Burning the strait

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Can migration and literature be mutually generating ways of escaping reality? Is the paperlessness of undocumented migrants a liberation from constricting identity, or does it rather result in painful identity crises? How is the boat migrant represented in literature? This text looks into documentation, undocumentedness and escapism in three Moroccan novels about migration across the Strait of Gibraltar.

By Lise Olivarius • 2016


Yildiz Arslan
Yildiz Arslan

Of the tens of thousands of migrants who are estimated to have died worldwide en route to their destination since the year 2000, more than half of them drowned in the Mediterranean. That should hardly come as a surprise to anyone, and metaphors such as “cemetery” or “mass grave” for the Mediterranean have by now become clichés. During the last couple of years in particular, as their numbers have risen drastically, boat refugees have been a hot topic in European papers and parliaments. But it is not a new thing that people risk their lives on the unsafe journey across the troubled waters of the Mediterranean.

For a number of years, the Strait of Gibraltar – the narrowest part of the Mediterranean, where only fourteen kilometers of water separate Morocco and Spain, Africa and Europe – was the undisputed favorite route of the sea’s boat migrants. However, due to the EU’s upgraded border controls the Strait of Gibraltar has lost its great significance in the last couple of years – or rather, the narrow strait has turned into Europe’s bulwark instead of its threshold.

But from the beginning of the 1990s, when the EU’s migration policy began to settle into its present strict form and the number of undocumented migrants exploded as a result of declining opportunities for migrating legally to Fortress Europe, and well into the 2000s, the undocumented route to Europe more often than not went through the Strait of Gibraltar.

During those years, irregular migration across the strait also developed its own literature. This was mainly written in French by Moroccan authors, and I will refer to it here as hrig literature.

Hrig is the Maghrebi Arabic term for the illegalized migration across the Mediterranean. The original meaning is “burning”, referring to the common practice among migrants of burning their identity papers before departure to reduce the risk of getting deported if they are arrested in Europe. Derived from hrig, the migrants are called harragas, “burners”. “Burning the strait” has therefore become an idiomatic expression for the dangerous journey.

I’ll look into three hrig literary novels: Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Partir (2006), Mahi Binebine’s Cannibales (1999) and Youssouf Amine Elalamy’s Les clandestins (2000). Partir takes place partly in Tangier and partly in Barcelona in the late ’90s. The novel follows Azel and his sister Kenza, who both succeed in migrating to Spain. After many years of longing and one failed attempt to burn the strait, Azel unwillingly accepts a job offer that apparently entails becoming the lover of the wealthy Spaniard Miguel in order to enter Spain. Kenza joins him after a marriage of convenience with Miguel, and thus neither Azel nor Kenza are harragas. However, Azel’s status as a legal migrant is precarious and temporary. When he loses Miguel’s goodwill, he sinks into the undocumented underworld of boat migrants. Cannibales takes place on a cold, windswept beach on the Moroccan coast where seven boat migrants are huddled together waiting to cross the strait. The plot spreads over only one night, but a series of flashbacks unfold the background stories of the harragas. Les clandestins centers around a capsizing, throwing light on it from many different perspectives. A patera, a small wooden boat that was the preferred means of transport for harragas in the ’90s,[1] washes up on the beach near the Moroccan village of Bnidar along with thirteen drowned migrants.

That pretty burgundy passport: Identity papers and identity crises

The word hrig counterintuitively juxtaposes fire and water while hinting at the burning desire underlying the migrant’s drastic decision to risk their life to come to Europe – connotations often exploited in hrig literature. Not least, hrig emphasizes the great significance that documents and documentation have for the undocumented migrant.

If the harragas have been named for the destruction of their abject, African identity papers, the novels on the other hand describe them as characterized by their burning desire for new, European papers. In hrig literature, the undocumented migrant’s strong wish to be included in the European state’s protection, rights and privileges is expressed almost as a fetishism of the European documents – particularly “that pretty burgundy passport”, as Ben Jelloun puts it in Partir. Cannibales is set, among other locations, at Café France in Tangier, a café frequented by two very different groups of travelers: harragas and Western backpackers. The narrator Azzouz, who belongs to the former, far less privileged group, jealously fantasizes about the tourists’ passports:

“What a waste, don’t you think, all those red, blue, green, and maroon passports moldering in the pockets of all those ripped jeans. Ah, now if I’d have one, I’d have taken care of it, I’d have cosseted it, pressed it to my heart, I’d have hidden it somewhere the thieving and envious wouldn’t ever be able to find it, sewn it into my own skin, right in the middle of my chest, so I’d only have to unbutton my shirt to show it when I was crossing borders.”

