The numbers of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean or washing up along its shores has been on the rise for many years. Most of these migrants come from North Africa, a region riven with instability, war and poverty, and risk everything by travelling on flimsy boats that often capsize, in a desperate bid to reach the relative safety of Europe.
The novel begins in the middle of this traumatic journey and follows the story of one Eritrean migrant, Abdar, who has arrived in Sudan. From there he is to be smuggled into Libya, but instead ends up wandering lost in the unforgiving desert. While he manages to reach Libya, Abdar then ends up in another smuggler’s compound, waiting to cross the Mediterranean. There he escapes a police raid and ends up in Tunisia only to encounter further run-ins with the law. So Abdar then crosses the Sahara and travels around the Maghreb, without embarking upon his “African Titanic” to Europe. This is the focus of the story: neither reaching his destination nor going home, Abdar remains stuck in a hopeless limbo between the threshold of Africa and Europe.
The book attempts to reveal the tragic and desperate plight of these migrants in all its hopelessness: getting lost, starving, drowning and more. But this anxiety that the title and plot attempt to convey ends up being diffused through descriptions, explanations of its causes, rather than conveyed through the mood of the narrator or the inner lives of the characters.
Moreover, the characters rebound from crises with remarkable ease: following a harrowing, life-threatening trip across the Sahara, Abdar’s love interest Terhas wakes up the morning after they find shelter and effortlessly brews tea for all the travellers. Abdar and his fellow migrants cross the Tunisian border for miles on foot, without revealing much of a sense of panic, fear, exhaustion. Indeed, the path of undocumented migration is fast-paced, but Khaal does not linger and rest on the emotional lives of his characters, which leaves very little time and space to empathise with them.
In fact, the tone of the narrative is so breezy and unburdened that ultimately one remains at a distance from the suffering of their journey.
The novel, then, is inspired by the harrowing news reports of the plight of these migrants, so to speak, and realistically exposes the harsh, hidden reality of migration along the Mediterranean. Yet, with so much terrain covered by this slim novel, the social space inhabited by the migrants is hardly touched on. How do the inhabitants of these countries interact with migrants? How do Arabic-speaking sub-Saharan migrants fare in the Maghreb? How does religion factor in?
The narrator only scratches the surface of the differences between life north and south of the Sahara. One doesn’t get much of a sense of the alienation a migrant must feel, beyond simply being undocumented. Besides, say, being stared at in a restaurant, the narrator doesn’t give any indication that his sense of belonging is questioned, nor register any sign of racism.
Although it is difficult to speculate on why Khaal practically smooths over the Sahara divide, his long-term residence in Libya as a dissident of the Eritrean government might explain his sense of belonging or his cautious self-censorship. Years after he wrote this novel (in Arabic), Khaal found life imitating art during Libya’s 2011 upheavals, when he ended up stranded in a refugee camp at the Tunisia-Libya border, a no man’s land like the kind his narrator occupies for a time. After several pleas to the Tunisian government from high-profile artists and writers, Khaal eventually did cross the Tunisian border and the Mediterranean, as his narrator desired. He now lives in Denmark.
This year’s English translation seems especially timely, considering 2014 has seen a record number of people trying to make the journey. But the tensions inherent to the novel – between south and north, stability and wandering, migrants and natives, which could have provided insight into the characters’ inner lives – are bypassed, leaving little chance to identify with the people who have shaped this historical route.
Nahrain Al Mousawi is based in Morocco. Her journalism has also appeared in Al Monitor, Globe & Mail and Al Akhbar