19 April 2011

Free like the wind. The borders of modernity called Ventimiglia

Milud’s hands are wounded. Sitting at a table at the bar next to the railway station, he stirs his coffee and can’t stop laughing. He tells us about last night’s misadventures with the French Gendarmerie, who caught him without documents on a train to Nice, but didn’t manage to prevent him from escaping and returning to Ventimiglia on foot along the train tracks. He hurt himself while he was passing through the two tunnels. Fumbling in the pitch darkness, he kept on tumbling and falling on every other step, whilst at the same time risking to be run over by a train. For him as for all the others, today is the deadline for submitting the request for the temporary permits of stay, which last 6 months. These are provided for all the Tunisians who have arrived at Lampedusa between the 1st January and 5th April. But most probably Milud will be excluded by this process. At the police station in Ventimiglia they told him to go to the police headquarters of Savona. But he has no idea where Savona is and no money in his pocket for the ticket to get there. Unlike the others, he has no one in France to help him out. Nevertheless this doesn’t seem to worry him. Perhaps his 18 years of age aren’t enough to make him fully aware of the crude reality that is awaiting him. But they surely suffice to make him feel free, for having achieved what a whole generation in Tunisia has been dreaming of doing for years: travelling in Europe.

Sometimes there are insufficient words to describe this sense of freedom. So Imad Balhadj borrows them from the most beloved Tunisian poet: Abu-l-Qasim Chebbi. I had often heard his “Will to live” (1933) being recited in the squares of the revolution in Tunis and in Cairo. But Imad declaims another one, “To my mother’s son” (1929). In these verses he finds the words to explain the happiness that transpires in his eyes under the sun of this beautiful day in Ventimiglia.

“ You were born free like a sigh in the wind
free like the morning light in the sky

Why then do you yield to the humiliation of the chains
and you lower your head before those who chained you?”

Despite feeling completely uncertain about the future, Imad feels free.
Free and liberated, “like the morning light in the sky”, “ like a bird in the wind”.
From his lips, these words resound with greater emphasis. Because, before leaving, Imad attended the faculty of mechanical engineering at the university of Sidi Bouzid, the martyr town of Mohamed Bouazizi, the packman who, by immolating himself with fire on 17th December, started off the events that brought to the downfall of Ben Ali’s regime.

“Look at the birds – he says – they travel without passports. Look at the sunlight, nobody can stop it. We Tunisians are like the sunlight, we are like the birds in the wind, there are no borders, nor police that will stop us. It’s Chebbi, the poet who tells us this, you are born free, go where you wish to go”.

While Imad talks, Mr Brahim links arms with him and looks at him with affection. They represent two generations in comparison with one another. Brahim is 45 years old and could be Imad’s father. They arrived at Lampedusa on the same boat, with other 30 passengers, all of which are neighbours from the same district of Bir Ali Ben Khalifa, a small town of 5.000 inhabitants in the province of Sfax.
“These guys aren’t afraid anymore”, Mr Brahim says simply and proudly. “They have only known Ben Ali’s dictatorship: you prayed and you went to jail, you drank and you went to jail all the same. But they have rebelled and now they want freedom. We have grown old in the dictatorship, but these boys haven’t! They and my three children have to live in freedom now.”

Freedom. Brahim, called the gangster, wrote it in Arabic, English and French on a sign during Sunday’s protest in front of the station of Ventimiglia.“Freedom, Hurriya, Liberté”. And on the background he drew the sea and a boat, “feluca”, how they say it in Arabic. Otherwise “babour”, which comes from the Italian word vaporetto (streamboat). As soon as I pronounce the word, Hamza and Aymen start off singing the refrain of Partir Loin, the harraga’s song, "Yal babour ya mon amour, kherrijni min la misère", boat my love take me away from misery.

They have sung it for years. And now the dream has come true. There’s still time to wake up and discover that this isn’t paradise. For the time being what matters most is the feeling of happiness for having made it. France is ahead of them, and this is their greatest achievement.

