There’s something doleful, forlorn, perhaps even otherworldly about the spectacle of a ship run aground on the sandy banks of a waterway, marooned “like an enormous beached whale”.
That was the fate that last week befell the Ever Given in the Suez Canal, a waterway that since 1869 has linked Asia to Europe and through which roughly 20,000 vessels — accounting for 15 per cent of world shipping traffic — passes yearly, giving it a pivotal role to play in global trade.
On Wednesday, the day after the Ever Given found itself stuck in sand and mud against the shore, experts estimated it would take days to dislodge it. On Thursday, they suggested it would take weeks. On Friday, even President Biden found time to look at what the US could do to help, promising to send a team of dredging experts to work on freeing the ship.
On Friday, a Dutch maritime emergency response team, hired to free the 200,000-tonne, 1,300-foot-long ship — a team that had in its time pulled off some dramatic dredging feats, including the lifting of Russia’s Kirsk nuclear submarine from the Barents Sea floor in August 2000 — stated that the job was going to prove, shall we say, mighty tough.
A jam in the sea
On Saturday, undaunted, additional salvage teams worked around the clock to dislodge the massive ship — as well over 300 vessels found themselves stranded in the rear, waiting to transit the canal. And on Sunday, it all looked like a jam that no one was able to, well, unjam.
A fine mess all around.
Then, hallelujah! On Monday, the news broke that the skyscraper-sized ship, helped by the peak of high tide, was refloated and successfully released. Free at last, free at last.
But here’s the rub: Why has the incident, one that at first blush would’ve been a snoozer to us news junkies, become a major news story worldwide, of great interest to, as it were, kings and commoners alike?
Several tentative reasons could be advanced, but there’s no question about one of them.
Humans have forever had, throughout human history, an affinity with ships and the peripatetic seafarers who sailed them, just as they have forever had a nexus, almost mystical in its reach, with water — water lapping in oceans, seas, rivers, lakes and, yes, canals.
It is, in a sense, an archetypal, primeval force pointing our species to its place of origin. (In our Holy Text, for example, we read, in 21:30, that Allah “made from water every living thing”.)
Our romance with ships
And the romance that humans have developed with ships and shipman is woven into the very fabric of their literary effusions, from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 7th Century) to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), as it is woven into that of their historical experience, from the tiny ship Santa Maria (merely 70 feet long), captained by Christopher Columbus, who discovered a new world in 1492, to the Titanic, whose ill-fated journey continues to captivate, even haunt us well over a century after it sank in the Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage in April 1912.
And there’s no question either about yet another reason, international trade, the hinge on which the stability of our global village had rested since antiquity — since the time when Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the ancestors of modern-day Iraqis, traded with Harrapans in the Indus Valley, the ancestors of modern-day Indians; and Phoenicians, the ancestors of modern-day Lebanese, traded with Saxons, the ancestors of modern-day Britons. And all the while they exchanged not only goods and services but also innovative ideas and cultural products.
Mess with trade and you mess with the concept of exchange, a ceremonial ritual encoded in the constitution of the human character.
“Ships are my arrow, the sea my bow and trade my target”, wrote Robert Thiers, the young German writer in his 2014 mythical novel, Storm and Silence. The words are an evocative outcry from the inner history of our human being.
Ships. Waterways. Trade. A trinity representing, respectively, the vehicle of our adventurous spirit, the source of our imaginative metaphor and the pillar of our material comfort. And what man would suppress what there is in him of man by evincing no interest in the news story that played out on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake in the ancient land of Egypt last week?
And for the whole of that week, as we watched rescue crews from sundry nations working together, around the clock, we kept telling ourselves that if a name were, eh, ever given the drama in the Suez Canal, it should be Global Union, a well deserved moniker because it was proven there that we all are, in both senses of the word, each other’s business. Wouldn’t you say?
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile