Floating dissatisfaction / Exile in Egypt

A view of Ullapool Harbor, with thrilling white clouds and dreamy blue sky reflected in the water, and dark, peaty hills in the distance beyond
Image: Maria Bustillos

Today: Editor and journalist Maria Bustillos; and Moh Telbani, a writer living in Egypt.

Issue No. 105

My Boat Essay
Maria Bustillos

Life Outside (and Inside) Gaza
Moh Telbani

My Boat Essay

by Maria Bustillos


There’s a tiny archipelago in Loch Broom in the Scottish Highlands called the Summer Isles, which you can tour via Shearwater Cruises, out of the pretty town of Ullapool. I went with my husband and three of the kids the other day. The guide for our voyage, Noel, a most interesting man, was easily located on Twitter when we got back (“Tour boat talker, beach cleaner, ex-fisher, kebab muncher. Fan of fish, sea, sleep & sun. Indy hoping. Occasionally wrong. Sick of the world. Peace. Love Spain”).

The Shearwater tour boat in action in Loch Broom
Image: Shearwater Cruises
Noel, holding forth on the dock in a light weatherproof jacket with red sleeves, a puffer vest and a dignified expression, in Ullapool Harbor
Noel, holding forth. (Image: Maria Bustillos)

The harbor is tiny and peaceful; it was a mostly cloudy day, warm for Scotland, maybe sixty degrees. We had good coffee at the Cult Café before wandering down to the dock. There were maybe a dozen other passengers gathered on board, speaking softly in different languages. We had just a couple of hours out on the water, but they were magical ones.

On deck, the wind and spray were so exhilaratingly cold and bracing that I didn’t even notice it when my fingers went numb. We saw wild ponies on the nearby hills, and there were guillemots, and delicate little baby seals so insouciantly draped on the rocks (“Sixty percent of the world’s gray seals are in Scotland,” Noel said, in between dad jokes and splendid, scholarly patter, booming over crackling speakers). Oystercatchers swooped before us. We heard stories of witches and supernatural rocks and Christian services held in sea caves. Accounts of a cruel period, the Highland Clearances. I gallivanted around on the boat, listened, and took photos, but mostly I became intoxicated by the sea, and the wind, and the looking.

Gorgeous rock formations covered in beautiful lichens and trees, on the way out of Ullapool Harbor; we saw baby seals nearby, and guillemots
Images: Maria Bustillos
Sea spray and boon companions
A cave where church services were read to congregants on boats


Gary Shteyngart is a superb writer, but it was an eyebrow-raisingly weird decision the Atlantic made to send him out on the world’s biggest cruise ship to drink way too much and weep and pray for the moment he could get out of there (“Crying Myself to Sleep on the Biggest Cruise Ship Ever”)—weirder still, I thought, considering his cabin alone cost $19,000, when the depredations of corporate goons have very nearly wrecked magazine journalism altogether.

The World’s Largest Cruise Ship (Screenshot: YouTube)

The Cruise Ship Essay has become a genre of its own, starting with David Foster Wallace’s  “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, published nearly thirty years ago in Harper’s under the headline, “Shipping Out.” In the years since, a heap of high-octane essayists—Jonathan Franzen, Caity Weaver, Drew Magary, and Lauren Oyler among them—have embarked on various cruise ship holidays in the (so far, vain) hopes of coming at the king. Shteyngart was only the latest pretender in this long line.

There's no denying the power of Wallace's essay. It wasn't just the first-mover advantage; he was writing in the better-informed, less explicitly commoditized, less politically ugly pre-internet world of 1996, and also, it came out just one month before the publication of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. It was a real on-the-threshold moment, the first sight of a comet about to streak with blinding force across the literary sky, leaving a ghostly imprint in the mind of many an ambitious writer.

