Excerpt from the novel Un passage vers l’Occident, by Didier Leclair, translated by Elaine Kennedy with Sheryl Curtis
The small fishing boat taking Africans to the coast of Spain was heaving in high waves. Each time the hull pounded the water, the passengers cried out in panic. None of them was used to being on a boat. For some, it was their first time out on the open water and they vowed it would be their last. Drenched with spray, they clung to their seats and the side of the boat, determined to set foot on Spanish soil. All seven were desperate to reach Europe and escape the poverty and fratricidal wars in their homelands. Some intended to stay in Spain; others hoped to go on to Italy, Germany, France or Belgium. Their final destinations varied, but their goal was the same—to flee to a rich country. Each of them had an infallible plan for disappearing into the night when they arrived. They would join an uncle or a brother who had already settled in the West. They knew the names of cities and streets, along with a few words in several European languages to help them find their way. The bolder ones even imagined meeting another African who would provide information, assistance or shelter. Yet all these schemes were no more than dreams until they managed to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Their new life could not begin until they had completed this first leg of the journey across fifteen kilometres of water up to three hundred and fifty metres deep. Across a treacherous arm of the sea that can be smooth when it’s supposed to be rough and that can slam the cliffs when it seems to be calm. But then, this gateway to the Mediterranean separates Africa from Europe. A natural divide filled with age-old waters, it marks the boundary between two worlds of growing disparity: Western Europe, capable of providing for its citizens, and Africa, unable to meet the basic needs of the majority. This contrast, spawning envy and hatred, is mirrored in the rough and unpredictable waters of the strait.
THE NEW EBONY
It was not raining—at least not yet. But the Mediterranean seemed to detect the gut-churning fear of those in the boat, called a patera in northern Africa and southern Spain. The waves hemmed them in and the skiff had difficulty making headway with the small motor recently installed. The Africans, sitting side by side on the cross boards, groaned anxiously. Six men and one woman from different Black African countries were risking everything to immigrate illegally. The eighth person was sitting on the last board at the stern. The ferryman, with a straight back and face almost as rugged as the coastline ahead, kept one hand on the tiller and a constant eye on his cargo. Unaffected by the pitching of the craft, he cursed the Africans inwardly with a scowl. He looked like he was at the end of his tether, his shoulders tensed up and his torso cramped in a life jacket dyed black to avoid detection by the coast guard. A skilful seaman and the sole master on board under God, he steered the boat with a steady hand and planned to shut off the motor once they were close to the Spanish coast.
The ferryman scanned the dark for the faintest ray of light from the marine police. He would have been carrying coconuts or bananas had they been as profitable. In fact, he had more regard for fruit because it was cut from the tree to be eaten, whereas these niggers cut themselves off from their roots to feed off the land of others. Such an infestation had become a sickening epidemic, a modern-day plague, although he contributed to it. But how could he resist such a lucrative trade? Each of these people had to pay one thousand American dollars to cross the strait. Some of them cast their entire families into debt, others scrimped for years, and the most determined sold the plot that had nourished their kin for generations. Still, he felt no pity for these pests. His scornful eyes pierced through the blackness, scrutinizing the waves for any hint of danger. He didn’t fear the wrath of the sea, but the authorities who would confiscate his boat and seize the money in his pocket. Not that he was entitled to the entire take, but he did have ways of increasing his cut. He would threaten to leave passengers behind, using any excuse to extort more money: an ugly face, nice clothes, questions about his orders. He didn’t select a victim every trip—only when he felt like it. Prior to this crossing, he had refused to let an oaf wearing a clerical collar on board. The ferryman found him too effeminate, with his rings and large cross pendant. The chubby-cheeked fellow crossed himself and beseeched the heavens in Africanized English, but to no avail. When he saw that he couldn’t entrust his fate to divine forces, he took out his wallet and handed the ferryman more money. The ferryman waved him onto the boat, telling him in a vindictive tone that he couldn’t be a man of God. The preacher, understanding nothing, gave a faint smile of merciful forgiveness. The owner of the patera spat, letting the chap know once and for all what he thought of him.
