African Titanics, 2008 (transl. 2014)

Recessions and depressions follow wars. War is migration. Not all soldiers come home, and those that do often don’t stay, their points of view altered in myriad ways, while economic fallout, checkbook flush blocked-up to military spending, spreads like rising floodwaters on the homefront.

Daily my Dad signed in at the Louisville plumbers’ union hall, and one day he came home and said he’d lined up a job in Los Angeles. He bought a brand new car to make the trip, which he would drive to a car lot in LA, explain he couldn’t make the payments, and hand over the keys. My little sister sat up front between my parents. I sat in the backseat between my two older sisters. Our clothes and some food packed in the trunk, it was like going on vacation, like the time we went down to Mammoth Cave, except that for the trip to Los Angeles Mom had packed the family Bible. Everything else had been sold, given away, or thrown out, not that there was ever much to everything else. Lots of folks were on the road on their way to California in those days. In the 1940’s, California’s population increased by 53%; on top of that, in the 1950’s, it increased another 49%.

The trip out to the West Coast, from the Midwest, the Prairie, the South, was not always easy sailing. During the Dust Bowl years, well rooted posses on the state and county borders, both legal and vigilante, discouraged newcomers and otherwise tried to cherry-pick who got in. And who got in might have brought with them their assumptions, presuppositions, and personal biases, but being part of any migration it seems prepares one for future life with travel vaccinations of humility, sacrifice, unity.

My family’s little migration was of course a walk in the park compared to experiences on a global scale today. In “African Titanics,” Abu Bakr Khaal describes the motivation for migrating as a kind of lure. “I pity the poor immigrant, who wishes he would’ve stayed home,” Bob Dylan sang on the John Wesley Harding album. “It was a pandemic. A plague,” Khaal’s narrator says, on the opening page. And this:

“The truth of the matter was that he would probably never return, and was shamefully lying about his outrageous wealth. As for those who returned with university degrees, most of whom were penniless, no one paid them any attention. They aroused universal scorn for returning without pretty women or cars” (p. 5).

“African Titanics” tells the story of Eritrean and other migrants hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe via less than seaworthy vessels sponsored by less than reliable smugglers. The arc of the story follows the narrator, Abdar, and his friend Malouk, “a Liberian whose fate was deeply entangled with my own for quite some time, and whose departure left a deep well of sadness within me that still torments me to this day” (5). Through the desert, always hungry and thirsty, and in and out of rancid sleeping quarters, and walking or busing or hiring short rides, living in constant fear and worry, lost in an uncertain zone between freedom and imprisonment – they pursue relentlessly the dream, the nightmare, of the crossing. The characters are intelligent, articulate, and they know exactly what’s going on around them:

“‘They’re all in prison?’
‘That’s right.’
‘Avoid public places,’ Si Najih nodded, ‘like streets, squares and gardens. And don’t walk around in groups.’
‘So, in other words, find yourself a hole, curl up in it, and hope for the best,’ Malouk muttered after I had translated Si Najih’s words” (p. 97).

Still, they joke, maybe smoke and drink when they can, sing and dance (Malouk is an accomplished folk guitarist), even make love. And wait:

“In about four days, a boat would set sail, followed by a second one a few days later. In general, the situation was not promising, however, and arrests were taking place every day” (p. 95).

African Titanics” by Abu Bakr Khaal, 2008; tansl. Charis Bredin, Darf Publishers, London, 2014, 122 pages.

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