The Mediterranean, A Great Area of Migration and Exile

Mohamed Choukri


The Mediterranean is, today, a space of exile and migration whose future depends largely on the management of this unfortunate reality. The men and women who cross the sea to reach the north shore head towards their own death, real or metaphorical. Equipped only with hope, fascinated by the consumer society and opulence of the West, they find themselves received by societies suffering from a serious loss of values. Indeed, the countries of the north try to find solutions to their problems based on a profoundly materialist model, when they should turn to Mediterranean humanist thought. In this respect, writers and intellectuals play an important role, which starts with the use of the language as a refuge. Writing can thus develop the capacity of we Mediterraneans to confront the danger that threatens our shores.

Those who have read my autobiography, For Bread Alone, know that I am a child of immigration. It was in the 1940s. My homeland, the Riff, suffered a terrible drought. My family, like all the others, was driven to the road by hunger and scarcity of resources. They followed the road to exile, some to Oran, others to the northern part of Morocco, especially to Tangiers. From Beni Chiker, a village close to the city of Melilla, we took with us our only possession: Riffian, our language. I was seven when I arrived in Tangiers, the ‘Paradise’ of the time. And when I wanted to play with other children in the suburb where my parents had put up their shack, I was turned away: “Get out of here, child of famine”; “Clear off! Get out! Riff-raff!”. Is cruelty natural in children? In any event, it is very effective.

In the same suburb lived Andalusian gypsies, as marginalized as ourselves, from the Riff, but with a less precarious status than ours. They had been there for a long time. They earned their living sometimes by doing manual work, other times by thieving. Their children accepted me and treated me as one of them. I often added my strength to theirs in attacking the other children of the suburb, the most violent, the Moroccans. Children speak above all with body language, but those Andalusian gypsy children taught me not only to defend myself, but also to speak my first words in Spanish. That is how I learned Spanish before the Moroccan dialect: my language of exile.

Today, the Mediterranean is still an area of exile and migration. Hunger is not so prominent as it was in the past, but it has given way to its corollaries: economic stagnation, high unemployment, ecological disasters, ethnic war, all vectors of the same inhuman effect, and all sources of destabilization. These factors are part of the origin of the mass movements of populations, frequently uncontrolled, in a geography disturbed by ancient and modern history and by ideologies and economic systems.  So that it is difficult to speak today of the future of the Mediterranean without coming up against this fateful reality. The current scenario is sombre, almost apocalyptic. Even today, I find myself bound, morally and humanly, to denounce the phenomena of the wetbacks and the death boats (pateras – small open motorboats).

Immigration has changed its face: it has become silent and deadly. If immigration was, in the past, an initiation trial which accentuated the humanism of the person, enabling him to move from a state of indigence to a state of richness, it has now become an antechamber to death, real or metaphorical. To be a candidate for emigration is to be a candidate for death. Driven out by need and drought, thrown into the arms of fate, the immigrant carries nothing with him but a ray of hope and a frightened breath of dignity. I know about the errant life. I too have been persecuted by children and old people, but it was given to me to learn the language of my persecutors. It is true that I tried to cover up my accent to hide my undesirable origins in a society that despised the people from the Riff. But I ended up by triumphing over this structured and powerful language, clear and foreign. I submitted it to my rule. I conquered it.  

The consumer society, the opulence of the West, and the myth of democracy have all exercised an unequalled fascination over the poor of the third world

What does the immigrant of today have to boast about? And to whom? We are actually watching a loss of moral values, provoked all around by the explosion of the societies that produced them.  The south coast has also accepted the philosophy that time is money. It tries by all possible means to take on utilitarian ideas and Cartesian logic. It encourages strong economic groups. It parks its marginal people in peripheral areas. And all this produces the consequence that the young people, both men and women, dream of another land and another life. It happens that it is just those least touched by the virus of failure who most decide to emigrate. It happens that just opposite them, at the limit of their vision, glimmers a more clement land, or so they believe, the land of the north coast. They long for it. They desire it. They caress it. They yearn to become a part of it, whatever it may cost. 

