African Titanics — Abu Bakr Khaal (2014)

This is the best discovery I have made with this blog, and the best book I have read from the 21st century, not just from Africa, but in the world.

Setting: The journey from Eritrea across the Sahara, to Libya, then Tunis, then the cruel Mediterranean.

What it’s about: One of the great tragedies of our time: migration at its most raw, unforgiving and deadly.

Starting with a frenetic race through the desert being chased by gangs, the story never shies away from showing us the death and suffering of migrants without ever sacrificing their humanity.

As one Eritrean man dies, his head in the lap of another, he talks about the war he fled:

Terhas poured more drops into his mouth and the glimmer of a smile appeared on his face. For one brief moment it looked as though his spirit had returned. But the moment soon passed, and the long process of death began.”

Incredibly poetic and simple story, almost mythological or allegorical in the telling:

Even when dying of thirst, you cannot help being captivated by the moon, absorbing its dazzling glow and longing for it to be the last thing you see.”

Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia. Photo credit: flickr_European Commission DG ECHO

After the desert they arrive in Tripoli only to be trapped in a building by smugglers, where so many have been before. The decription becomes more than just a messy room but a representation of the confusion of the desperate Traveler the multitude of lives and identity is taking the same desperate path path. A sinister foreboding scene especially if you have read about the places migrants are held in Libya.

Piles of clothes were strewn across the floor alongside heaps of bags of all shapes and sizes, some half empty and others full, some threadbare and others apparently brand-new.

The rooms were in a state of chaos too, filled with even more garments and shoes. There were precarious piles of teacups, kettles and bottles. Broken watches, socks, wigs and used sanitary towels lay here and there. Bulging bags of sugar stood amidst a mess of shaving equipment, fake jewellery, makeup, dirty underwear and empty, foreign-looking cigarette packets.”

In many ways this jumble of objects represents the diverse groups of people from so many countries, all on the same terrible journey.

I wandered through the courtyard, picking through the scattered objects and trying to imagine their owners. What fate had they suffered? Had they crossed safely, or became fish fodder? Had they even left? Or had they retraced their steps to their homeland?”

He then reads an emotional love letter from a former traveller and messages written on the walls one of which, signed anonymous, reads:

Where will you take me, oh fleeting hours?”

The book is not just a catalogue of horrors, it is a reflection on humanity itself and the lives we all lead.

Eventually the room emptied and we were left alone. The others had gone outside to smoke and discuss the next stages of our journey in anxious, hushed tones. It was only then that Terhas began to sob, weeping for all those who had died on the journey, for Assgedom whom she had nursed for so long … that afternoon most of our companions went to investigate the various routes to Tripoli and little by little we were released from the despair that had gripped us and the terrible certainty of death. Thus, life unfolds with utter simplicity. One moment, there seems no way forward, and the next everything is within our grasp. One moment, we are lost in a snake-infested desert, and the next we are wandering the city streets. Either we travel on or we are taken forever from our intended path. All beginnings and all endings are in the hands of the great unknown, whose merciless ways remain an eternal mystery.”

Why you should read it: More than 5,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year. This is the story behind the number, one that gives you an attachment to beautifully crafted characters in a way otherwise impossible given the scale of this migration.

Check out Open Migration for more.

When, inevitably, this book’s journey moves towards the dreaded boat crossing of the Mediterranean, it reaches a gut-wrenching crescendo:

No one can easily stomach the prospect of boarding a boat he knows is likely destined to founder.”

It is hard to describe the fear that grips you at the hour of departure. You approach the boats in the darkness as they rock violently on the water. At that moment, you truly understand the meaning of terror. People lose control of their bowels. Damp patches spread across trousers. Many jump overboard before the boat has even left the harbour. Others are swept to sea without ever having resolved whether to stay or go. When the boat finally departs, a deathly silence settles over us. People lose all ability to articulate. The vessel appears to be a hollow shell, travelling empty and alone.”

An Italian Navy vessel rescuing 1,004 refugees and migrants in the central Mediterranean. Photo Credit: Amnesty International.

Perhaps the most shocking is the scene where the sinking boat is passed by merchant ship the whose laugh at their plight even as they throw corpses out of the boat into the water in the vain hope of appealing to their compassion.

This is such an important and gripping book. It is one of those books you can only read one little bite at a time — you need to stop as each chapter ends to reflect, catch your breath, and consider if you are in a setting that justifies reading such powerful literature. This book should be everywhere.

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