The Pseudomicronations of the Suez Canal
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Because there's been quite a lot of talk about the possibility of traffic disruption on the Suez Canal caused by the civil unrest in Egypt, we read up on the history of the waterway, primarily using Wikipedia, of course. In the process, we again stumbled upon the so-called Yellow Fleet, a group of 14 international vessels trapped in the canal during the Six-Day War of 1967.
After the short-lived war ended, the ships were still unable to pass through, as the canal remained closed. All ships were forced to anchor together in the Great Bitter Lake, and there they remained until the waterway was re-opened in 1975 — 8 years later!
Of course, the crews weren't trapped there during all those years, left there to fend for themselves on the border between belligerent countries. Some were allowed to go home, and relief crews were brought in. But the ships always had a crew to maintain them.
To pass the time, the fleet organized group entertainments and activities, such as card games, movie nights, football tournaments and water skiing. According to a website by Bjoern Moritz devoted to martime stamps, a year into their captivity in October 1968, the fleet organized “the ‘Bitter Lake Olympics’, coinciding with the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Crews from eight nations competed in 14 disciplines, among them fishing, sailing, acrobatic jumping and soccer. Hand crafted medals were the awards. Life boats became equipped with sailing gear, and a ‘Yacht Club’ was founded.”
We're a little disappointed not to hear of some gardening that might have gone on — of defiant gardens cultivated not for food necessarily but as a place of respite in the middle of the war and the desert.
One other activity the men on board did was making stamps by hand. Now much sought after by collectors, they weren't actual stamps. Moritz refers to them as “labels,” explaining that “[r]eal postage had to be added, either Egyptian stamps or meters. Denominations such as ‘pennies’ and ‘cents’, above, shown on some labels, were purely decorative. Yet, some covers are known to have reached their recipients ‘franked’ with the locals alone.”
Surely in a parallel world Suez Canal, the Egyptian postal service simply allowed all mails from the fleet to go through with only the homemade stamps. “Surely a few envelops aren't going to bankrupt the system,” they reasoned.
The fleet having been vested with one of the attributes of sovereignty, the captain of the Swedish ship MS Nippon, a Kurtz-like figure turned mad by the omnipresent sand — by that grit in his mouth that he wakes up to every morning, those granular bullets that constantly blitzed his eyes, that coarseness in his crotch, the protective keffiyeh he wears but overheats his polar blood, was then inspired to declare his vessel sovereign territory. Other captains followed his lead, their mental healths, too, having deteriorated not long ago. An archipelago of micronations was thus born.
The spring of 1975 came and went, but the canal remained closed. Another 8 years would pass before traffic was able to go through again, long after the owners of the ships had abandoned their costly efforts to repossess them. During that time, the President-Captains further consolidated their rule. Both Egypt and Israel were too busy with other matters to pay attention, but in the Camp David Accords, the two countries finally recognized their sovereignty.
Flash forwarded to the present through the ensuing decades of relatively prosperity fueled by boutique stamp production and Lonely Planet-toting trekkers, and there's another crisis. (For in this parallel world, conflict is also a constant.) Another Suez Canal blockade, another fleet trapped, another Bitter Lake Olympics. And more captains going unhinged from a decade of isolation, then more micronations. In another Camp David powwow, the major powers insist that Egypt cede control of the canal to the League of Suez Canal Micronations to ensure that no future conflict will again disrupt the flow of trade.