Can the drowned speak?

None of Partir’s protagonists are harragas. The harraga figure is mainly represented by Azel’s cousin Noureddine, who is among the many unsuccessful boat migrants who have drowned in the attempt to cross the strait. He does not appear in the plot as such, however; only in flashbacks and, to top it off, mainly in Azel’s recollection of his dead body. The other named harraga character, Hamou, plays such a small role that he is barely a character: a coughing shadow huddled in a corner without any dialogue. Harragas hardly appear as characters, and when they do, they are voiceless, dead or dying. One could say that this is a realistic representation, and that the dead can never speak. Anyone telling their story will always be in a privileged position. Is it then possible to write about harragas without obliterating them? How to navigate between victimization and suppression? Les clandestins solves this unsolvable dilemma by making the drowned boat migrants narrators of the novel. The passengers on the patera are victims of hopeless, structural circumstances and, at the same time, complex characters with their own voices.

In Partir, too, the ghosts of drowned boat refugees float above the text from the beginning. The opening scene takes place at the legendary Café Hafa at the outermost tip of Tangier, overlooking the Spanish coast; a café where Western artists and bohemians used to meet when they flocked to the city in the mid-twentieth century.[2] Now, in the ’90s, the café is haunted by another kind of dreamer: boat migrants-to-be. Café Hafa becomes a space for the juxtaposition of fiction and migration that runs through the novel – often with undertones of warning against the deadly consequences of starry-eyed migrant reveries.

Identity loss and feminization

Unlike Partir, Cannibales and Les clandestins both have harragas as protagonists and narrators. Les clandestins lets varying narrators tell the story of the capsizing over and over again. Cannibales, which is less stylistically experimental, has only one narrator, young Azzouz. It is obvious to compare the protagonists of Partir and Cannibales. Azel and Azzouz are both young men and therefore both typical migrants and typical novelistic heroes. In fact, a young man on a journey is one of the most archetypical models of epic writing.[3] The numerous texts cast in this mold have undoubtedly contributed to the construction of the migrant as male. These narratives also play a role as a driving force for harragas, which becomes obvious when Azzouz imagines himself arriving in Spain as a classic, masculine adventurer: “I saw myself as a conquering hero at the prow, chest thrown out, ready to take on all the demons of the West. Once we were on dry land, I’d go and set the sultry hearts of the Andalusian women on fire.” Azel’s girlfriend Siham, who is also planning on migrating and has already crossed the strait once only to be deported, criticizes the fact that only men are included in these heroic tales of migration while migrant women are looked down upon and branded as whores. Like Azzouz, Azel is largely driven by a desire for masculinity. One of the main reasons for his migration is Morocco’s unemployment rate, which forces him, in the most emasculating fashion, to be supported by his sister. This emasculating unemployment as a driving force for the male migrant is expressed even clearer by Les clandestins’ Slimane, who must also suffer the humiliation of being supported by a woman, his wife: “No matter what you got hanging between your legs, you’re not a man if you’re out of work.” But what awaits Azel in Spain is anything but masculine rehabilitation. On the contrary, Partir describes migration as feminizing in the utmost.

Both Binebine and Elalamy quite realistically let all their harragas drown. In Partir, Azel and Kenza initially survive the journey across the strait, but they both suffer great losses in the wake of their migration – in Azel’s case, so great that they actually end up killing him. In Spain, Azel is thrown into a deep identity crisis, evidently mainly caused by the loss of masculinity he feels in being Miguel’s lover. When he leaves Miguel and becomes illegalized he also, mysteriously, becomes impotent, which deals further blows to his wounded ego.

Dreams of metamorphosis

When Azel is caught without documents by the police, he narrowly escapes the disgraceful deportation by becoming a police informant and infiltrating an Islamist group, who end up cutting his throat. (Incidentally, Kenza nearly doesn’t survive her migration either: she attempts to commit suicide after an ill-fated love affair). At first Azel cannot help feeling remorse over being an informant, but tellingly he clings to the dream of transformation, which is described as a powerful driving force for the migrant: “I’m going to transform myself, become someone else – that would be a good thing, after all: I’m changing from one person to another.” Ironically, his dream of transformation is inspired by Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which he, admittedly, has not read very closely. Azel’s misinterpretation is inadvertently spot-on: like Gregor Samsa he transforms himself into something unrecognizable and loathsome, a downright bodily alienation. Azel’s heartbreakingly optimistic misreading of Kafka is also a clue in the thread that, throughout the novel, warns hopeful migrants-to-be against being seduced by fictions. Partir, Cannibales and Les clandestins all present harragas as driven by myths and stories about the blissful hrig, which are very far from the reality that meets them on the sea or, if they get that far, in Europe. Partir especially describes the migrant as characterized by a lacking sense of reality, which has fatal consequences – and Ben Jelloun doesn’t shrink from spelling out this point.

