‘It seems that the fate of our generation is separation, from our country or our family. We are ready to go anywhere in search of the work we cannot find at home.’ Leila Aboulela, Coloured Lights (Polygon, 2005)
I would change ‘work’ to ‘world’.
This would allow us to include the unemployable masses who wash up on foreign shores, dead or alive, after having spent days, maybe weeks at sea. Those desperate, ravenous, single-minded and brave nobodies whose anonymity culminates in becoming a statistic in a UN report. People one British newspaper once vaguely described as economic migrants fleeing nothing but hunger.
You can see them, if you close your eyes for a bit, step out of your own shoes and put on a scuffed pair of four-stripe Aribas, once white but now yellow with time and grime…
Squeeze yourself into a shaky fishing boat filled with weary, non-aquatic life, shivering with cold, pale with seasickness and hunger and fear, squinting into the horizon with hearts firmly lodged in their throats. Waiting… waiting for that first precious nugget of shore to appear. Can you hear the silence? The heavy, expectant breathing? See that dilating of pupils and nostrils? Can you smell the acrid sweat, the rotten breath exhaled from a dozen hungry mouths? Can you taste the salt in the air? Can you feel the tensing of their bodies as they cringe against full bladders, trying to hold off relieving themselves in public until their eyes start to water with the strain?
Those who flee my country are mostly driven but purposeless young men, who have solemnly bid families goodbye and parted from friends with some show of bravado, have fled their crumbling housing estates and shantytown shacks. They know that they will live on the floor of a brother’s friend’s one-bedroom flat, if they’re lucky. And get a job scrubbing dishes or toilets, sweeping streets, or stacking shelves, if they’re lucky. They hope that they will never get injured or sick. Or worse, get dragged into a brawl with a bunch of drunkards on a Friday night and make themselves conspicuous to the police. Just lay low, boys, and in time you will work your way to assistant vegetable chopper in a London restaurant and help pay the rent on that one-bedroom flat, and buy a bed to get a decent night’s kip. After a while, you’ll be able to put some money aside. If you’re lucky. Or maybe you will hit the jackpot and a lonely, portly, middle-aged, mother of three will agree to marry you in exchange for cash and company, and will set you free.
What is it about France, or England, or Germany that you have risked your life for? The food, the clothes, the nightlife, the girls? Certainly not the grinding pace of 12-hour shifts and long commutes home, not the bewildering volley of foreign tongues, foreign smells, foreign ways, not the dizzying maze of foreign streets and city buses and the Underground. Not the aching loneliness of the marginal life you lead, a monotony broken weekly by the sound of your mother’s voice at the other end of the line. Not the impatience of a manager or customer at having to repeat their orders to you over and over, their words refusing to register as nerves play havoc
with your mind. I said tablespoon not teaspoon, use a sponge for the non-stick pans, look, you’ve ruined them! I said move, hot pan! I said hurry up! I said no mayo you daft prat! I said DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH??
They think you’re an idiot and have to put up with the likes of you more and more often. You’re not proud, but you feel the indignity, don’t you? You feel less of a man. What’s keeping you here?
Perhaps it is the sandwiches. They are packed with juicy shreds of meat and dripping with sauce, served with a generous side of fries. Back home, wilting lettuce leaves and cubes of tomato reign supreme in a Chicken Supreme. The cooks have a way of eagerly and repeatedly scraping the pan to suggest that they are harvesting poultry by the pound, then sneakily tapping a half-empty spoon into the loaf, and pushing the protein out of sight. The streets back home abound with Faste Foud shops boasting meat-flavoured bread. Here you can eat your fill.
Perhaps it is the sight of a crowd of pedestrians standing on the sidewalk, actually waiting for the little green man to tell them when to cross. And the cars and buses, routinely stopping at red lights, then casually going on their merry way. Nobody here starts honking like a maniac to announce to drivers in front that the light has turned green. Go! Go! Go! There is none of that frenzied rush typical of third-world streets, the pushing for seats on a bus, the jumping of queues, the jaywalking. Above all there is direction. Everyone here is in a hurry too, but they have somewhere to go.
People here know when the bus is coming. If they get to work late it is genuinely their fault. They know exactly what day their pay will come in, what day the bills arrive, what time the shops open and close.
They shower every day, and brush their teeth after meals, don’t wear the same outfit (that includes socks!) two days in a row, don’t spit in the street, don’t take snuff, don’t litter. They are clean and they smell nice and their children don’t run around snotty-nosed playing with dirt on the street. Their children go to the park and the library.
Here, a cashier at a supermarket gets paid better than a doctor back home.
Your whole vision of the world revolves around this painful fact. Its blunt reality allows you to keep your head up when you’re neck-deep in other people’s waste. The plan is simple; work like a dog, don’t get distracted, and after ten years of saving you will be able to buy a home, back home. Take your mother and sisters out of the squalor of the dark, ground floor cave they occupy in the old city centre, in a building that is literally falling to pieces. Send them clothes, send them shoes, send them gifts of Cadbury’s and cosmetics. Send medication for your ailing aunt. Money for your struggling father. And wait for the divorce from middle-aged Nicola to come through so your mother can send you a Dalila, a Jamila, or a Wassila to keep your home and bear your children…..
Back on the boat, the shore is in sight now, but it is teeming with officers whose attention has been drawn to an approaching vessel filled with more of YOU. Twelve more to add to the 140, 000 already leeching off the tax payers, taking people’s jobs, breathing all the air.
There is nowhere to flee to but the water, so get ready to swim.