Nizar agrees completely. Considering the fact that a border keeps him away from his father since he was born, in 1986. For 25 years he got used to seeing him once a year, in summer, when his father would take some time off the job he has in France. Now he has come to visit him. He didn’t tell him anything about his boat journey until he arrived in Italy. For sure his father would have disagreed, fearing he would die at sea.
That day he went to the post office and withdrew all the savings from his account. Half of his friends left from his own town, Kef. All on the same boat. There’s his cousin Abderrahim, an economics student at university and a midfielder of Janduba’s football team. There are Naim and Ayman, who had to shut down the garage where they used to work as mechanics. And Issam, the grocer of the neighbourhood.

I take the 10:47 train to Nice with them: Nizar, Abderrahim and Issam.
At the first station beyond the border in France, at Menton, three agents from the French Gendarmerie come on the train. But in the end there are no problems. Clearly the instructions are to allow the ones who have the Italian permit of stay to pass. Which means that apart from the vitriolic statements between Italy and France, the border is in fact open.

Our journey continues till Nice. From there Nizar and Abderrahim follow on to Lyon. For Issam instead, there is still a long way to go. His brother is waiting for him in Paris. It’s almost over now, the worst has passed. It will soon pass also for Burhan.

He arrived today in Ventimiglia from Naples. With a degree in economics and red eyes due to the lack of sleep. But his weariness isn’t just physical. “My head is heavy – he says – since I’ve arrived I haven’t felt myself. If I knew it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have left.”
For this reason he tells his brother who stayed in Tunis not to leave.

On the other hand he tells his wife not to worry. She remained at home alone, with their 18 months old daughter. His father instead is on the other side of the border, in Nimes. He has lived in France for twenty years, and has grown old at the age of 60 after having spent all his life working in the fields. He now deserves to rest. Burhan instead is anxious to feel responsible for himself and for his own family. Like the others, he also believes in the revolution, but he doesn’t have time to wait for the results of this change. For this he went to work in Libya seven months ago. But Tripoli has become a hell due to the war. So here he is. Once again, in search for his place in the world.
Instead of Chebbi he prefers quoting Hamlet: to be or not to be.

Burhan’s maturity, Milud’s recklessness, Imad’s sensitivity, Mr Brahim’s paternal sentiment, and the euphoria felt by the young group from Kef – Nizar, Abderrahim, Naim, Aymen, Hamza, the other Aymen and Issam – have precisely this in common. Hamlet. To be or not to be.
To be traveling in order to be, in order to become. To choose who to be, to change one’s own destiny. This is what we call modernity.

After all, Pico della Mirandola had already written this in 1400. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man he reinterpreted the genesis creation narrative in humanistic perspective, and he had his god telling Adam:
“I didn’t make you celestial or terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that you, almost as a free and sovereign creator of yourself, could mold and sculpt your own destiny in the shape you would choose.”
This is modernity. The will to be beyond one’s self, outside one’s self, to mold like a sculptor one’s own life and identity. So Burhan, Milud and the others are modernity by definition. Those who chose to change their own fate, their own destiny. Through a rebellious and revolutionary act. By burning a border, harraga, as they say in Arabic.

In 2011 mobility is an unavoidable part of the dimension of modernity. Especially for us, young people. To such an extent that in Europe we invest several million euros in the Erasmus programme because we wish that our students travel as much as possible, and get used to being citizens of the world. The same values are circulating on the opposite shore of this sea. Perhaps even stronger. Since almost every family, as the stories demonstrate, has a relative in Europe, and therefore a bond. To recognize the freedom of movement means also to recognize this: there is no need to be a labourer or a refugee in order to move from one side of the world to the other. It’s sufficient to be children of our times to feel the need to leave and become someone different. To recognize that, in the end, within our great diversity we are very similar to one another, is to recognize that there aren’t civilised people nor barbaric people. And that we all inhabit the same modernity.

It is profoundly unfair that the young people from the southern shore leave and die at sea in order to visit their parents in Paris. While, with our red passports, we grumble for five minutes wasted in queues at the passport control desks at the airport of Tunis.

translated by Alexandra D'Onofrio