Tommy Wieringa – The Death of Murat Idrissi
SO IT BEGINS

 

In the deepness of time. The calm breathing of millions of years. An inland sea falls dry, evaporates beneath the blazing sun; the basin becomes a wasteland of salt. Sol Invictus. The searing heat of the deep desert – rain evaporates before it hits the ground, a fine mineral spray settles on the earth’s surface.

And then, at the end of that silent, motionless epoch – there is no one to witness the wonder of the continent’s tectonic fracture –  a breach opens between the Atlantic and what will become the Mediterranean Sea. Foaming and churning, the water breaks through the rift and descends on the saline desert, the waters rise a few meters each day.

First the basin fills from Gibraltar to Sicily, then comes the eastern part, to the coasts of Turkey and the Levant.

The birth of the sea in the middle of the earth. Mare Nostrum. Yam Gadol. Akdeniz. Cragged mountaintops stick out like islands.

The crack between the Eurasian and African plates is but a scratch in the Earth’s crust, still it divides the continents resolutely. Here is here and there is there.

From the flank of her mountain, the Neanderthal woman whose bones will be found one day in a cave on the Rock of Gibraltar can see the mountain on the far side: Jebel Musa, shimmering in the light. Does she see signs of human life there? Pillars of smoke on the horizon? Does she have thoughts about the other?

The life there does not impinge on hers. Too far away.

 

Sixty kilometers long is the Strait of Gibraltar, at its narrowest only fourteen wide. Dreaded by sailors. Sandbanks, headlands, reefs, the treacherous Boreas. The fog that drops in suddenly, obscuring the far shore.

Rising up on both sides, the Pillars of Hercules: the Rock of Gibraltar in Europe and Jebel Musa in Africa. Marking the end of the world. So far, and no further. He who ventures past this point becomes lost in the mist beyond.

More water dissipates from the Mediterranean than the Nile, the Rhone and other rivers can replenish; there is a huge influx from the Atlantic. At the same time, through the Strait an undercurrent of heavy, saline water slips back into the ocean.

Current, countercurrent, wind, contrary wind; it rages between the mountains on both sides of the strait. All you can do is brace yourself and pray to be saved.

 

 

Six thousand years ago, not far from Gibraltar, on a rock close to Jimena de Frontera, someone drew an ochre-colored ship;  it has a sail, oars are sticking from the gunwale. It is the world’s oldest depiction of a sailing ship. Perhaps the ship was used for fishing along the coast, perhaps for traffic between Europe and Africa – though no evidence exists for such early traffic between the continents.

For a Bronze-Age vessel, the route from Spain to Morocco would have been a risky enough enterprise; a venture from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic would have meant its certain demise. The end of the world is the death by drowning that awaits you there.

Still, someone was the first to get past the Strait of Gibraltar. Steely waves below him, their cold gleam. The sea of monsters and sunken empires. The ocean without an other side.

The captain’s name has been lost to time. A Cretan, blown by the storm? Or else a Phoenician, shipwrecked in the mist? A current under sea picked his bones in whispers…

Galley men at their oars, the Phoenicians row past the Pillars, against the Atlantic current. They establish the trading post of Mogador on the African coast and the colony of Gadir at the mouth of the Spanish Guadalquivir. The Carthaginian explorer Hanno makes it to the Gulf of Guinea, and returns home with stories of burning mountains and women covered in fur.

Herodotus reports that the Phoenicians have rounded Africa, with as footnote: “something I cannot believe, but perhaps another may.”

 

In 711 after Christ, General Tariq ibn Ziyad crosses to Europe at the head of seven thousand Berber soldiers, to conquer the land of the Visigoths. The current drags at his ships. Rough swells, waves roll solidly, barely fluid, beneath the fleet of feluccas; row after row are smashed upon the arid coastline. He lands at the beaches by Gibraltar, the rock that will bear his name: Jabal Tariq.

The wind beats at your ears and silences your thoughts. You want to hide from it, from the chill levanter blowing through the funnel of the strait.

