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Whatever 5% of sophistication I might have in me leapt at this. But it stood not a chance against the other 95%, contributed to largely by many generations of Welsh Calvinist forebears. Hashish? On Christmas Eve? My great-grandfather would have been in serious trouble if he had been caught whistling on a Sunday. "I think," I said carefully, "that I would prefer to go hunting."
I was far from clear on the game position in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Neither did Rudi possess any weapon I knew about, except his SS dagger. But there was certainly some plan afoot. Outside the hotel we climbed into Rudi's battered VW and set out into the darkness.
From Suez right down the Red Sea coast a road runs parallel to the shore. There are sandhills, kilometer signs, and once in a while you might catch a glimpse of black-cloaked Bedouin women scuttling away into the dunes, or an Egyptian soldier on camel patrol silently swaying past. At night there was just a blackness, stars and the sound of the sea. We bounced and jounced for perhaps 10 miles, then Rudi turned off the road and the going got worse until we came to a stop within sound of the sea. Suddenly it was very cold, and I could hear Mr. Sabreez's teeth chatter. "Not so much noise," hissed Rudi. We crept forward to the beach and my eyes became accustomed to the dark. I could make out the silhouette of some kind of artificial structure against the surf line. Whining, scuffling noises were coming from it. Rudi relaxed and stood up straight. "It is all right now," he said. "We have captured him."
"Him" was a desert fox. Rudi had spotted him on a skin-diving expedition to the beach, as he loped along the shoreline scavenging for fish and crabs. Crafty Rudi had constructed a trap with driftwood and baited it with fish. Clearly it had worked. But what Rudi had not thought out was how to remove the fox from the trap, and what to do with it when he had. A piece of hatch cover was the operative section. Somehow that needed to be eased up, and the fox caught, netted or something, as it tried to escape. Only we didn't have a net. Mr. Sabreez had an idea, though, and he went back to the car and fetched the flashlight and a straw shopping bag that usually held his cameras and his lunch. Rudi, he suggested, would stand by to spring the trap. He, Mr. Sabreez, would hold the shopping bag open. At a signal the hatch cover would be raised and the fox would shoot straight into the shopping bag, or its head and forelegs at least. My role would be to blind it with the flashlight as it shot forward.
It didn't work out like that. As Rudi lifted the hatch cover the demented beast came out like a rocket, missing the proffered bag that Mr. Sabreez held and clipping him hard under the chin with its head as it escaped. In the flashlight, all I saw were two glaring red eyes coming at me. I dropped the light. Rudi began a fair imitation of a Gestapo officer discovering that the Resistance had released the hostages and blown the railroad track. "Calm down," I said. "At least when I go fishing I catch something." We helped the devoted Mr. Sabreez back to the car. I looked at my watch, and it was midnight. The Christmas stars shone down. Two thousand years ago it must have been just like this in the Middle East. Very cold and clear. We drove back slowly, picking up our earlier tracks in the headlights.
At the hotel the music was still going strong. If you listened carefully you could just make out the melody of Stille Nacht inside the brass blare of the tubas and trombones and the Om Pom Poms. I went upstairs. Tomorrow, Ahmoud had indicated, we would look for a tiger shark. It was an original way of spending Christmas Day at least.
On Christmas morning, then, Rudi and Mr. Sabreez reported right on time. Mr. Sabreez said, "There is a message from Ahmoud. If you want the special shark bait, it will cost you $5 extra." I sketched in lightly what Ahmoud could do about that. In the waters around us there were huge shoals of small bonito and mackerel, and, as far as I was concerned, Ahmoud's Christmas stocking was full enough already.
As the first batch of snorkel men entered the water, the Old Millionaire of the Sea arrived with his boat and Mustapha. We squared the naval patrol and went on board. Determinedly I began by rigging a small feather jig for the bait-fish, but Ahmoud smiled deprecatingly and made a sideways gesture with his hands. "He has already got the shark bait you ordered," interpreted Mr. Sabreez. Ahmoud's talents were wasted on the Red Sea. In a Western used-car lot he would have them running for their lives.
Ahmoud wanted to go well offshore to drift for shark, so there was a chance of some light-tackle trolling on the way out. This time there was no waiting. The sea was in a generous mood, and strike after strike came to our trolled lure. Mostly the fish were barracuda in the 25-to 35-pound range, but there were also times when we hit schools of kingfish of around 20 pounds. The biggest was a yellowfin tuna of 60 pounds. I'm aware that none of these could be classed as anything like trophy fish, but I can remember few fishing mornings that gave me more pleasure: generous, plentiful action, and every fish fighting its weight on the gear I used. This, of course, was just scratching the surface as far as the sporting potential of the Red Sea went. Commercial fishermen on the wharf talked to me of the "big fish" that came in April and May. Marlin? Broadbill? Big tuna? They didn't mean sharks, which they had a word for and which are there the year round. One day I hope to return to the Red Sea with a good sport-fishing boat and the time to cover the ground. This might mean living on board and spending many hours at sea, but I think it would be worth it.
Meanwhile I was in Ahmoud's boat, slap in the middle of Ramadan, and it was time for a tiger shark. Mustapha mashed up a chum of ancient mackerel, and eventually the oily trail was organized. Oddly, though, I was reluctant to put the big rod together. There might be tigers, hammerhead and mako, but just then the thought of sharking didn't appeal to me. I was thinking of telling Rudi that his moment had come and that he could take over, when Mr. Sabreez came across and asked if I would like to see shark fishing done Red Sea style. "Sure," I said, and Ahmoud was delighted.