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Friday, 24 October 2014

A New Life


Melilla, Morocco. African migrants sit atop a border fence as Spanish civil guard officers in riot gear try to turn them back during an attempt to cross into Spanish territories
: photo by Jesus Blasco de Avellaneda/Reuters via the Guardian, 22 October 2014

Hassan, of noble blood and proud demeanour

the most respected man of the village
came back to Berkane from the factory job
in Belgium
bruised and bloodied, after going through the little house
of customs at Melilla.
The Africa of now --
La Vita Nuova
neither farther nor closer
than one long jump
over the fence
into the cemetery.
The Africa of fifty years ago --
autostop and go. The getting there had
more of water in it
than rock, then more of wood
and sand and mud
than stone: whiteness,

the jawbone of a goat
lying in the dust along the side
of the road; more track than road,
corkscrewing through the mountains the long way
southward, over the trade route,
across and along the river of rivers
from the old Maghrib town
whose fallen chieftain said, departing,
The mountains are my bones,
Oum Rabia is my limit --
Oum Er-Rbia, the mother of spring --
And the plain my prey.
The women and girls went down
to the river, to wash their clothes
on the rocks. The clothes
bright yellow
and red, the river so
swiftly flowing.
Inside the hostel
the Arab girls
showed their faces
drank Coca Cola
and asked
Aimez-vous les Rolling Stones?

Migrants try to scale the border fences at Melilla unsuccessfully, with 150 getting stuck on one of the three fences or in the gaps between on 18 June: photo by Sergi Camara via The Guardian, 19 June 2014

Spanish Guardia Civil surround the migrants: photo by Sergi Camara via The Guardian, 19 June 2014

The triple-fenced border line separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of the city of Melilla: photo by Sergi Camara via The Guardian, 19 June 2014


Nora said...

In the context you've created here, Dante's 'Vide cor tuum' dream, in which a sleeping Beatrice is force-fed his heart, seems shockingly corporeal.

TC said...

Nora, could it be the shocking corporeality evoked in us by the allusion to Dante's dream has something to do with the movies and in particular the curious way in which popular horror sagas resuscitate the classics, even while the classics are crying out, "Hey guys, that's okay, I'm not drowning just waving, Don't rescue me -- even, I mean especially, not if cannibalism is going to be involved, and Hannibal Lecter is going to be lurking there in the audience, smugly smirking away at an anxious Inspector Pazzi, as if to say, 'Right, mate, and I'll be having YOURS for dessert, then.'"

Vide Cor Meum (a song composed by Patrick Cassidy based on Dante's "La Vita Nuova", specifically on the sonnet "A ciascun'alma presa", in chapter 3 of the "Vita Nuova")

This aria, writ for film, was chosen to be performed at the Oscars in 2002 during the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to producer Dino De Laurentiis and at the 53rd Annual Emmy awards... while La Vita Nuova stands at a ranking of 2,137, 848 on the Jeff Bezos Index... proving once agan that when it comes to Box Office, movies are always going to be trumping Literature (if not eating its heart and spitting out the gritty bits, if any).

TC said...

Meanwhile, the source in Dante (from La Vita Nuova):

And thinking of her a sweet sleep overcame me, in which a marvellous vision appeared to me: so that it seemed I saw in my room a flame-coloured nebula, in the midst of which I discerned the shape of a lord of fearful aspect to those who gazed on him: and he appeared to me with such joy, so much joy within himself, that it was a miraculous thing: and in his speech he said many things, of which I understood only a few: among them I understood this: ‘Ego dominus tuus: I am your lord.’

It seemed to me he held a figure sleeping in his arms, naked except that it seemed to me to be covered lightly with a crimson cloth: gazing at it very intently I realised it was the lady of the greeting, she who had deigned to greet me before that day. And in one of his hands it seemed to me that he held something completely on fire, and he seemed to say to me these words: ‘Vide cor tuum: Look upon your heart. And when he had stood for a while, he seemed to wake her who slept: and by his art was so forceful that he made her eat the thing that burned in her hand, which she ate hesitantly.

After waiting for a little while his joy was all turned to bitter grief: and, so grieving, he gathered that lady in his arms, and it seemed to me that he ascended with her towards heaven: from which I experienced such anguish that my light sleep could not endure it, and so was broken, and was dispersed. And immediately I began to reflect, and discovered that the hour in which this vision appeared to me was the fourth of that night: so as to be manifestly clear, it was the first hour of the nine last hours of night. Thinking to myself about what had appeared to me, I decided to make it known to many who were famous poets of the time: and as it was a fact that I had already gained for myself to some extent the art of speaking words in rhyme, I decided to shape a sonetto, in which I would greet all those faithful to Amor: and begging them to interpret my vision, I wrote for them what I had seen in my sleep. And then I began this sonetto, that which begins: A ciascun´alma presa e gentil core.

A ciascun’alma presa, e gentil core,
nel cui cospetto ven lo dir presente,
in ciò che mi rescrivan suo parvente
salute in lor segnor, cioè Amore
. Già eran quasi che atterzate l’ore
del tempo che onne stella n’è lucente,
quando m’apparve Amor subitamente
cui essenza membrar mi dà orrore.
Allegro mi sembrava Amor tenendo
meo core in mano, e ne le braccia avea
madonna involta in un drappo dormendo.
Poi la svegliava, e d’esto core ardendo
lei paventosa umilmente pascea:
appresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.

To every captive soul and gentle heart
into whose sight this present speech may come,
so that they might write its meaning for me,
greetings, in their lord’s name, who is Love.
Already a third of the hours were almost past
of the time when all the stars were shining,
when Love suddenly appeared to me
whose memory fills me with terror.
Joyfully Love seemed to me to hold
my heart in his hand, and held in his arms
my lady wrapped in a cloth sleeping.
Then he woke her, and my burning heart
He fed her reverently, she fearing,
And then, I saw him leave, weeping.

TC said...

On the other hand...

The situation in the poem is not literary but autobiographical -- always a problem with poems, and probably most often a mistake when the poem comes out begging to be explained.

And of course, any response to the sense of a need for explanation is also an implicit admission of the imperfection.

Then again, nobody's perfect, least of all around here.

Anyway, it so happened that, fifty years ago, footloose and wandering the roads of Normandy, I encountered three Arab migrant workers who were on their way back to Africa after work stints in Northern Europe. An Algerian driving, two Moroccans as passengers. They couldn't sort out the road markers. It was proposed I accompany them the rest of the way. My appointed rôle would be to read the road signs and announce directions, as we went along. This proved a somewhat more difficult assignment than first supposed, as no stops or rest were built into the voyaging plan. So it was one long, increasingly drowsy "tout droit, gauche, tout droit", & c., all through two very long days and nights, as we passed, in this extremely dilapidated vehicle, all through France and into Spain and thence to the port of Malaga and thence by car ferry over the water to Melilla... where the trip proper actually began.

First, the Algerian driver wanted to depart toward Oujda, and by that time he had conceived a substantial fee we were all meant to be paying for what he was now insisting had been a taxi ride all along.

This phase involved a certain amount of compulsory yet nonetheless intimidating cultural ritual, angry spitting upon the ground and cursing in Arabic, etc.

Next phase involved getting another willing driver (not easy), and then getting through the customs station, which was then located in an even smaller version of that little customs shed seen in the bottom photo here.

The more commanding and communicative of the Moroccans, a handsome and gentlemanly fellow named Hassan, had, it seemed, slightly exceeded the designated terminus date on his work permit. This, it soon developed, was a major no-no. Hassan was in that customs shed for a long time, maybe a half hour. When he came out, he said nothing, but it was plain that he had been beaten up.

We then were off again, over flooded passages of road, through bare scrub semi-desert, and on to the small mud-hut village where Hassan lived, and where he was, it was clear, regarded as something of a local hero.

Everyone was incredibly poor, and the impoverishment in Hassan's home was visible and, to an outsider, a shock. The bare rooms in the family house held several extended families. Small children lay on the floors, flies congregating around them. There was little food. Yet Hassan insisted that a metal tin be taken down from atop a high cupboard, opened and offered. In the tin there were some biscuits that must have been in there for many years. It was staggeringly humbling, that moment -- a special occasion.

The hospitality continued for some days, as I was shown the village, and treated as a special guest.

Before going on my way... as the poem suggests.

TC said...

Of course, all of the above language addresses only the language part of the content of the post.

The visual part is perhaps simpler. On an intuitive visceral level, fences like these tell us much. We have seen pictures of such fences on other borders where fearful societies have erected them to keep out the threatening hordes of the Other: thinking of, most recently, Arizona and the West Bank.

Though it's apparent from the photos that both the considerable chance of sustaining serious injury and the virtual certainty of failure and capture are included in the hard terms facing any of the fence climbers, Melilla remains the principal point of attempt for illegal entry into Europe via the Western Mediterranean route -- one of the region's major funnels for human traffic, employed currently by great streams of refugees from Syria, Libya, sub-Saharan Africa and other places where the living ain't so great.

And this is not to consider the fact that for the large majority of the people on the fences at Melilla, this is only a late step in a long risky project; they have already had to endure an arduous and perilous boat trip or overland junket to get this far.

The growing totals of refugees seeking asylum in Europe via the Mediterranean are no secret, nor are the causes of the massive flight of people from Africa and the Middle East.

On 26 August the UNCHR put out some figures on the crisis, reporting that "The past few days have been the deadliest this year on the Mediterranean for people making irregular crossings to Europe".


Estimated deaths and people missing:

In 2011 around 1,500; in 2012 around 500; in 2013 over 600 and so far in 2014 over 1,880.

Estimated arrivals:

In 2011 some 69,000; in 2012 some 22,500; in 2013 some 60,000; so far, in 2014 124,380.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

While some people are hanging from fences in search of a better life, others are asking "Golf, anyone?"

TC said...

Thanks very much, Vassilis.

The golf course shot tells it all.

That story links over to another which has a 30 second Human Rights Watch video that shows the migrants stranded on the wall at night, along with their charming hosts from the Guardia Civil.

Migrants face alleged police brutality at Melilla border fence (August 2014)

You'd think somebody might tip the Spanish to where the less embarrassing features of their culture are derived. Not that the contributions of Arabs should be counted anywhere near so wonderful as the Baroque and the Inquisition, for example -- the "native elements" one might say.

L'Enfant de la Haute Mer said...

Prodein denuncia la actuación de la Guardia Civil en la valla de Melilla (5:17)

Wooden Boy said...

Thank you for this recollection, Tom.

The people at our centre, from the agencies, coming in to clean when we're on our way out, minimum wage for proper slog, half of which they send home. Things don't change.

TC said...

The people who do the menial work here, too, are those who come from the other (lower, darker) side of great systems of barriers constructed to keep up for political purposes (forget economic, the domestic economy stands on their backs) the false impression there is some way to stop them arriving.

(And of course "illegal" does not even qualify for minimum wage, as it does not exist.)