Apart from his concerns about carrying a large sum, the ferryman struggled to shake off a bad feeling. Normally his associate waited for him on the coast of Spain, manning a lookout. At any sign of trouble, his accomplice would send out a signal and the ferryman would change course. But his partner had backed out at the last moment. As a result, the ferryman was tenser than usual. He couldn’t have cancelled the crossing because it would have angered his superiors; he couldn’t have delayed it because it would have affected the next boatload. He’d had to go through with the mission.
The ferryman cut the motor suddenly in the middle of the strait. He motioned for the passengers to put their heads down and not make a sound. The hum of an airplane in the distance quickly got louder as the flashing lights drew near. The ferryman assumed it was a surveillance plane: he knew the coast guard flew small craft at low altitudes to comb the strait. One of the Africans was seasick and clasped his belly to contain himself. With the bobbing of the boat, he finally spewed the contents of his stomach overboard with a belching gush. The ferryman muffled an insult and waited for the plane to fly off before bellowing obscenities.
The waves grew higher and the black fathomless sea rocked the small craft with renewed force. A steep wave lifted up the hull, which came slamming back down on the water below. The Africans shrieked. A second later, lightning tore through the sky, illuminating the figures in the boat like a photo negative. The ferryman did not like what was coming; he had planned to arrive before the rain, which he no longer expected because it had been forecast for so long. The wind blew back the woman’s hood, giving some of the passengers a glimpse of her sculpted features and light brown skin. She pulled her hood back up and grabbed onto her seat.
The ferryman thought about his accomplice, who had given “personal reasons” for cancelling. Julio, a gypsy thug in his twenties, had contacted the ferryman the previous evening. Julio’s mother, a fortune teller, had forbidden him to go near the water the next day: misfortune hovered around the strait and her son was not to witness it or be involved in it. This wasn’t the first time Julio’s mother had made such ominous predictions. Occasionally she prevented her son from working for the ferryman, much to his annoyance. Yet nothing had ever happened, so why should he worry this time? He felt reassured, but not for long. “Those goddamn gypsies!” he muttered. During the Spanish Empire, the Catholic kings had supposedly forced the gypsies to give up their nomadic ways by threatening to cut off their ears. He, too, believed that only strong measures would bring all the lazy, faithless, lawless people to heel—the gypsies, niggers, North Africans and their kind.
With the steady rain and gusting wind, the Spaniard had to admit that maybe Julio had been right to listen to his mother. The skiff was gradually drifting off course and the ferryman fought to control the small vessel.
THE COLD-HEARTED FERRYMAN
Ernesto Diaz came from a long line of fishermen who had settled in a hamlet near the Spanish port of Barbate, not far from the strait. He started to earn a living by fishing for tuna when he was young and kept at it when he became a husband and father. During the summer, when abundant schools of tuna migrated through the strait, he was able to earn enough to see his family through the winter. His wife sold wares at the village market to help make ends meet. Ernesto practised the traditional almadraba method of fishing. He and others would set a maze of nets that led to a central pool; once the tuna were inside, they couldn’t get out. The fishermen would raise the pool floor to snare them, remove them with mechanical grabs, then sell them to the Japanese, who had a factory ship anchored in the harbour. Over time, the arrangement proved disastrous. After Ernesto had been fishing for a number of years, the tuna stocks dwindled and he had to look for other means of supporting his family. An uncle involved in smuggling immigrants asked Ernesto to join him. The fisherman hesitated for a few days. The job was risky, but so was fishing. With a wife and six children to feed, he had to find a way to put food on the table. Jobs in Andalusia were in short supply.
