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.

Immigrants from Earth

The astrophysicists are in the ascendancy again. That’s our takeaway from a 03.2019 National Geographic article. The key is light. The scientific industry is working to build something that will travel close to the speed of light. Laser beams, solar winds, and microscopic kites. Another key is funding. They’re working on a go fund me tsunami. Government dough is drying up, but there appears to be enough interest in the private sector to fuel ever more comic book fantasy.

Surprisingly, for all our technological advancements and discoveries, not much is known about the universe. Part of what’s driving the current science buzz is a new generation of telescopes that will provide pics of the light reflecting directly off of exoplanets. That light will contain information about what’s happening on the planet. Information like who lives there, their address, what they do for a living, and other census like questions.

Meantime, back on earth, in that same 03.2019 National Geographic issue, an article on El Salvador violence, titled “No Way Out,” helps explain the immigration crisis on the US southwest border. A map of El Salvador, titled “State of Fear,” using dots to show “Homicides by municipality, 2017,” could from a distance be confused with the Milky Way pic used on the cover of the issue.

One wonders what makes scientists think there might be intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe when evidence of intelligent life here on Earth seems close to non-existent. And why would other life forms, presumably far more technologically advanced or in other ways superior to ours, be interested in us? One scientist interviewed remarks the question is similar to asking why would humans be interested in reaching out to a colony of ants.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Maybe the ants are the aliens.

Migrations

Migrations“Not far from seedy Sandy Boulevard,” a local newspaper article read, some time ago, attempting to describe a seeming paradox of a nice neighborhood limited by the desolation of the average urban street, where Easter bonnet parades have given way to noir glassed evenings, streets that help distinguish the right from the wrong side of the tracks, spring from winter, beauty from irony.

The planet Earth seems a benevolent seedy place, and how from this abundance of fruit and flowers moved easily about by breeze and bees come the ideas of poor taste, of good form, of appropriate policy and procedure, of social mores?

History is an argument whose occasion has lapsed, the audience mesmerized, hypnotized, and a quick exit of pathos, the persuasion a torn curtain. For Joyce’s Stephen, in “Ulysses,” history was “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Part of that nightmare might include migrations: caused by drought or famine; escape from prejudice and persecution; exile from war; fallout from economic, climate, or technological calamity; eviction notice from landlord; or perceived opportunity, where the grass simply looked greener on the other side of the street. There is an ongoing, small but worldwide, migration of corporate workers essentially homeless from forced relocation every few years, happily scattered about though, rare seeds, often heirlooms.

The nightmare is humanity’s pollinator, its vector, its wind and breeze, river and sea, bee and fly.

Gentrification causes migrations. Local news recently broke of a 127 year old building to be torn down on Belmont, where the century old trolley rail lines occasionally reappear, rising through the wear and tear in the asphalt street. By local standards, a 127 year old building is old, but not so old, maybe, by Parisian standards. Some might see the old Belmont building as having gone to seed, seedy, associated with sleazy; others might see history, a story that cannot be razed or covered. Whether it’s torn down or fixed up, the building’s current occupants will have to find new digs.

But what is seediness? Why is the seedy scorned? Who creates the seedy? And how does seediness move? Who moves toward the seedy rather than away from it? How is life different for those gone to seed from the well bloomed and harvested? Behind the façades, however rich or seedy they might appear, is life in the back of the five star hotel the same as life behind the one star motel? Is five star bitterness five times more bitter than one star bitterness?

One year, in Los Angeles on a boondoggle, we met up with some of the old gang for a couple of days adventuring in the façade capital of the world, Disneyland. We got rooms at a local hotel. The lobby looked friendly, the lounge ready for a beer, the courtyard intimate, the rooms dark but plush. Not five star, but not one star, somewhere in between, we imagined. We settled in for a nap with plans to reconvene later in the lobby and head out for some gumbo at the Blue Bayou.

And then we saw the rats scurrying up and down and all around the courtyard palm trees, arms length from the balcony, plump, healthy looking rats, but did we want to share the night with them? We rustled up the energy to confront the front desk clerk concierge, and checked out free and clear for a clean well lighted place without rats. It did not take long to relocate and we were happily ensconced in a new place apparently fortified against rats. I did not disturb the group’s peace of mind, but I wondered where management might have kept the rats in this new place. In an urban landscape, one is never more that fifty feet or so from a rat. Something is always going to seed, never mind the season.

