The excavator marked aside the Ever Given, trapped in the Suez Canal, Egypt, as of Thursday March 25 2021.
Suez Canal Authority/Insider
  • The tiny excavator next to the Ever Given spurred dozens of Suez Canal memes.
  • But the man who drove the excavator did not enjoy the jokes, he told Insider.
  • But they made him more determined to free the ship, so people would say: "'He did it,'" he said.
  • See more stories on Business Insider SA's home page.

The man who was driving the excavator on the banks of the Suez Canal that became an internet sensation for its struggle to shift the Ever Given cargo ship did not much enjoy the memes about him.

But in an interview with Insider, he said that the attention helped spur him to work harder in the six-day struggle to shift the huge container ship.

As soon as the massive container ship became lodged in the canal on March 23, images from the scene captivated people worldwide. A key route in world trade had been blocked, at a cost of many millions of dollars per hour.

The most striking image from the rescue operation featured 28-year-old Abdullah Abdel-Gawad and his excavator, and struck a chord for the contrast between one man and his machine against a skyscraper-sized ship.

One of the last people to become aware of the avalanche of memes that followed was Abdel-Gawad himself.

Abdullah Abdel-Gawad standing at his excavator, March 29.
Abdullah Abdel-Gawad/Facebook

Insider spoke to Abdel-Gawad about his experience in the six days he worked almost constantly to help free the ship.

He said that from inside his excavator, he did not notice a photographer taking the now-famous photograph, distributed by the Suez Canal Authority on March 25.

"I really wasn't paying attention to any of this," he said. And then he started to see the memes on his social media streams.

Both in Egypt and abroad, people projected their own problems onto the massive ship, and represented Abdel-Gawad's tiny excavator as the inadequate tools they had to address them.

One meme that Abdel-Gawad mentioned labeled the Ever Given as "my cellulite" and his excavator as "a cup of green tea." Others are now familiar.

But for Abdel-Gawad, it was hard to laugh. For him, it seemed like the world was laughing at his work.

"Well, the thing is, they were making fun of it," he said, going on to paraphrase one meme he saw. "They said: the Suez Canal Authority took action but sent equipment the size of a grain of rice.'"

"I was a little bit upset," he added. "But I was really so motivated because I wanted the world to say: 'He did it.'"

(L) Abdullah Abdel-Gawad on a Facetime call with (R) reporter Mia Jankowicz

He was so aware of the gaze of the world on his work that he didn't want anyone to know that he was the man inside the excavator until after the ship was freed, he said.

He was not the only worker to feel that sort of pressure. Mariners operating the tugboats also had the memes in mind as they made their multiple attempts to tow the ship, The Washington Post reported.

"No one was able to see how much pressure we were under," Eslam Negm, on the Baraka 1 tugboat, told the paper.

And for Abdel-Gawad, even the tugboats didn't offer the same spectacle as his excavator. "Nobody really focused on those," he said, speaking of memes. "It was just the excavator because of the huge size difference, such a tiny excavator in front of such a gigantic ship."

Another factor that drained any humour from the situation for him was how frightening it was to be underneath the enormous vessel.

From his estimation, the Ever Given was lodged around six meters higher than where it would naturally float, and his job was to pry at the rock and mud encasing it. He had a very real fear that instead of re-floating the ship, he would destabilise it, causing it to topple onto him.

"If you see the size of the ship and you see the size of the excavator, it is absolutely terrifying," he said. Another two workers in excavators, that arrived at the scene a couple of days in, were too scared to work directly beneath the ship, Abdel-Gawad said.

Instead, they worked to ferry the excavated material away from where he had piled it up. Somehow, by default, it became his job. "They found me working there and they were like, okay, this guy is next to the water. Nobody interfere now," he said.

Working on around three hours' sleep a night, Abdel-Gawad's only response was to knuckle down and get on with the job.

"I thought, I can only respond by actions and that's kind of how I've operated all my life," he said. "I don't respond with words. I respond with actions."

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