The joke of all these essays is supposed to be that the reader is in on how horrible the essayist’s cruise ship experience is going to be. Ha-ha! Sending a fun-loving intellectual to go suffer among the MAGAs is not all that funny, I am now thinking. Decades later, this sneering, superior, high-ticket slumming seems just sad. Isn’t it just like going to a Pennsylvania diner to ogle the Trump voters, only way more expensive and pointless? It’s possible that readers, and writers—and magazines, and boats, and the ocean—could go in a different direction, like human beings are going to need to, to just slow down. Scale down.

Taken together, the cruise ship essays read like an obituary for civilization. An accumulated account of the costs of “growth,” “ambition,” “progress,” of the gathering wave of the 20th century’s miseries swelling and crashing onto the hapless shores of the 21st; the endless forward-thrusting grasping self-absorbed naked impulse to get more, and more, and bigger and terrifyingly bigger and bigger still, a whole culture of greed swelling out and overwhelming every human potential, idea, and connection, until the sea is scarcely visible from the floating hotel-casino, until there is so much rich food and drink that it’s nauseating to even read the menu; until a desperately hungover Shteyngart will sob and rage with loneliness and accumulated bile and even though it’s only for a week he is utterly sick for nearly ten thousand words with the longing to be free of the zillion-dollar prison he’s let himself in for.


Most of these writers appeared to forget that the boat is on the ocean at all, because the ocean is like three stories down from where they can stand and get a decent look at it. Also they have celebrities to attend to—Paula Deen, Kid Rock, Gwyneth Paltrow. The ocean, the water, or marine life in any form, barely get a splash in; that too, I guess, is part of the joke, though I was surprised to find on revisiting it that Wallace’s essay is full of appreciation for all kinds of things on the cruise he took, including the beauty of the Caribbean (“Around Jamaica, [the ocean’s blue is] more like a milky aquamarine. Off the Cayman Islands it’s an electric blue, and off Cozumel it’s almost purple.”)

Franzen, a famous birder, describes nature lavishly, too. The celebrity he set out to meet was the rare, elusive emperor penguin, and his account of finding and seeing one is lovely. I mean, a lot of the writing in these essays is excellent, is absorbing. But these are some strikingly unhappy writers.

Wallace: There’s something crucially key about Luxury Cruises in evidence here: being entertained by someone who clearly dislikes you, and feeling that you deserve that dislike at the same time you resent it.
Franzen: Mealtimes on the Orion inevitably put me in mind of the sanatorium in “The Magic Mountain”: the thrice-daily rush for the dining room, the hermetic isolation from the world, the unchanging faces at the tables. Instead of Frau Stöhr, dropping the name of Beethoven’s “Erotica,” there was the Donald Trump supporter and his wife.
Magary: After the concert ends, the crowd scatters and I find myself standing in a war zone of crushed lime wedges, bottle caps, and shattered plastic. Beside one of the hot tubs, there’s a Heineken Light bucket filled with warm vomit.
Oyler: I felt a slight but real nausea. These things kill fragile marine life. They can emit the carbon of twelve thousand cars. It is incredibly tacky.
Weaver: I will discover a crumpled scrap covered in observations about that evening’s dinner, across the top of which I have scrawled one sentence: The world is terrifying & SAD.
Shteyngart: So these bent psychos out of a Cormac McCarthy novel are angrily inhabiting my deck. As I mewl myself to sleep, I envision a limited series for HBO or some other streamer, a kind of low-rent White Lotus, where several aggressive couples conspire to throw a shy intellectual interloper overboard.

It’s all taking place in this helpless knowledge of being inside an infernal machine that is just chewing everyone and everything up.

The central point of “Shipping Out” arrives with little fanfare in the analysis of an insidiously elegant brochure, commissioned by Celebrity Cruises from the novelist Frank Conroy; it’s an advertisement for total, perfect comfort.  