The classy squirm away from the seedy, the swank from the stink. But they often meet in the noir. The cancer of cynicism does not distinguish the posh from the pinched. Textbook history often sounds like it was written from an airplane circling over a city cleansed of its seeds, and we see nothing of the city’s underground, where we might come face to face with its rats.

“To become imbued with shades of grey, to blend into the drab obscurity of blind spots, to join the clammy crowd that emerges, or seeps, at certain times of day from the metros, railway stations, cinemas or churches, to feel a silent and distant brotherhood with the lonely wanderer, the dreamer in his shy solitude, the crank, the beggar, even the drunk – all this entails a long and difficult apprenticeship, a knowledge of people and places that only years of patient observation can confer.”

We are in Nazi occupied Paris, in Jacques Yonnet’s “Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City.”[i] Most able Parisians have escaped and are on the run, many at the last minute, by train or car, bicycle or walking, long crowded lines moving generally south to southwest, ahead of the advancing Nazi army about to reach Paris. This migration is of course history: dates, names, and numbers dutifully recorded, but for a bird’s eye view of the ordinary trauma, conversations, blunders, hopes, and fears of the average Parisian fleeing the city, many packing as if for a vacation to the Midi, turn to “Suite Francaise,” a recently uncovered account in the form of a novel by Irene Nemirovsky, who died in Auschwitz.[ii]

Yonnet’s book takes place in Paris during the occupation and after. The narrator works for the Resistance, running several missions and establishing connections and communications, always an eye on the patrolling Nazis, living in squalid conditions, associating with all kinds of gone to seed characters with names like “Keep on Dancin’.” The narration reads like a journal or diary.

For the characters in Nemirovsky’s book, the trip out of Paris is a nightmare. Food is quickly scarce, as is petrol, cars are abandoned, train schedules uncertain, everywhere long lines of refugees on the move, unable to carry much, villages and towns empty of provisions, families sleeping out, feeling lucky it’s June and the nights warm, but then again it’s too hot. There’s nothing to drink, nothing to eat. A few enemy planes buzz overhead, explosions heard in the distance, and a few bombs drop near, the strategy uncertain, apparently to take out train stations, rail lines, fuel depots, but there are civilian casualties and injuries. And throughout the telling of it, Nemirovsky focuses close in, describing ordinary people caught unprepared in extraordinary circumstances.

Samuel Beckett and his life long partner Suzanne would have been on the road out of Paris, walking, sleeping out, hiding by day, moving at night. Later, it would be said the roadside scenes in “Waiting for Godot” might have been first suggested to Beckett on his way out of Paris. And James Joyce and his family would have been on their way out of Paris, for Switzerland, Joyce concerned that the war would distract people from reading his latest book, “Finnegans Wake.”

Some of Nemirovsky’s characters describe their predicament as horrible, nothing like it ever seen before, but they are reminded by others they are not the first, nor likely to be the last.

New ethical environments quickly evolve, wrongs are met with a patient retribution, if not justice, both in Yonnet’s occupied Paris among the down and out, the deadbeat and seedy, the sick and infested, the fallen, and in Nemirovsky’s trail of humanity moving away from Paris, away from the city, away from an old life toward something new and unknown.

Back in mid-January, the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha posted to this blog, “The Sultan’s Seal,” a photo essay by the Reuters cameraman Antonio Denti (@antclick on Instagram). Titled “Upstream,” Denti’s essay begins:

“I drove alone from Rome to the Balkans to cover the refugee crisis on the borders of Eastern Europe in September 2015. I saw the physical and human landscape changing slowly. I saw the faces, and I heard the sound of the words. I saw history flowing from Florence to Venice, to Trieste, to the forests of Slovenia, to the Alps and the well kept chalets near Austria, to the flat agricultural peripheries deeper into the former Austro-Hungarian empire, eastwards, towards Serbia and Hungary…”

Denti’s photo essay focuses on the parents and children of the recent migration and refugee crisis. He calls his project a photo diary. It is “terrifying and beautiful.”

[i] Jacques Yonnet, Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City, translated and with an introduction and notes by Christine Donougher. First published in France in 1954, first Dedalus edition in 2006, reprinted in 2009. 280 pages, paperback.

[ii] Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise, a novel, translated by Sandra Smith. Originally published in France in 2004, first Vintage International Edition, May 2007, 431 pages, paperback.