The real transformations Azel goes through in Spain are feminization and infantilization; several times, he is described as a child. The feminization of the migrant, as well as the infantilization, is striking in all three texts. The typical migrant might be a man, but at the same time, he is not man enough.[4]

The migrant characters in all three texts dream of transforming themselves by happily shedding their old skins, but they instead end up going through painful identity losses. It is worth noting that each of the twelve male harragas in Les clandestins are called by nicknames, as if they already, before departure, lost the defining part of themselves: their names. In Cannibales, the human smuggler’s hearty henchman Morad also changes his name when he arrives in Paris, where he calls himself Momo. It is Morad/Momo who most ghoulishly illustrates both the migrant’s identity loss and the migrant’s desire for documents through the cannibalistic motif which gives the novel its title. In a recurrent nightmare, he dreams that his employer is eating him piece by piece in exchange for, among other things, a residence permit.

While all of the migrant characters in the three novels lose themselves in different ways, Partir’s Nâzim, Kenza’s Turkish lover, is the most obvious example of how the migrant must build up a new identity from scratch. Nâzim has fled from a gambling debt and now lives illegally in Barcelona. He lies to Kenza by omission, hiding the existence of his wife and children in Turkey, while he lies to them about having a successful career in Madrid.

Migrant figures in European discourses

But migrants must reinvent more than just themselves. According to Edward W. Said’s classic essay Reflections on Exile (2000), every exiled person must in some way reinvent their world – almost as if inventing a fictional universe. It is therefore not a coincidence, Said argues, that there is a large number of authors among exiles. In exile, one compensates for disorientation and powerlessness by creating and controlling one’s own fictional world. Said is not exactly blind to the fact that only certain, very privileged, forms of exile have traditionally been granted a voice in literature.

When his terminology of “exiles, refugees, expatriates and émigrés” still seems both outdated and limited (in terms of class), it is most of all because the figure of the illegalized migrant is missing. More adequate, up-to-date terms can be found in Serhat Karakayali and Enrica Rigo’s essay “Mapping the European Space of Circulation” (2010), in which they record a genealogy of the changing migrant figures that have dominated the public discourse in Europe since WWII. In the postwar period, the guest worker was the prototypical migrant in the European conception. Back then, immigrating to Europe for financial reasons was still considered legitimate, and through the ’60s and ’70s Morocco was a huge supplier of guest workers. Gradually, the figure of the guest worker was replaced by the politically persecuted refugee and the asylum seeker, characters that dominated discourses about migration until the beginning of the ’90s. Economic migration was increasingly frowned upon, and the seeds were sown for the presently prevailing discourses about migrants as welfare parasites. (Underpaid labor performed by illegalized migrants with minimal rights is still extremely profitable for the EU, though – a point rarely heard in the mainstream discourse about migration.)

Today, the illegal migrant is the dominant figure in European discourses about migration.[5] That is a real and material consequence of the common European (anti)migration policy, which has made it very difficult to migrate legally to the EU. However, this is not to say that undocumented migration did not take place before, including during the postwar era of guest workers. Karakayali and Rigo emphasize that these changing migrant figures are not ontological, but epistemological and discursive categories. As an example, people fleeing from Southern Europe’s fascist dictatorships to France, Belgium or Germany during the postwar period were considered guest workers, as that happened to be the paradigm legitimizing migration at that time. Later, people who fled from unemployment or poverty had to frame their story as an escape from political persecution.

From exile literature to migrant and migration literature

Similarly, historical changes between migration paradigms can be found in literature and literary criticism. Some critics operate with a development from exile literature to migrant literature. The term migrant literature was introduced in order to designate literature by authors who had come to Europe as a part of the mass migration in the second half of the twentieth century – an example is the German Gastarbeiterliteratur – and to distinguish them from the privileged, highly educated exiled authors such as Nabokov. The canonical literary exiles were often celebrated for their special role as observers of at least two different cultures[6] – including by Said in Reflections on Exile – often in ways which reproduced a binary logic between a foreign (Western) “here” and a romanticized homeland. The shift from exile to migrant challenges this binary logic by emphasizing movement, rootlessness and the mixing of cultures and languages. Already within the terms migrant and migration, without the prefixes im- or e-, lies a choice of focusing on the movement itself and its state instead of seeing it as a temporary interlude between two fixed points.