ROWING TO SPAIN
The boat continued to make its way toward Spain, throwing spray as it plunged over the waves. The passengers hung on, faces tense, hands trembling, breath held. The uncertainty surrounding their arrival had cast everyone into a jittery silence. Ernesto turned off the motor when he saw the coastal cliffs. Their grey shadows loomed against the night sky like imposing and impenetrable citadels. The Africans peered at the landscape through the darkness and stinging rain. The sight of rocks and escarpments both thrilled and terrified them. Dry land lay close at hand, but that didn’t mean they would reach it. They looked so overwhelmed that Ernesto wasn’t sure he could get them to shore. He let the boat drift for a moment while he thought about what to do. He had a crazy urge to leave it all behind—craft and cargo—dive into the water and swim to safety. Give it all up and go back to fishing for tuna in Barbate. But how would he earn a living? The Japanese had cleaned the strait of tuna. They were another bunch that deserved to go to hell, travelling halfway around the world to drain the resources of others. They were nothing more than barbarians. He’d only fished for them because he’d had no choice. The Spanish should have kept every single last fish for themselves. Ernesto didn’t dive. He didn’t have the courage. He grabbed the oars from under his feet and handed them out to the men, gesturing for them to get down to work. They started rowing without a second’s hesitation: it made them feel as if they had some control over the situation.
LIKE GALLEY SLAVES
The Africans, backs bent, necks taut, gleaming with sweat and rain, rowed furiously. They dug their oars into the water with a fierceness born of despair. The strait was no longer a turbulent stretch of sea—it was a hydra drawn by the scent of terror.
They stabbed the water, some of them chanting to soothe their panicked souls. Others, arms whirling, were silent as stone. The woman was not allowed an oar. Unhindered by the rain, she stared resolutely at the horizon. The wind blew back her hood again and her companions in misfortune could finally see her full face under the bright flashes of lightning. But none of them stared for long. They rowed until they were breathless, impaling the sea as if to slay a ravenous demon. Ernesto was again overcome by the urge to abandon ship. He was a good swimmer and was wearing the camouflaged life jacket. Battling the temptation to jump, he began shouting insults at the horror-stricken men. Each oar stroke was punctuated by abuse from the ferryman. These niggers can’t even row a boat, he thought. They deserve their fate. Aren’t chattels supposed to serve men? Real men? Where are all these niggers going to end up anyway? In Spanish orchards as cheap labour? A whip, now that’s what he should have brought. These people only obeyed when whipped. The Africans didn’t seem to realize that they hadn’t moved any closer to shore. Their floundering was partly to blame, but the tide was the main culprit. It was insidiously pushing them back and consuming their efforts as they neared exhaustion. Aware of the situation, the ferryman squinted at the writhing water. He was starting to fear for his life and worried that the coast guard would find them. “If it wasn’t for this bloody rain,” he growled, “we’d have been on land by now.” He wondered how his superiors would react if he deserted the cargo. He hoped they would be more forgiving in light of the storm. Ernesto mulled it over a little longer. He had to act quickly and without warning; the passengers would soon notice they were moving away from shore.
THE FERRYMAN’S ACT
Ernesto’s jump made an unremarkable “plop” in the water, but created a deafening din in the minds of the passengers. No one wanted to believe what they had just seen. How could he leave them like that? Some of the passengers thought the plunge meant they were almost to shore. But the cliffs were harder to make out than before. The night was closing in on them like a shroud, leaving them little air to breathe. The ferryman swam off, fleeing the boat, which almost tipped as the men frantically waved at him. The vessel was no longer heading for Spain: it was now controlled by the wind, rain and wild ruthless waves. One of the rowers screeched in rage and leapt into the water to go after the ferryman, who had a good head start. That move created even more confusion on board. There were cries for help, shoving and jostling, oars gripped for protection amid the commotion. Two other passengers dove in, rocking the craft and endangering the petrified souls on board who couldn’t swim; they prayed, uttering the Lord’s name in different African languages. A couple of optimistic believers scanned the turbulent waters, expecting the ferryman to emerge from the waves. The young woman hadn’t jumped. She knew how to swim in a pool, but the sea was another matter: the black waves, harbouring countless creatures, were waiting to swallow up the weak and hapless. A sharp elbow not intended for her indicated it was time to leave the boat. Tempers were fraying and the men still on board were fighting over the oars. “Lord take me!” cried one passenger as he jumped in, sinking like a stone. The young woman removed her leather jacket, remembering the fifty American dollars tucked into her underwear. She had to hold onto that money—it was all she had. When she plunged, there were only two passengers left, waiting for the vessel to capsize. She dove in headfirst to calm her swirling mind. The cold water gripped her like a vise, freezing her blood and ripping off one of her shoes. Determined to fight the ebbing tide and treacherous currents, she minimized all unnecessary strokes. Her movements were coordinated, but lacked force.