Navigational instruments improve, and in the Middle Ages there appear portolan charts, showing every shallows and every headland around the Mediterranean;, the Strait of Gibraltar, however, is still shunned like the plague. Captain’s charts and nautical almanacs may be reliable, but current, wind and sudden mist are not.

 

After the Moors are driven out of Europe, British and Dutch merchants begin appearing in the Strait as from the 16th century – flapping above the harborfronts of the Mediterranean one sees not only the Venetian lion, the Genoan cross and Ottoman crescent, but also the Union Jack and the tri-color of the Republic.

The inland sea becomes a European sea. Shipyards everywhere, countless vessels raise anchor, triumph, are sunk or destroyed by storms. Just as one cannot feature all those beautiful horses devoured by the ogre of war, neither can one fathom the ships that go down, the shattered galleys, caravels, galleons and windjammers – the seabed waits for them patiently.

With the help of the Dutch, the British conquer the Rock of Gibraltar in 1704 and never relinquish it again. Napoleon, Mussolini and generalissimo Franco stare at it till their eyes water; stoically, the British hunker down further into their rock.

After the Second World War – twenty-seven submarines alone are sent to the bottom of the Strait – the merchant ships return. Cruise ships follow. A tinkling glass of gin and tonic in hand – “Easy on the t, please…” – the passengers roll through the Pillars of Hercules and then on past the ruins of Carthage, Troy and Knossos.

Gibraltar is unsuited for mass tourism, although the Rock itself is an attraction and the conditions at Tarifa a drawing card for windsurfers. In spring and autumn, the Strait is a corridor for migratory birds – tourists from around the world stand oohing and ahing from behind their binoculars and tele-lenses.

On the far side, along the African coast, migrants from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa await their chance to cross. Europe lies in plain sight: on a clear day, white buildings stand out against the rocky coast. So close, just one little leap…

They come in clapped-out fishing boats and even in truck innertubes; since the turn of the century a few thousand of them have drowned in the Strait. In Ksar Shgir, a fisherman looks out over the high waves and says: “Around here, you’re more likely to find a corpse in your net than a fish.”

On the far shore, in the cemetery of Santo Cristo de las Animas in Tarifa, a corner behind white pickets has been reserved for the nameless dead who wash ashore. Tufts of hardy grass bend beneath the wind. A column of vultures and storks rides the thermal, round and round, in endless orbit. Far below the flash of a ship – the ferry from Tangier to Algeciras.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Everything clatters in the driving wind; the girls on the top deck brush the hair from their faces. The hazy blue mountain ranges, rising on both sides of the Strait. The places you will never go, the life there. Ilham’s eyes wander over the mountains of the Rif, the country they are leaving behind. Why did they stay so long in Rabat? They had the car, they could have gone south, to the desert, but instead they spent the whole time hanging around the city. The terrace at Café Maure; the view of the Bouregreg estuary and the Atlantic Ocean behind. The boys. The contraband at the boats.

It feels like a loss, that they didn’t go to the desert, like a missed opportunity. They could have asked Saleh to go along, women in Morocco rarely travel alone. The looks, the comments – if it remains at that.

They’ve been on the road for six weeks now, two weeks longer than planned. There had been problems. Situations. Those are behind them now, most of it has been solved.

Saleh comes towards them, holding onto the benches to keep from being knocked over by the pounding of the ship and the hard wind.

The other passengers are downstairs in the salons. Men are sleeping with the legs up on the worn benches. Children are fussing, watched over by the women, their fatigue bottomless. The vague smell of piss everywhere.

The freedom on the top deck is better, in the lee of the pilothouse as much as possible.

Hola chicas,” Saleh says.

“Have you taken a look at him?” Ilham asks.

He nods. “No worries.”

She is on unfamiliar ground, she has to trust him. His almond eyes, the domineering curl of his lips; you want to believe him.

Fahd shows up too. He stumbled towards them across the deck, and in his wake a boy they’ve never seen before. Fahd slides up beside Saleh, the new boy sits down beside Thouraya. A long, nasty face, yellow teeth his lips can’t quite cover. He produces a hipflask, pours rum or whisky into the opening of a cola can.