In the last few years, other critics have pointed out another paradigm shift, from migrant literature to migration literature. Where the label migrant literature implies a biographical requirement for the writer’s identity – and has been criticized for exoticizing and essentializing this migrant identity – the field of migration literature is defined by the genre and style of the texts.

The change from exile literature to migrant literature, and then to migration literature, indicates first of all a class shift from the production of a small, well-educated literary elite to a literature stemming from the mass migrations of our time. Secondly, it indicates a turn towards a greater focus on the movement itself: neither the immigration (seen from the perspective of the “receiving country”) nor the emigration (seen from the perspective of the “home country”) but the actual migration – seen from the perspective of the migrant. In other words, the autonomy of migration.

The autonomy of migration

The concept of the autonomy of migration is was popularized by Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson and Vassilis Tsiano’s influential 2008 work Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century. Since then, the term has had great significance in critical migration research. Understanding migration as autonomous is a matter of understanding it as a movement in more than one sense: as a political and social movement, rather than solely a reaction to economic and social privation and suppression, and thereby as more than a result of push and pull factors. Illegalized migrants in particular are often seen as completely at the mercy of their fate, with no notice given to how they play an active part in creating this fate. In contrast, the autonomy of migration emphasizes how migration is a constitutive force in the formation of sovereignty. The fact that migration is autonomous does not mean that it is detached from social, cultural or economic structures; it means that it is a creative force in the shaping of these structures.

Between powerlessness and vanguard projection

The concept of the autonomy of migration has gained footing as a much-needed alternative to state-centered migration theory, which analyzes migration from the perspective of power and which until recently dominated critical migration research. If critical or radical migration research and activism focused on governmental sovereignty and impenetrable borders, against which migrants stood powerless, discourses about migrant agency, on the other hand, were exclusively expressed from a right-wing, anti-immigration perspective: the migrant as wily Homo economicus or cunning criminal sneaking across borders to sponge on the benefits of the welfare state. The concept of the autonomy of migration makes it possible to move beyond the dichotomy of migrants as either objectified victims or criminal subjects.

The state- and power-centered approach to migration is often ascribed to the influential thinker Giorgio Agamben. The Agamben-inspired approach has been criticized for depriving the migrant of agency and autonomy as well as affirming the powerlessness of the migrant. Søren Rafn, however, has pointed out that Agamben’s text We Refugees (1993) offers a very different, empowering conceptualization of the refugee[7] as a vanguard figure with political potential. Agamben’s We Refugees is a reading of Hannah Arendt’s fifty-year-older, eponymous text, which emphasizes the Jewish refugee in particular as “the vanguard of their people”. The vanguard figure is characterized by a new historical awareness and an ability to rise above the patriotism and assimilation of the nation-state. At the same time, Arendt dissociates herself from another idea about the refugee as a vanguard figure: the Western, politicized notion of the heroic political refugee fleeing from communist totalitarianism because of their Western ideals (a concept that many have criticized as haunting the UN’s Refugee Convention). Today, the Other of the West is no longer Communism but Islamism. It is therefore Islamism, and increasingly also just Islam, which non-Western migrants are expected to explicitly disavow if they wish to be included in the rights of Western nation-states. In Partir, Azel appears as a parody of the vanguard refugee in this Arendtian sense when he becomes a police informant and infiltrates Islamist groups in Spain.

Building on Arendt, Agamben conceptualizes the refugee as a vanguard figure in a slightly different way: as the political border figure refusing to be assimilated as a citizen into any nation-state. This is where Rafn criticizes Agamben for projecting an idealized vanguard character onto the migrant. Is it really the migrant who refuses assimilation and citizenship? Has the migrant moved beyond wanting asylum, a residence permit, citizenship, rights, representation, and the other objects of desire which many migration theorists have rejected as reactionary?

The notion of the migrant as a vanguard figure – in both Agamben’s and Arendt’s sense – haunts theories about exile literature, and appears still in contemporary criticism of migrant and migration literature. This, what Rafn calls the vanguard projection, contrasts with the idea of the powerless migrant deprived of all agency. Theories about the autonomy of migration try to avoid these two extremes – but they still tend to lean towards the former. That is also the case with Escape Routes.