[T]his—the promise to sate the part of me that always and only WANTS—is the central fantasy the [Celebrity Cruise] brochure is selling. The thing to notice is that the real fantasy here isn’t that this promise will be kept but that such a promise is keepable at all. This is a big one, this lie. [...] But the infantile part of me is, by its very nature and essence, insatiable. In fact, its whole raison consists of its insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the insatiable-infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.

And but so. The answer is maybe smaller boats all around.


Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s latest collection of poetry, Èṣù at the Library, will be published by Masobe Books. Coming November 2024. Congratulations!

Life Outside (and Inside) Gaza

by Moh Telbani

Sliced potatoes boiling in a small iron pan over a wood fire on a wire brazier in the sand
Image courtesy of the author

It’s been two months for me here in Egypt, and I really cannot hide that I miss my home country very much and am trying very hard to get along with the people here, even though we share the same language and religion. As for my wife and kids—Mirna is six, Adam is three, and Ayda is two years old—Mirna is attending school nearby and she is very happy with its atmosphere. The teachers and everybody were very nice to her when they learned she is from Gaza and escaped the war. Adam and Ayda are still very young and don’t understand much yet, but I am very happy that they can sleep well at night without the drones’ dizzying sounds, and the bombing sounds that were in Gaza, night after night. I often take them out for picnics to feel the change and lighten their moods. But my wife and I worry all the time about our future here, and the future of our kids.

To find work has so far proved very difficult. In Gaza, I worked as an accountant for a private steel company. But Palestinians are not legally permitted to work here in Egypt; we are not allowed to have the residential papers required for full employment. We are left to work in the black market (without contracts) for wages that are in general too low to cover rent, which has risen in comparison to previous years because the war has changed all the local economies very drastically.

I keep hoping deep inside for the war to just end and maybe, if there is a hope for life in Gaza, for me to go back and fix my destroyed business there and start over again.

But I expect that the war will not be ending any time soon, and that is also tough on me because the rest of my family are still stuck there, in Gaza—my parents and two brothers, Tareq who is 23, and Hussam, 27, and my little sister Mayar, who is 15. I try to be in touch with them every single day, hoping and praying for their safety, but sometimes they don’t have an internet connection available so that we can keep in touch, and that too keeps me stressed and worried all the time.

In my last call with my family, they were having problems getting clean water and food was very scarce and what little there was, very expensive. Nowadays they have only vegetables to eat, and they have to use wood fires for cooking; it’s now $3 for one kilogram of wood, and every meal requires around three kilograms. We here in Egypt have easy access to gas for cooking, and it’s cheap in comparison with their situation, so every single meal my wife makes here in Egypt we remember their suffering and that of everyone there in Gaza, and we thank God that at least we and the three kids are out. But I really miss them, and hope that I can collect more donations to get them out when they reopen the border crossing. It has been closed for more than 45 days, and recently the Israel Defense Force burned the Rafah border crossing, but we Palestinians still have hope of reopening it again.

The author and his children on a walk in Egypt, standing before a fountain and a tall sculpture at sundown; behind them, a large well-lit building
The author with his kids, in Egypt

It’s hard for me here in Egypt to have relatively easy access to food, clean water, etc. when the rest of my family and my people cannot. The sadness and worry mean that I cannot enjoy anything here and keep thinking of that all the time.

Most Palestinians here in Egypt are in the same situation, unable to work or find a stable source of income. A few rich Gazans have opened small businesses here and have started to make small profits, but what about the rest of us? It’s a big issue that I think the media should focus on:  there are Palestinians in Egypt ready and willing to work, but who are already out of money and starting to suffer, which my family also will very soon, unless there is a big change. 

Yes, we are here safe in Egypt, but we are not happy. We are split into two parts, one is here and the other is there in Gaza, still in danger. What makes us strong is trust in God, and trust in the free people everywhere that can do something to help make a change, as we are seeing all the protests everywhere, especially in the USA, where it seems that a lot of people have changed their views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; we begin to see that people are learning about our history, and beginning to support our right to have our own, free country.

One day the dream will come true: peace.

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