“Who are you?” Ilham asks. She leans over. The wind tugs at the words in her mouth.

“Mo,” Saleh says. “He’s a gas.”

“Can’t he talk for himself?” She sees Mo’s Adam’s apple bob up and down as he drinks.

The cola can goes round, the girls pass.

“He’s riding with me,” Fahd says.

“Oh really?” Ilham says.

“Cheaper than going alone.”

Fahd can’t get his cigarette lit, not in the hollow of his hand, not in the shelter of his coat either.

Ilham turns her head and looks at the crests, the sandy-colored Spanish land beyond. Her mood has swung. Something has been disturbed. The order of things. They started off the day with the three of them, Thourayah, Saleh and her, united in a conspiracy to get Murat to the far side. First they picked him up in Témara, in Tangier harbor Fahd had come along, number five – he was going to take the spare tire back to Holland. Murat had nestled down into the deep hollow made for the tire, where he would make the crossing, in the dark, covered with baggage. And now, suddenly, there are six of them. That’s not good. She was born on the fifth of January. There are five people in her family. The star on the Moroccan flag has five points. Five is better than six. The Israeli flag has six points, and her father hates the Jews.

They light cigarettes from the one Fahd finally got lit. Thouraya snaps her fingers.

“Woof,” Fahd says, and hands her a cigarette. Ilham asks him for one too.

She sucks smoke into her lungs. She thinks about cancer. Her uncle died of cancer. From the steel mills, her father says, but as a matter of f act there isn’t a single photo in which he’s not smoking a cigarette.

 

It’s her uncle’s fault that she was born in Holland. In 1975, her father arrived in France from Targuist, that was fairly easy back then; his brother convinced him to travel on to Holland. They worked in shifts at the Hoogoven mills, and shared a room in Beverwijk. They married and were laid off during the steel crisis in the early eighties. Life beat them down. Her uncle rose to his feet again, her father remained lying, he was the weaker of the two. But her uncle is dead and her father is still alive.

Sometimes she thinks about life as a Francaise. What it would have been like. A big country, more air. The way she’s sitting on deck now, the sky high and spacious above her.

She hears her friend say: “Hey, give me some room, would you…”

Mo grins and puts his arm around Thouraya. A mouth made for saying dirty little things.

“You they’d like to marry,” Thouraya had said to her sometime during the last weeks, “with me they only want to do that dirty shit.”

Ilham had looked at her when she said it. Thouraya probably meant well, she figured, and she said: “They’d marry a dog, if it had a Dutch passport.”

Thouraya pushes the boy’s arm away. “Buzz off, man!”

Ilham looks at Saleh. No counting on him. She slides up a few feet, Thouraya slides along with her.

The boys laugh about it. That’s the way it works, Ilham thinks, their earnest little game; they can’t not do it. Their desire, their eagerness, it has to be on display all the time, it determines their position in the group. They want it, the girls do, they just don’t know that yet. They have to be told that they want it.

When he slides up to her again, Thouraya stands up resolutely and says to Ilham: “Yallah.”

The other boys talk her into sitting back down; he’ll cool it now, really.

A bit of ash blows into Ilham’s eye. She dabs at it with the tip of her sleeve.

Saleh is sitting sideways on the bench, looking back at the land they’re leaving. She knows he has plans to go back, to set up something there, a boy like him probably has more of a chance in Morocco. The words “detention center” and “repeat offender” wouldn’t be hanging in orbit around his life there. Going back, that had been their parents’ dream. Everything they did and did not do was a part of going back on that day. That day that never came.

Saleh fishes a joint from the seam of his Gucci cap. The smoke stays inside him for a long time, finally leaving his nostrils in thin, blue streams.

He has said that there’s nothing for them to worry about. They don’t check passenger cars. They could never do them all. Vans, campers, okay, but not passenger cars.

He has done this before, he says. He’ll check on him during the crossing. Bring him a bottle of water, that kind of thing.