Imperceptible politics and the madness of migration

Escape Routes introduces the term imperceptible politics, which among other things is characterized by objectlessness. Thus, it is political practice that is an end in itself – not unlike hrig as represented in literature. Here, migration not only appears as a means – to wealth, success, freedom or other things – but strikingly also as an object of desire. Dreams of the journey itself are at least as prevalent as dreams of the destination. Azel’s “obsession with leaving the country someday” echoes in Azzouz’s description of how “the idea of leaving had stolen into my mind, monopolizing all my thoughts as it grew, like a virus that could wipe out all my dreams except one, the dream of departure.” Like Azzouz, Azel describes his “obsession” of crossing the strait in pathologized terms, as madness.

There is no doubt that Ben Jelloun, Binebine and Elalamy present the migration of the hrig as autonomous in the sense that the migrant’s desire for the movement in itself defies the logic of any push or pull factor. But hrig literature tends to represent migration as a contagious epidemic befalling hapless victims – a virus, in Azzouz’s words; a madness, in Azel’s – rather than as the subversive practice of active subjects.

Dis-identification: The eternal becoming of the migrant

Manuela Bojadžijev and Serhat Karakayali, who originally introduced the concept of the autonomy of migration,[8] warn against making the migrant a spearhead for social change – another guise of the vanguard projection. In the same vein, Escape Routes disavows “a heroic glorification of migrant ruses and tactics”. Yet theories about the autonomy of migration are often criticized for romanticizing migration. And despite the painstaking disclaimer, Escape Routes itself does not exactly steer clear of romanticization. That becomes obvious in the section that happens to deal directly with hrig. Escape Routes coins the term dis-identification to designate the radical anti-assimilationist and anti-identificatory potentials of the burning of the documents, on which great emphasis is placed. It verges on jubilant, celebrating harragas’ document burning as the absolute rejection of all wishes for identity or inclusion in any nation-state. Compared to the representation of hrig in the novels, the desire for European documents (and all of the rights and privileges they confer) is conspicuous by its absence. As pictured in Partir and Cannibales in particular, the harragas are characterized as much by their fervent desire for new European papers as they are defined by the burning of their old. In hrig literature, the harraga is by no means above striving towards citizenship and other forms of inclusion, representation and rights, which Escape Routes, between the lines, tends to write off as reactionary.

The granting of both rights and representation requires a firmly defined subjectivity – an identity – which according to Escape Routes is inconsistent with migration. On the contrary, migration is characterized by an eternal and never-ending becoming: “[T]he demands of migrants and the dynamics of migration cannot be exhausted in the quest for visibility and rights. This is because both visibility and rights function as differentiation markers, establishing a clear link between the person and his/her origins, the body and an identity. And this is precisely what migrants want to avoid […] What migrants really want is to become everybody, to become imperceptible.” What grates on the ear here is the three theorists’ cocksure proclamation of “what migrants really want”. Of course, Escape Routes supports its claim about the migrants’ desire for dis-identification with empirical examples. Several of the book’s informants change their names, a dis-identification strategy that, as mentioned, is used by migrants in both Les clandestins and Cannibales. Another central example of dis-identification is changing species: Escape Routes lists a number of examples of how migrants, either by themselves or by others, are associated with different animals in a so-called “voluntary dehumanization”.

Several animal metaphors occur in hrig literature; for instance, harragas are repeatedly compared with fish throughout Les clandestins. But the question is whether these are really a matter of “voluntary dehumanization”, or rather tactical attempts to avoid control out of necessity – or dehumanization forced on the migrants from above. Looking at hrig literature, I am inclined towards the latter answer. Here, migration does not entail a liberating and devil-may-care dis-identification, but rather a deeply painful identity loss that in most cases ends with death.

But what hrig literature does have in common with theories about the autonomy of migration is the presentation of the undocumented migrant as a purely negative identity. As mentioned previously, the disintegration of the migrant’s identity is striking in Partir, Cannibales and Les clandestins alike. Certain passages in Cannibales appear almost as manifestos for imperceptible politics and dis-identification as defined in Escape Routes, such as here:

“Perhaps we should have […] got[ten] into training for the future: learn how to become invisible, disappear into a crowd, hug the walls, avoid eye contact, speak only when spoken to, bury our pride and close our hearts to humiliation and insults […] learn to keep in the background, to be nobody: another shadow, a stray dog, a lowly earthworm, or even a cockroach. That’s it, yes, learn to be a cockroach.”

