A ship became stuck in the Suez Canal on March 23 during high winds and a sandstorm. The Ever Given, a Japanese-owned boat operated by Evergreen Shipping, is one of the world’s largest container ships. At nearly a quarter-mile long, it is the maximum length allowed to enter the canal. With the help of high tides and a small army of tugboats, dredgers and salvage crews, the mammoth ship was finally freed on March 29.
The Ever Given saga has had serious consequences. The Suez Canal is incredibly important to international shipping, and countries have long fought to control it. The canal was built by the French on the backs of Egyptian laborers during the Ottoman period, and officially opened in 1869, 10 years after construction began. Soon after, the debt-ridden Ottoman Khedive sold his majority shares to the British government, leaving the canal under British control. In 1956, when Egyptian President Gamal Abder Nasser moved to nationalize the canal, British, French and Israeli forces invaded to stop him. However, Nasser was backed by the United States, and the Suez Canal has been under Egyptian control ever since.
The power struggles that have surrounded the Suez Canal underscore its importance on the global stage. About 12% of all global trade passes through the canal, a vital connection between Europe and Asia in our globalized economy. The delay caused by the blocked canal is putting a global shipping industry already strained by the pandemic under more stress. Though the backlog of ships waiting to traverse the canal will likely be cleared quickly, the effects on global shipping could take weeks or months to resolve, according to the BBC. And this situation shines a spotlight on our dependence on vulnerable maritime choke points, highlighting the damage that can be done to the global economy by a shutdown in narrow canals such as the Suez and Panama.
Despite the very real effects of this crisis, the internet was flooded with memes about the Ever Given. I saw a meme about the situation before I saw a headline, even though I receive New York Times notifications. When the ship was freed, the internet cried out for them to “put it back.” So why did the internet react with such delight to a giant container ship stuck in a canal in Egypt?
In many ways, the situation of the Ever Given serves as a metaphor. Many of us feel a little stuck in our responsibilities, whether they be for work or school. One of the most popular memes was a photo of a relatively tiny bulldozer scooping mud out from beneath the Ever Given’s massive hull, which many saw as a metaphor for their own meager efforts to overcome their problems and fulfill responsibilities. It also made some feel better about mistakes they’ve made. At least their mistakes weren’t visible from outer space!
The pandemic has made this year particularly hard on everyone, and has made many feel like time has stagnated, with daily life circumscribed to our houses and dorm rooms. In a way, it’s comforting to see this ship as stuck as we are, an apt embodiment of our exhaustion after the turmoil of the past year.
Additionally, this year has brought to the forefront movements highlighting the structural problems in our society, including racism, climate change and sexual assault and harassment. It is immensely important to confront these issues and change is long overdue. However, the thought and action directed toward addressing such insurmountable problems can sometimes lead to burnout. One Instagram meme sums it up well: The first slide reads, “what’s happening in the suez canal and how you can help,” and the second slide simply states, “boat stuck. cant help.” There was an issue, but there was nothing we could do about it, and no one was hurt or dying. In a world full of systemic problems that can feel too immense or intractable to fix, the Ever Given was big enough to matter and benign enough that we could take a moment, breathe and laugh.
Considering the strain that it has placed on the global shipping industry, it is good that the ship has been dislodged. I cannot, however, regret that it ran aground in the first place. For me and many others, the ship stuck in the canal presented a moment of lightness and humor in a dark year.