 

The first time she’d met him was at a wedding party in Rijswijk. She started hearing things right away. Seven months for putting a retarded girl to work for him; he would wait for her at the gate to the shelter and bring her back in plenty of time. It took a long time for them to find out about it.

It could be true, or not, but for a rumor there were an awful lot of details. You couldn’t forget about it, but you could look past it; it always remained somewhere in the corner of your eye.

In Rabat, not long after they got there, he had taken her and Thouraya under his wing. He knew his way around. The Andalusian gardens in the Kasbah, the café high above the estuary and the old pirate’s nest of Salé further along, across the river. He kept the boys at bay. At bakers’ stands in the Kasbah they had seen hornets teeming over the sugar-coated croissants; that’s how it was with the boys, too.

The ones from Holland were the only ones Saleh let through. Daoud from Venlo, Brahim who drove a BMW. Even though they were in their parents’ homeland and staying with relatives, even though they identified with the people there, they were not Moroccans. That is what they had in common. That they were seen as tourists. That they paid tourist prices. They were the children of two kingdoms, they carried the green passport of the Royaume du Maroc and the red-lead one of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but in both countries they were, above all, foreigners.

The discussions on the playground back then, or in the auditorium – how she had demanded her rightful place. Ilham Assouline, as Dutch as they came. How she had fired personal particulars at them: I, Ilham Assouline, born in the Red Cross Hospital in Beverwijk, a student at Kennemer College high school, who swims in the same dull sea you do in the summer. So if that doesn’t make me Dutch already, when will it?

She had been angry and expectant, antagonism only egged her on.

Then two planes drilled their way into the heart of the Western world.

She watched as the little opportunity, the crack that had posed a possibility, sealed over; people averted their gaze and kept their distance, as though her body had, from one day to the next, become a hostile object. The discussions ground to a halt, the bellicose language of the daily news trickled into everyday life. Either you are with us, said the most powerful man in the world, or you are with the terrorists. The plans, his words – they broke her world, the whole world, in two, into we over here and them over there. And Ilham became them. And her body became over there. She felt how the enmity nestled in her organs, how she became infected by the fear and the aversion of others. That is how she became what others thought they were seeing, a double transformation.

Ilham Assouline had become a bad name.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Algericas. The ship approaches the harbor, tucked back into the bay. Container wharves, freighters. The vast Spanish land behind. Cranes poke at the electric blue sky. From the way over, Ilham remembers the nerve-wracking swarm in the passenger terminal, the chaos there; the gates of Africa.

A voice over their heads says it is time to return to their cars.

They trundle down the metal stairs. The ship’s engines resonate in the bannisters, the walls, the floors. The car deck is low and dark, many of the sodium lamps are broken. Everyone clambers around the cars, parked with only inches between. They stand on bumpers and trailer hitches and keep their balance with a hand on the low ceiling. Shouting, always shouting. Engines are started. Ilham chokes, the exhaust fumes bite at her airways, she has a hyperactive gag reflex. She follows Saleh and Thouraya between the cars, the other two have vanished.

Behind the windshields, the motionless fisheyes of men at the wheel, alone with their desires. She thinks about the emaciated stray dogs on the patch of lawn in Rabat, the one on top of the other, his hips trembling back and forth. Thouraya saw it too and laughed; Ilham remembers the desperation in the dog’s eyes, something overpowering had taken possession of him, he suffered. The bitch yelped and turned her head to snap at him, but he was beyond her reach.

Everything multiplies exponentially beneath the burning sun. Flies, dogs, people; bacteria in the meat hanging outside in the alleyways. The stomach linings of cows hanging in bluish strips, the flayed carcasses of rams, testicles still attached. One day she had vomited  briefly and violently next to a pile of rotting garbage beside a gate in the casbah;  more often she was made only a little nauseous by all the manifestations of poverty she saw. The rotting, the cripples, their wounds, the filth. It was everywhere, it was the natural state of everything.

