Youssef Rakha: He Threw Himself into the Sea

The Sultan’s Seal reviews one of Darf Publishers’ recent titles: the Eritrean writer Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics, translated from the original Arabic by Charis Bredin

Photo by Alex Majoli, source: magnum

I immediately began to suss out the reputations of all the local smugglers, remaining in a state of anxious indecision as to which of them I should do business with. There was ‘Fatty’, known for his reliability and the care he took of those who travelled aboard his Titanics. His reputation extended all over Africa and travellers from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ghana and Liberia would hunt him down as soon as they arrived in [Tripoli]. Other smugglers were known for how swiftly they could arrange crossings. Every week, one of their Titanics would leave for the far shore, completely devoid of safety precautions, and likely to sink a few miles out to sea.

Like Samuel Shimon (An Iraqi in Paris, 2005), and Hamdi Abu Golayyel (A Dog with No Tail, 2009), Abu Bakr Khaal writes reportage with fictional license. Though a Tigré-speaking Eritrean with no apparent connection to the Arab literary scene, he belongs in a recent Arabic tradition of confessional narrative that benefits as much from its authors’ down-and-out credentials as their distinct vernaculars. Whether Khaal’s language is interesting because of influence from his mother tongue, I don’t know.

In Charis Bredin’s decidedly British English, African Titanics is a breezy read, worthwhile for its first-hand take on an essential topic and its pseudo-mythology of pan-African wanderlust.

African Titanics is a short book told by some alter ego of Khaal’s who, despite making a point of the countless nicknames he has had through the years, does not seem to reveal his true identity. It remains unclear whether we are to assume that he and Khaal are one.

In the end the book feels more like an essay a la Thomas de Quincey, say, than either novel(la) or autobiography. It remains very much of the how-I-came-to-write-this variety which, even without homosexuality or prison as such, will inevitably recall Jean Genet. Yet with more concerted artifice and greater fleshing out of material, you can also see it turning into a Salman-Rushdiesque Legend of Malouk the Third, a (counter) epic relating the (anti) heroic exploits of the narrator’s Liberian traveling companion, the third in a line of storytellers with the same name.

This is the same Malouk who, with apt casualness, roughly halfway through the book, makes the astonishing claim that seems to hold the key to the entire enterprise. Beyond the truism that “there will always be migration so long as there are human beings on earth”, he says, “I personally wouldn’t be surprised if Africa became the next destination for lost souls, even as they leave it today.”

Up to this point one question has dogged the reader: why is it that young men who are surviving perfectly well where they are become obsessed with a form of suicide, knowing how improbable it is that their lives will improve even if they make it to Europe? Now when the narrator agrees with Malouk, there is a sense that the question is answered.

While never disputed, the how-terribe-their-lives-must-be syndrome is relegated to second place. Political and economic factors that are routinely cited in journalistic discourse to explain what drives young people to die of thirst while dodging barbed wire in the desert only to end up boarding a death boat to nowhere ring hollow as Khaal evokes the real reason behind this process: the sheer compulsive poetry of departure.

It is a force of forgetfulness that tears you away not only from the lifelines of love and song — as is evident in Malouk’s first story, of an uncle trying to persuade his nephew not to travel — but also from traditions unlikely ever to be abandoned anyway.

“Kaji had resolved not to let Bouwara leave, to cure him of the migration bug with the songs he performed so well,” Malouk writes. And as the old man, his voice loosened by alcohol, begins, Bouwara realizes he is listening to the song that “came to the lips of the first man on earth” when, after an interminable solitude, he began to feel the need for a woman. He travels anyway.

The bug persists, Khaal seems to suggest, as a basic force of life, however negative. Like death, like sickness, like having unpremeditated sex with a witch you are visiting to be told your fortune while you wait for the smugglers in Khartoum, there is no point resisting it. “Later,” the narrator writes, “I thought of the years before my departure as sheltered years, or perhaps confined years, when I was still immune to the bug, clinging earnestly to my convictions.”

Malouk is a guitarist as well as a storyteller who genuinely loves his homeland, and his character seems to be Khaal’s archetype of the immigrant. In the book’s final flourish — as moving an allusion to the desperation and denial that inform this kind of travel as anything — he achieves posthumous fame online as a kind of immortal seafarer, having long since drowned off the shores of Tunis.

He was standing abreast two waves, his lean body swaying gently with their motion… His clothes were perfectly dry, and he showed no signs of fear or anxiety, not like a man in any danger. He simply stood there, as if he were waiting at a street corner for his beloved Waninabanda. Then a giant sailboat appeared, and he began speaking with the crew. They asked him his name, and as soon as they heard it, they took him on board. The ship set sail, as Malouk’s voice rose from it in song.

In a book with evident (post) modernist aspirations, Malouk’s memoirs-within-the-memoir — actual documents the narrator is supposedly transcribing — feel like a technical copout, a naive inter-textual substitute for what should be intra-textual inventiveness.

Written materials that crop up in the course of events replace what in a piece of journalism would have been interviews, but the resulting prose isn’t always powerful enough to make up for the surface ingenuousness. With more attention to viewpoint and a more methodical scheme, however miscellaneous, Khaal’s homage to “a dark sorcerer” whose bell “stirred Africa’s youth” would have been more than a string of memorable moments. The amorous dimension which centers on Terhas, a non-Arabic speaking Eritrean who loses her male companion early on the journey, for example, might have been developed.

As it is, aside from the Malouk lore and the constant allusions to the beauty and color of the continent paradoxically being abandoned, there is Khaal’s human-trafficking travel guide to North Africa: cartographies of escape and death, the constant flight from the authorities (which consciously or unconsciously also stand in for the identity being shed), the hunger and the craving, cities and the dark shadows that occupy them. There is the adventure of the journey itself, an abortive experience for all but Malouk — who dies — which has enough action and suspense for a best-selling thriller. And there is the comic moment when Attiah, an Egyptian member of the crew subsequently kicked out of Norway for performing salat, begins to curse the sea. After a few exchanges,

[he] fell silent and contemplated the group of Eritreans huddled around the TV. Then, ‘Isn’t it you lot that called the boats “Titanikaat”?’ he continued, mimicking our Arabic, ‘As in al-Titanik?’

‘Yes, that’s us.’

‘Damn you all! Who gave you the right to pluralise it as Titanikaat anyway? Are you experts in Arabic grammar these days – or is the great grammarian Sibawayh travelling with you and personally advising you on new words?’

What sticks in the mind is Khaal’s elegiac voice, the sense of loss and incomprehension that arises from him knowing just how dreadful are the dreadful things he is writing about (even when he did not personally experience them) and, perhaps more importantly, his willingness to accept the fatal exodus as part of the flow of life: the forgetfulness that is memory’s prerequisite.

‘If God loved me he would not have brought me here,’ groaned one of the passengers, attempting to block out the sailors’ mockery as despair finally won out over hope. His words seemed to freeze in time, for seconds, then minutes, for an unidentifiable stretch. These words were all he wished to say. They were his final prayer. Assured he had uttered the most fitting farewell to life, he threw himself into the sea.