THE FERRYMAN’S SURPRISE
Ernesto swam vigorously toward the land of his birth. He was fleeing more than the drifting boat: one of the passengers was swimming after him, and the Spaniard was amazed at how quickly the man was catching up. Those Blacks all sunk like cement blocks. So many of them washed up on shore that he was surprised to see one who could swim so well. When the shadow was a few metres away, Ernesto realized that he was mistaken. The man was panting, swallowing mouthfuls and needlessly chopping the water. The ferryman had a bad feeling. He tried to focus on his stroking but the flailing man at his back worried him. The African grabbed hold of Ernesto’s life jacket. The ferryman tried to release the man’s grip with a flick of his shoulder but was unable to get free. Panicking in this unexpected fight in the water, Ernesto removed his life jacket so he could get away without dragging the African along with him. He felt his strength waning as he struggled to get out of the vest. He finally got it off but didn’t have time to escape. The exhausted African clutched the Spaniard’s leg, intent on not going down alone. The ferryman tried to kick him off, wasting even more energy. The man was now holding on by the hem of his pants, but had a good enough grip to pull him down, making him swallow his first mouthful. The ferryman shook his leg to get loose from the drowning man. For a second, he regretted leaving his life jacket behind. All he could think about was coming up for a deep breath of air. His arms felt like lead and were barely responding. Another mouthful. He promised himself it would be the last. The African was no longer clinging to him. Now he could swim to shore. But he couldn’t help swallowing a third mouthful. He tried to surface, but his arms thrashed like an exhausted wrestler. How absurd, he thought, to die this way. He never dreamt an angry African would drag him under. He’d often imagined being murdered in his sleep by infuriated passengers, but always on land. Death took Ernesto by surprise, with his eyes wide open and a strange scowl, like a half smile, fleeting across his icy face as he went down for the last time.
THE WOMAN AND THE SEA
The woman swam courageously. What did she know about the Strait of Gibraltar? Not much. Africa was behind her and Europe, somewhere in front of her. That thought gave her new strength and enabled her to make headway against the tide. She may have had trouble finding the strait on a map, but she could sense the insatiable appetite of the sea. She feared the stormy water the way the living fear the grave. But it was not yet her time. She still had enough stamina to battle the eagerly frothing waves. Her strokes were uneven in the crests, forcing her to dive under from time to time. The silence below was a welcome contrast to the rain-pelted surface. The calm of the depths was strangely alluring. Gone were the lightning-torn sky and rumbling thunder. She could have just let herself go, lost consciousness, sunk into the quiet. She no longer felt the money in her underwear: it must have slipped down her pant leg. At least she still had the forged document hidden in her bra. The sea hungered for everything. The shore was no longer visible and her strength was starting to fade. The rain beat down, as if unaffected by the wreckage of the patera and the drowning of the other passengers. The elements raged for reasons as fathomless as the sea. The waves pounded her and she groaned between mouthfuls of salty water. The sea had become an arena and the downpour, the disorienting rumble of a crowd in ancient Rome as the gladiator yielded to the famished lion. She glanced up one last time, not daring to hope she was close enough. To her surprise, she could see the angular contours of the hazy cliffs just metres away. Depleted, she had no energy for the last, life-saving strokes. It was all ending so close to shore. Suddenly, a wave behind her, higher than the rest, thrust her forward. This unexpected push brought her nearer to the water’s edge. She let herself be carried by the current, which was no longer holding her back but expelling her onto land. The sea no longer considered her an offering for its creatures. Her body, stiff and drained, was as worthless to the depths as deadwood, indigestible debris. Unconscious, she reached the shore. The wave that knocked her out bore the sentence of the furious sea: if she couldn’t be devoured by the strait, she didn’t deserve to live. She couldn’t hear the roaring of the sea, incensed by her escape. Yet she continued to breathe, her body inert and muscles still tense, in a categoric refusal to die on Spanish soil.