Sometimes they retreated into the McDonald’s, into the coolness there. The world as they knew it, the free Wi-Fi. It was there, one day, that they had run into Saleh, Ilham had recognized him. Amazement and joy at a familiar face so far from home. It was the first time Thouraya had ever seen him, she laid her slender, limp hand in his for a moment. “What’s that you’re eating?” she had asked.

Saleh had his mouth full, and pointed to the picture of the McArabia above the counter.

She laughed. “Oh man, a Morocco burger.”

Thouraya was nervy, there wasn’t much she didn’t dare to do.

 

He took them to a beach outside of town. There were girls in bikinis there, and boys in shorts scrounging around, gaunt as shadows. Ilham felt sorry for them, for their doggish suffering; along with her pity came contempt.

Thouraya gleamed like a bottle as she came out of the sea. Her head tilted to one side, she wrung the water from her hair. Polished toenails, mother-of-pearl. Fingernails, the same. She knew it. The way she crossed the sand towards them, a performance.

Tfoo,” she said, sinking gingerly onto her towel, “I thought the water would be warmer than that.”

At Club Amnesia, Saleh shook the doorman’s hand and shuffled in, the girls in his wake. They drank Pink Lady’s and Mai Tais in no particular order. The boys who came here were different from the ones at the beach, they were prosperous and well-dressed, but on the dancefloor they still pressed their erections up against you, Thouraya said with feigned dismay.

The moments when you felt like giving yourself away to a stranger, lightly and free of care. Ilham had tried, she had really tried, but her mother’s voice – “Ya msebty! – carried across the water. With her father’s rage right behind.

She danced jerkily. She was made up of two bodies. Her collarbones arched elegantly beneath her skin, her shoulders were slender and she felt that she had pretty wrists and hands, but the body below the waist did not seem to fit well with the rest. Her hips too round, her legs too short, like a figurine of Venus. She distrusted boys who found that attractive. There was something wrong with them. She was, she felt, her upper body. Anyone who lusted after her lower body lusted after someone else; it had nothing to do with her.

 

Hobi,” Thouraya said a few days later, when she answered the phone. “So what’s the plan?”

Saleh had befriended them eagerly, and they were keen to be chaperoned by him. He was their guide, their interpreter, their fixer. They moved from place to place in their far-too-expensive car, an Audi A4, rented on impulse, just as the whole idea of going to Morocco had been an impulse. Ilham didn’t even have a passport. She had taken her sister’s, the photo looked passable. She had no money for the trip – Thouraya loaned her everything. She didn’t even have a phone that worked anymore.

They picked up Saleh close to the Tour Hassan, not far from the home of Thouraya’s uncle, where they were staying. They drove out of town, Thouraya at the wheel. Hedges of oleander blossomed redly on the median strip. Moroccan flags flapped above the parade route. The satellite town of Témara, which supplied Rabat with a stream of inexpensive manpower, had more or less fused with the capital. At Témara’s edge, half hidden among a stand of cork oaks, was a detention center about which people spoke only in a whisper. Back in the leaden years, opponents of the king had been tortured there. These days, people said, the prisoners were terrorists. Officially, the center didn’t exist at all. And because it didn’t exist, there could be no torturing. A scream no one hears has not been uttered.

 

They drove down the boulevard, the ocean glistening on the right. The gondolas of a big Ferris wheel on the beach hung fixed in midair.

They left the main road, Saleh directing from the backseat. They climbed, and came to a plateau. “So where are we going?” Thouraya asked.

“Turn in here,” Saleh said. The asphalt became a sandy path beneath the trees. They left the sea behind, and the neighborhood of white-stuccowork holiday homes, all new, with bougainvillea blossoming in the yards, glorious orange, white, purple.

Thouraya slalomed around the potholes.

“I’m going to show you two the real Morocco,” Saleh said. “The way it really is, wollah.” He pointed to where they should park, in the shade of the trees. Through a hedge of head-high reeds they saw an improvised settlement.

The car alarm beeped. They entered the shanty town, the reed was a twilight zone, the crossing between the world of the owners and that of the disowned.

