer has started, but nobody took the effort to wake us up. Apart from a few people who mutter a few sentences that end on kaffer (which means infidel) nobody seems to be bothered by our sleepy presence. We decide to get up and to look for our friend who’s now steering the ship.
It’s still dark when we arrive at the bridge of the ship. The whole room is obscure, with only one little lamp burning. Under that lamp is Mohammed studying some maps with a cigarette in his mouth. He greets us enthusiastically and starts to explain how you have to steer a ship of this size.
“You’re lucky,” he tells us. “Today she’s very calm” (referring to the sea). “ the boat used to operate around Scotland, but in the beginning of the 2000 it was sold to the shipping company. Everything is well regulated now because of the disaster. In 2006 a thousand people died in the red sea after a fire on board of a ship. Since then safety measures are stricter!”
Mohammed lives in Egypt with his family but he grew up in Yemen. He fled the country a few years ago with his family.
“You think that Yemen only produces Al-Qaida terrorists, don’t you? But that’s not true! That’s why I invited you to the bridge of this ship. I want to show you that there are also many normal Muslims.” He says. “Even online I try to contact all these radicals and I try to talk to them. I try to ask why they are doing what they are doing. But they never answer, I think they’re too far gone.”
Mohammed is not ignorant and knows that his religion is not really popular with many people in the west. He knows that many fear it. We tell him that he doesn’t have to convince us of the fact that most Muslims have good intentions. He seems relieved to hear that but asks us to tell that to the rest of our friends in Europe.
He’s not very optimistic about the on-going civil war in his country. He says it’s actually a war that’s being fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the biggest archenemies in the region. “It will take years before me and my family can ever return,” he murmurs. “ I don’t even think it will ever by possible. It’s such a pity because it’s such a beautiful country. If we ever make it back you have to come and visit!”
Mohammed has been traveling the world seas for more than fifteen years now. Every six months he can go home for a few months, but it’s not easy for him, especially because he has a small son. You can see the love in his eyes when he starts talking about him.
A bit later Andrew and Martine (the Volvo truck Dutch couple) also enter in the bridge. Martine is even allowed to steer the ship. We get completely off course and it takes Mohammed five stressful minutes to get us back on the right track. It’s funny how liberal Mohammed is. He lets a women steer an enormous boat, while we’re heading towards a country where she’s not even allowed to drive a car.
When Mohammed’s shift ends we say goodbye and go back to the passenger side of the boat. A few hours later we see at the horizon what should be the tallest lighthouse in the world, we’ve arrived in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia, we have no clue what this crazy country has in store for us and we only have three days to find out…