Onward then, to annihilation. The Spanish coast can be reached from Tangiers in less than an hour.  The transport agent charges dearly anyone who wants to go in search of this dream. Thousands of dirhams. A sum often difficult to find. These modern Ulysses do not always return from their adventures. The Gods of Olympus also emigrated. The abyss that separates the rich countries from the poor is deeper than ever. The consumer society, the opulence of the West, and the myth of democracy have all exercised an unequalled fascination over the poor of the third world. In the ex-communist countries, thousands of people had their suitcases ready packed, nurturing an apparent hope of going to the rich land of Europe. In my country, hundreds of clandestine emigrants attempt to cross the Straits every day, risking their lives in tiny boats. In their determination in the search for the promised land they are courting death. Italy too is familiar with this problem. Europe currently watches the phenomenon with anguish. It sees its citadel assailed on all sides and to protect itself it tries (wishes) to make its borders into an unchallengeable fortress. The iron curtain has become a sand curtain. What does opulent Europe want, if not to safeguard its wealth?

In the Mediterranean the situation is schizophrenic. The countries, divided geographically and psychologically, seek technological solutions to cultural and social problems from a northern and materialistic model, with the intuition that the solutions cannot be other than intellectual, and they adopt inadequate strategies. But the response to all our questions can be found in the Mediterranean and Orientalist thought of our humanists. The Odyssey of Ulysses can serve as a model. This hero who sailed the seas, travelling for ten years in search of truth, was an emigrant whom Ithaca saw return calmed by profound humanist wisdom, thanks to his long voyage. I was Ulysses, at one time in my life. Have I ceased to be him? I have made a journey like his. I am travelling still.  My setting for adventure is a writing space.  Writing is my mother. My trials are of an intellectual order.  

Ulysses was an emigrant whom Ithaca saw return calmed by profound humanist wisdom, thanks to his long voyage

I recall that my mother made me speak Riffian and forbade me from speaking any other language but that. Born in the Riff, I must continue to speak the language of my homeland, she said. Death freed my brother Abdelkader from this war. For my other brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of exile, this battle did not affect them. They were free to use the language of their ancestors or that of the land in which they were born.  

As many will undoubtedly know, I did not learn to read or write until I was twenty. To learn a language not my own and possess it was a trial, a challenge, before it became a profession. I learned classical Arabic with the limits that are natural to one who is self-taught. But I succeeded in becoming a teacher of it in primary and secondary schools. I have been able to write books thanks to this language, a silent but still living nostalgia that ties me to the shore of my maternal language and is only appeased through its use. I am only an adoptive child in all the languages that I use to speak or write, even the language of the Prophet: I cannot fill the vacuum caused by the absence of my first language, the one of which I was dispossessed.  

In exile, where all languages are valuable, I have made Arabic an instrument in communicating with the society in which I live. I do not regret having learned Arabic and having written all my books in Arabic, and I would go as far as to say that I feel privileged in comparison with my compatriots who use other languages different from those of their homeland and are treated as ingrates and renegades in spite of their talents.  

Do not tell me that this judgement is anachronistic. Let us take, for example, the Berber poet who wrote his poems in sublime French but nevertheless always dreamed of writing them in Arabic. He recognised this language as superior. He was the only one who remembered it as he had learned it in the Koranic school. Mohamed Kheireddine died without being able to command that pure and great Arabic language. So, what is writing? What is expression? Imagine a language in hibernation. Imagine a man who tries to use this language to express himself. Such is my situation facing this language which is foreign to me.

They say that he who finds refuge in a language not his own is better able to command it. He perfects it better than the natives. Such is the case of Conrad, Beckett, Nabokov, Ionesco and Jubrane Khalil Jubrane. Why? The only thing that I can say is that writing has its secrets, its mysteries, which cannot be penetrated easily: they possess us and we feel possessed by them. Today my language is the one that enables me to write, and Riffian has ended up as nostalgia and a dream.

For the child of immigration, for the lover of writing, for the self-taught who has not ceased to submerge himself in the nostalgia of a dream, the Mediterranean is a sea, a voyage, an initiation dream, the land of Humanism, the crucible of civilizations. But no civilization is the product of chance. It is a long process of humanization. It does not matter which tribe may possess a culture: can we also speak of civilization? The peoples of the Mediterranean have always lived in cities; Alexandria, Carthage, Athens, Rome, Tangiers. They have forged a civilization and it is due to this that I am convinced of the force of perception, of this intellectual capacity of the Mediterranean people to confront the danger that threatens our shores, cultures and people with our persistence in blindly following the northern model.  

The northern model, utilitarian and rationalist, is useful when seeking to organise work or to optimise yield; but it falls to the humanism of the old Mediterranean cultures to complete the northern model, to breathe into it human values. I think that to overcome the current danger it does no good to put the blame on religion or race; after all it is man who interprets the books and it is from his acts that the ambiguity springs. It is essential to go back to the foundation of cultures, to the humanism that was born in the Mediterranean. It is the only way of humanising the consumer societies.  

Sometimes, with little, one can find enough.