“If days were to wrench us apart, memories will always be our bond,” wrote one soldier to another during the War of Attrition that came after the 1967 military defeat and before the 1973 October Crossing of the Suez Canal.
They appear in a letter sent from the front from Ahmed Abbas, a soldier, to Abdel-Aal Ayyash, another soldier, who was on leave in his village near Sohag in Upper Egypt.
“It was not typical of soldiers to write letters to one another, but I was close to the members of my unit because I helped them to write letters to their families while we were at the front,” Ayyash, now an old man, said in an interview he gave to mark the anniversary of the October War.
Ayyash still lives in Sohag, and in his house he keeps souvenirs from his days at the front.
“They are just a few souvenirs in memory of those days. Some were sent to me when I got a few days leave every few months, and some I brought back home with me, including the picture of soldiers from my unit,” Ayyash said.
For Ayyash, it is “in memory of the war and of the men who fought and died at the front” that he keeps these photographs and letters and also copies of a magazine that was distributed to soldiers between the death of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser 51 years ago and the day of the Crossing of the Canal three years later.
“I am not in touch with anyone who was on the front with me today. I don’t know who is alive and who is not. I don’t even recall any specific names. The war was about everyone really. We were not individuals. We were soldiers in the war,” Ayyash said.
It was in 1972 that Ayyash started his military service, almost 18 months before the crossing. His military service continued until the end of 1976. During these years, he sent many letters home to his family.
“I would send them a letter once every two weeks or so. They were very brief — I would just tell them I was alright and send my greetings to members of the family,” Ayyash said. He added that in the letters he would never mention anything about other soldiers or anything relating to the front. “Never — not a word,” he said.
Ayyash used to ask his family to tear up the letters or to burn them once they had read them. He feared they could end up in the wrong hands if not. Even though he would never mention any news from the front, he still feared that they could offer some indications.
He knows that other soldiers did the same, and he has no regrets that all his letters were destroyed. “It was the war that counted. It was all about the war,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.