This positively sounds like an echo of Escape Routes’ conceptualization of escape as becoming: “The trope of becoming animal is only one of the tactics migrants employ in order to claim their freedom of movement. Becoming woman, becoming child, becoming elder, becoming soil, becoming fluid, becoming animal is the migrants’ answer to attempts to control their desire” (emphasis added). Indeed, in Les clandestins and Cannibales, harragas (metaphorically) turn into fish and vermin, dogs and cockroaches, respectively. As mentioned, Azel turns into a child in the sense that his migration infantilizes him and strips him of authority. And in fact he also turns into a woman, when Miguel forces him to dress up as an odalisque and perform for his guests. But Azel’s temporary drag is the exact opposite of “the migrants’ response to the attempt of controlling their desire”, as Escape Routes optimistically interprets the migrant’s gender change.[9] It is not Azel’s own desire that makes him a woman but, on the contrary, Miguel’s strongly exoticizing and almost parodically orientalist desire. Azel’s “becoming woman” is therefore diametrically opposed to Escape Routes’ optimistic concepts of migrant anti-identification: not subversive agency or strategic dis-identification, but the objectification, violation and identity loss of the migrant. Here, Partir could easily be criticized for being heteronormative. The question is, however, whether migrants can be expected to be above all normativity, whether it be gender identity or national and governmental rights. Who decides “what migrants really want”? And is it really “not to exist”, as Escape Routes proclaims? Escape Routes comes dangerously close to idealizing the invisibilization of the undocumented migrant as something akin to a magician’s disappearing act. Hrig literature rather depicts it as obliteration. Such is also the case in Les clandestins: the fish metaphor is not “[t]he trope of becoming animal” as “one of the tactics migrants employ in order to claim their freedom of movement”. On the contrary, it mimics the Western media’s objectification and dehumanization of the drowned boat migrants.

Hrig literature, on the other hand, can be criticized for being too conservative and too “victimizing”. Not least Partir appears in certain passages as a cautionary tale warning impressionable youth against the dangers of migration. But even though dis-identification is mainly presented as loss in Partir, Cannibales and Les clandestins, the characters are not only victims of identity crisis, suppression and drowning. They also embody the creative force of the escape brought forth in theories about the autonomy of migration.

Imperceptible politics is driven by fiction and imagination, and in hrig literature, fiction and migration are two sides of the same escapist coin.

Fiction, migration and escapism

Partir, Cannibales and Les clandestins present migration as a driving force behind fiction and, at the same time, different kinds of fictions as driving forces behind migration. The characters are not writers, but they still, in different ways, invent their own fictional universes. In all three texts, the migrant characters are distinguished by their escapist daydreams and vivid imaginations. Migration seems to be not only an escape from poverty, persecution or hopelessness, but also an escape from reality itself. In the dreamlike passage in the final chapter of Partir, which breaks with the realism of the rest of the novel, the character Flaubert fantasizes about disappearing into a novel. The name Flaubert broadly hints at the connection between the migrant and the writer, as does Nâzim, who is named after the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet. The only kinds of fiction Nâzim creates, however, are the many lies he is forced to tell about himself. Nâzim’s tragic story makes it clear that the migrant is at least as much a fictional character as a writer.

In his own way, Azzouz takes on a role of writer. His beloved teacher, the motherly Sœur Bénédicte, introduces him to classic French novels and makes him summarize them. When Azzouz doesn’t finish a book in time, he ingeniously makes up a new ending. Later, he invents background stories for the other harragas. At the same time, he explicitly declines the role of writer:

”But I’m making things up; it’s a habit of mine. Sister Bénédicte used to say I had an unbridled imagination, that one day I’d be a writer. To write what, sister? Describe what? Poverty? People don’t want to hear about that, let alone pay to have it shoved in their faces.”

If Azzouz finds the North African reality too bleak to write about, he conversely imagines Europe as a paradise. Of course, Europe turns out to be a paradise for the boat migrants only in the sense that it is a land of the dead. In different ways, the three novels appear as cautionary tales against the alluring fictions and dreams that make starry-eyed harragas lose contact with reality and burn the strait, their heads in the clouds.

