The boat drifted slowly on the endless turquoise sheet of the sea and it was impeded only by the weight of the few remaining passengers. When the fuel was exhausted, the sea carried them on its bosom, for five days, sometimes lulling them, sometimes throwing them violently into the hot Mediterranean air. The unforgiving sun watched them from high above and tore at their skin and burnt their eyes. The boy looked straight ahead, amid the excitement of the desperate mortals around him, and could not see The Island.
“Look, the shore. See it?” The woman sitting next to him said. She looked oddly familiar to him.
“I see the lights,” the boy said. Her eyes were the colour of ash. “They are bright and orange. They keep shifting and jumping.”
“You are still seeing things.” The woman gazed at him. She could see the scars of the journey all over his face.
The boy remained silent. His mouth had not had any moisture for three days now; his tongue was too weak to rally any more words into speech. His stomach had stopped growling two nights before. Since then, it had been a hot piece of rock inside his body. The dinghy rolled on. The men sent up prayers. The child fell off the arms of the other woman. And soon she too fell on The Connector’s lap.
“That child had been sleeping for days,” the woman said to boy. She had noticed the child’s iridescent skin turn grey.
“I wish for sleep,” the boy said.
The sea opened its mouth. No splash came out. Just a quiet plop followed by a smaller one. The Connector laughed.
“Behold the Promised Land,” The Connector said. His belly heaved up and down and rocked the boat from side to side. He stretched out his thick arms and the silver Longines timepiece sparkled beneath the layer of jet-black hair.
“How does land feel like?” the boy asked the woman. The bright orange lights still danced in front of his eyes. The sun was ruthless. The turban that he had wrapped around his head was ablaze.
The woman gazed towards The Island. Her memory of land felt like red coal beneath her feet. And it smelled of blood baked in hot sand. And it looked like blinding light. But she said,
The tiny boat crawled on its belly. It had a mile to go now. It faltered under the weight of the occupants and their hopes and dreams and scars and memories. And they held on to it with all the strength they had left.
“Yaa Muhajiruun,” the Connector said in Arabic. “We part ways here. Pleasure doing business with you.”
The sea beckoned. There were wide eyes and lowered heads and terror in the deep recesses of their brains. And the stillness of time fading to black. One after the other they went. Soon the boy and the woman were the only ones left on the boat. A soundless breeze whispered. The Connector waited. She looked at the men who had jumped out of the boat and whose bellies were now full of salt and whose lungs were now being submerged and whose eyes were now painted the bright colour of death. She looked at the blue water and she could feel its sharp saltiness in her mouth. She could feel the cold water on her skin. She was not afraid of death but did the water have to be so cold? The woman stood up and held the boy in a tight embrace and kissed him on both cheeks. She cupped his cheeks in her hands. She turned around and faced The Connector. She pointed towards his waist. She closed her eyes but she could still see the men back in the Sahara and she could feel their rough hands on her delicate skin. The sound of steel ripped all memory to shreds and the surroundings turned into the inside of a womb and everything dissolved into blackness.
The boy stood on the wet floor of the dinghy. The woman lay between him and The Connector. The sun lit her upturned face and the serenity of passage reflected in her eyes. The boy thought of the Horn smell of evening tea and the people sitting on the mats outside. And he thought of The Mukhallas. He remembered The Mukhallas’ crooked teeth and dark skin and bony frame and deep-set eyes. And the excitement he felt when The Mukhallas told him about The Island and how for several thousand dollars he and his mother would have the best life they could ever dream of. And how new dreams took shape in his imagination.
And he thought of the journey from The Horn up the desert. The Sahara was an endless piece of orange paper and the wind had made long lines and lonely hills out of the sand. The flimsy truck snaked its ways through the land. The light came in through a small opening in the roof of the truck and it blinded the boy whenever he looked up at it. The road was bumpy and the truck was hot inside. There were four women and nine men in the back of the truck. The Somalis and the Ethiopians and the Eritreans sat in different corners. The men talked about how their relatives were growing rich in The Island and what they would do when they reached The Island and the money they would send back to The Horn and the wives they would marry and the children they would have.
The boy thought his life in The Horn had impeded all his ambitions. All he wanted to do in the Island was to study all the books in the world and teach them to people back in The Horn. He carried with him a copy of Henry IV that his father had bought him and he had read and re-read it. The boy’s mother sat next to him and recited verses of the Quran quietly. She thought about the land they had sold and the money they had borrowed. She thought of her husband and her eldest son and the men in uniform at dawn and the shining handcuffs and the four corners of their tiny cell.
Outside Tripoli, they felt fatigued and their legs were wobbly and their eyes had retreated into their sockets. The endless sheets of sand glistened in the light and the bearded captors with rifles smiled and ordered them to board the white lorry. The holding compound was large. The whitewashed house stood in the middle. The air smelled of a mixture of urine and blood. The three women were taken into the house. The boy and the other men were stripped to their pants and gathered around the iron poles that stood in front of the house. The ropes soon snaked around their bodies and around the poles. Hot metal burned against skin. Thirst came and sweat seeped into the sand. The men went inside the house and the soon cries ripped the air apart.
The boy heard her wail—felt her wail—to the depth of his soul. His mother’s wail. He wished it would stop. It went on. The light turned into dark and dark into light until he lost track of the cycle. His eyes burned with feral fire. And the sounds faded into the sizzling earth and when she emerged the blood had burned her dark skin and her gaze chilled him and he looked at her with the shocked eyes of a stranger. He looked away and the landscape had the pale and portent hue of oil on water. His mind was empty of all thought; all he could see now were bright orange lights and they danced and jumped around and dangled in front of his eyes.
The boy plopped into the water. His body was too weak for the ocean’s moods. The waves carried him on. He looked behind and there were no struggling men and the woman’s body had disappeared. He looked towards the shore and saw a boat coming but the obese occupants were arguing and could not see him. Henry IV floated in the distance and he remembered the line “He that dies this year is quit for the next.”
It was a spectacle of sea and sky. The sun was attentive; history was not. The bright orange lights dangled in front of the boy’s eyes but they were jumpy and he could not catch them. The Lampedusa Island was white and its cliffs were brown and dry but all the boy saw was a large stone crocodile with a long tail floating in the water. People walked on the beach but he saw an army of spiders scurrying on the sand. And soon the sea spit him out on the white sands and he saw he was lying under the belly of the stone crocodile and the spiders were eating his brain and when the body of the woman washed up on the sand he did not know it was his mother.
COVER IMAGE: Source: Time Magazine Website. “We’ve all seen the images of thousands of refugees and migrants on overcrowded ships, fleeing oppression, war and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East for a chance in Europe. Italian photographer Massimo Sestini shot one of these images last year – it captured people’s imagination and went on to win a World Press Photo award and was selected in TIME’s Top 10 Photos of 2014.”
UNHCR has launched the LuQuLuQu campaign; a collaborative effort by the UN Refugee Agency and prominent African personalities and companies to promote the principles and values of sharing responsibility for one another, and sharing resources, in support of the displaced people in Africa.
Follow the conversation with the hashtag #doitLuQuLuQu