Yildiz Arslan
Yildiz Arslan

Alluring fictions and loss of reality: Literature as migration

Partir blames fiction in many ways for the distortion of reality. Firstly, fiction in the sense of tales of the promised Europe and the general bliss of migration; myths thriving among hopeful migrants and lies spread by human smugglers. Secondly, fiction in the sense of literature, particularly novels, which play an astonishingly big part as a catalyst for the characters’ migration. As mentioned, Azel’s hope of being reborn in his migration is inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis, albeit a misunderstanding of it. Just as Kafka has kindled Azel’s desire to burn the strait, literature has turned Kenza’s head:

“She had an exalted idea of love […] described so tellingly in the films and novels she had adored. She remembered in particular The Alexandria Quartet […]; Gone with the Wind and The Lady of the Camellias had deeply moved her as well […]. And it was also how she had realized that she would not find such a love in Morocco.”

Thus, it is novels that have convinced Kenza of the necessity of migrating. Partir further points to the significance of fiction by conjuring up no less than two of the most famous characters in literary history, both known for suffering from reality loss caused by excessive reading. One is Don Quixote, the other Madame Bovary. The latter, however, is only evoked as a ghostly gleam through the name of her author, Flaubert, which is also the name of a character in Partir. Both Flaubert and Don Quixote are on board the dream ship Toutia sailing back to Morocco from Spain in the novel’s final chapter, Revenir. Interestingly, they both travel without documents. What every harraga dreams of, and what fails fatally in so many cases – crossing the Mediterranean without documents – the two literary ghosts succeed at without further ado. Critics of hrig literature have suggested that these texts do exactly what many harragas cannot: cross borders. In this vein, Flaubert directly compares the ship with a novel.

Of course, it is a good thing that Western readers are introduced to the trials of boat migrants in the guise of novels, but this point about hrig literature as successful migration in the harragas’ stead is rather too jubilant. No matter how well novels about hrig sell in Europe, they do not get more people across the Mediterranean alive. It is worth noting which literary characters succeed in crossing the Mediterranean, and the direction in which they travel. Don Quixote and Flaubert, who represent a Spanish and a French classic respectively and thereby both former colonial powers of Morocco, travel from Europe to Africa. That strongly indicates the special kind of migration known as colonialism. It is a well-known postcolonial point that the former colonies are still subjected to cultural imperialism by the former imperial powers. Postcolonial readers must still settle for a Eurocentric canon, much of which is produced by former colonialists. Azzouz only reads French novels in the convent school, and Azel and Kenza’s fatal aspirations of migrating are inspired by Western literature in whose characters they find splintered and distorted mirror images – perhaps for lack of more suitable reflections and role models in literature. This lack, on the other hand, is something that hrig literature can make up for.

Media critique and documentation

One of Les clandestins’ harragas, Jaafar, is known as Houlioud: Hollywood pronounced in sneering Arabic, after his native slum district. With scathing irony, the name not only connotes wealth and success, but also glossy, grandiose narratives with happy endings. The final sentence of the text explicitly negates such a Hollywood ending: “And if there’s no music, and no drumroll to accompany all this, no screen and no ticket either, it’s in order to say that for all those drowned souls on the sand, say what you will, this isn’t Hollywood.” The varying narrators repeatedly emphasize that it is not a movie we are dealing with. Where Cannibales and Partir present various kinds of fiction as driving forces behind migration, Les clandestins takes great pains to burst all bubbles of fiction. The first chapter does start out as a traditional fairy tale: “Once there was a little girl.” But it ends with a negation of the fairytale: “They didn’t get married, they didn’t live happily ever after.”

Of course, there is no denying that Les clandestins obviously is fiction. But through different poetic devices, the novel at the same time dissociates itself from the fictitious and incorporates features of a more documentary kind. The language is larded with half-finished sentences and torrents of speech without punctuation. The many changing narrators with their diverse and colloquial voices make large parts of the text seem like transcriptions of testimonies. In its entirety, the novel appears as a scrupulous piece of documentation of the capsizing, somewhere between a news report, a police report and an anthropological survey.

If Les clandestins is an attempt to document hrig, it could be in order to make up for the news media’s suppression or distortion of the phenomenon. Media coverage is directly thematized and criticized. In the Moroccan media, the thirteen drowned harragas are reduced to “two careless swimmers”. This gross misrepresentation suggests that we are in the early years of the hrig – the late ’80s or early ’90s – when Moroccan media tried to play down illegalized emigration as much as possible. Later, the media strategy shifted to deterring boat migrants-to-be with graphic pictures of drowned harragas and focusing on successful government steps to curb the hrig.[10] In Partir, which takes place in the late ’90s, we get a glimpse of the government’s use of media in such anti-hrig scare campaigns.

In the European media, there has never been a lack of stories about boat migrants on the Mediterranean, and they have often been angled from an EU border security perspective. One of the many ways in which Les clandestins tells the story about the capsized boat is through the European media, or more precisely through the lens of the Spanish photographer Alvaro. As matter-of-fact as a telegram he lists the macabre photographs. Alvaro’s pictures represent the extreme reduction of harragas to dead objects and, at the same time, expose the European exoticization and objectification of African refugees.

Reluctant voices and mimicking the media discourse

Les clandestins insists on its own insufficiency and repeatedly points out what it cannot put into words. Several of the narrators search in vain for words, what also contributes to the novel’s feel of colloquial authenticity and transcribed testimony. The smuggler character gets airtime in a single chapter, but quickly disqualifies himself as a narrator: “I’d have some stories to tell […] The thing is, I don’t get paid to tell stories, just to make the crossing.” The omniscient narrator, too, must give up on telling stories. The text begins reluctantly with a narrative admission of failure: “Once there was a little girl whose eyes I can’t begin to put in words and whose smile, well, I suppose I could try. But how to begin? […] I can’t put it into words, some other time, maybe.”

Another way in which Les clandestins thematizes (the impossibility of) representation of hrig is by mimicking the media discourse and employing one of the tritest journalistic metaphors for boat migrants: fish. European journalists favor fish metaphors when describing boat migration. Les clandestins repeatedly compares the migrants with fish, but it also reappropriates the dehumanizing cliché in a way that restore the migrants’ humanity: “scattered about the sand, a strange kettle of fish. Fish so big they might have been human, God forbid, they look human, dear God, like people, they are people! And oh my God, they’re our people!”

Partir incorporates a media-critical thread as well. Several of the characters grumble in passing about the newspapers. But it is the oracle-wise madman Moha who provides the clearest media critique. At a café in Tangier, he sets a newspaper on fire with a nod to the harragas’ document burning, and thereby conflates the two kinds of documentation that play such major parts in hrig literature: documentation in the sense of identity papers, and documentation in the sense of testimony.

In frustration, Moha burns the newspaper because of its lies about the government’s successful curtailing of emigration and unemployment. Interestingly, he accuses the content of being fictitious. When newspapers become fiction, perhaps literature must become documentation.

Testimonies of undocumented death

When newspapers become fiction, literature must become documentation. Even though Les clandestins is painfully aware of its own insufficiency, it is – just like Partir and Cannibales – irrefutably a form of documentation of the underexposed or misrepresented phenomenon of hrig. I would venture calling hrig literature a branch of testimonial literature: fiction bearing testimony to the undocumented boat migrants and documenting their undocumented deaths.
Harragas are undocumented both legally and in terms of representation: they are paperless, and they are under- or misrepresented in different discourses. Both kinds of documentation – identity papers and representation – help constitute what counts as human. Hrig literature cannot do much about the former kind of undocumentedness, but it can resist suppression and distortion by writing alternative, nuanced stories about harragas. Hrig literature’s peculiar, sorrowful mode of documentation of the undocumented migrants’ deaths moves in the border zone of the obituary or the elegy. Thus, the literary representation of the migrant can contribute to making the migrant grievable and thereby human. And in these times, it is imperative – more than ever before – to look critically at the representation of the migrant figure.

This text is an abridged and adapted version of the master thesis At brænde strædet, University of Copenhagen 2015


1 Later, pateras were replaced by zodiacs, slightly larger inflatable dinghies.

2 Café Hafa was visited by Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Truman Capote and Jean Genet, among others.

3 It is also a Russian formalistic point, which Vladimir Propp presents in his analyses of folktales.

4 In Les clandestins, the harraga character is also infantilized. When the boat capsizes – a scene written in dialogue – one of the passengers repeatedly cries for his mother.

5 Possibly overshadowed by the refugee during the so-called refugee crisis.

6 Another great postcolonial thinker, Homi K. Bhabha, makes a similar point in The Location of Culture: “the truest eye may now belong to the migrant’s double vision” – although this is in regard to Salman Rushdie, who is considered a migrant writer rather than an exile writer.

7 Here it is fruitful to understand “refugee” as a broader term including various types of migrants beyond the narrow legal definition.

8 In “Autonomie der Migration: 10 Thesen zu einer Methode” (2007)

Incidentally, it is worth noting that apparently Escape Routes can only imagine the gender transition from the perspective of the cisman: “becoming woman”, not “becoming man”.

10 The Moroccan authorities’ attempts to curb hrig are largely grandstanding, however, with their primary goal to make friends with the EU. In reality, the Moroccan state has financial interests in emigration to Europe, as remittances constitute a considerable source of income.


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