They passed a fire pit where stray cats lay napping dustily in the afterglow. Tire carcasses and a mattress spring, charred, but not consumed; at the edge of the gray ring of ash, bags of garbage were smoldering.

Saleh led the way. The shacks were built of perishable material, wood, plastic sheets – prey to any storm. Corrugated roofs held in place by car tires, chunks of cement, broken ceramic tajines, television sets. The houses were huddled together, Ilham peeked inside as they passed. How did these people live? How could you live like this, for god sake?

Here and there, rocks had been used to fashion flowerbeds. Hibiscus and bougainvillea, just like the newly built houses beyond the reeds. Seedlings were sprouting in plastic bottles.

They followed Saleh between the houses, through the maze of alleyways. Thouraya, with her Miu Miu sunglasses and a rosy pink D&G bag over her shoulder, looked like a movie star on her way to do charity work.

Where was Saleh taking them? Ilham didn’t like surprises. They tended to turn out badly. She drank the last bit of water from her bottle. She couldn’t stand the poverty, the heat and the dust. It exhausted her. There was compassion in her, but beneath the surface also the conviction that poor people had only themselves to blame for living like this. A kind of payback for something. That thought bore her up a little, made it easier to bear what she was seeing.

Saleh stepped aside and let Thouraya go first through a low doorway. They stepped into a room, painted green, with a ceiling as low as the door. Seated on the sedari was an old woman with deep-set eyes, surrounded by a swarm of children. The mother animal in the midst of all. Weathered feet stuck out from beneath her long skirts, she placed them on the carpet and rose with a sigh. She kissed her visitors’ hands and raised them to her furrowed brow. Old tattoos, a pattern of lines and dots. A cascade of greetings in Tamazight. It made them blush, they took her hand and said “shokran, shokran.” She seemed to be the grandmother of a few of the children, though it was impossible to tell which ones. The children walked in and out, from behind the curtain in the doorway new ones appeared to stare at the visitors for a while, before disappearing again. The old woman left the room, the curtain blew closed behind her.

They sat down on the low sofas. The TV was playing loudly.

“No need to be afraid, sweetheart,” Thouraya said to the little girl beside her, who was staring at her wide-eyed. On the TV was a bald kung-fu monk with a symmetrical face. National Geographic Abu Dhabi, the title in the upper left-hand corner said. The fighting monk shot like an orange flame across the Manhattan skyline.

Ilham’s uneasiness grew. What were they doing here? Who were these people? Saleh’s friends? Family? A timid young man entered, his torso covered in a t-shirt reading “Energie Cottbus”.

“This,” Saleh said, “is Murat.”

As-salamu alaykum,” the young man said.

Alaykumu s-salām,” Saleh replied. They stood. A hand of skin and flesh, no sinews. He had a handsome face, she thought, with perfect eyebrows. When he smiled, she saw his ruined teeth. The boys exchanged a few words, Murat disappeared out the door again. Ilham was just about to ask Saleh for an explanation, when the old woman appeared from behind a curtain and settled back down on the sedari.

“Saleh?” Ilham said in a tone that masked her irritation. “Are you going to tell us what we’re doing here?”

He lay back on the sofa and began tickling one of the little girls. Be patient, he gestured with his free hand.

The monk made way for Tom and Jerry.

Murat came back with a serving tray with glasses, a pot of mint tea and saucers with dates, pastries and cactus fruit. He knelt and placed the tray carefully on the table, then poured the tea from a modest height.

“A Moroccan,” Saleh said solemnly, “will share even the last of his food with you. No matter how poor he is.”

Even he, Ilham thought, didn’t consider them Moroccans. “Murat,” she asked, “parlez-vous français?”

The French she remembered from secondary school.

He shook his head, a smile of regret playing at his lips. He lowered the teapot carefully and said: “Pas bien, madame.”

Un peu, peut-être?”

He nodded. Again, that shy smile.

Qu’est-ce que vous faites comme travail?”

He didn’t understand. He looked at Saleh. “You know, what kind of work he does,” she said quickly.

Murat listened attentively to the translation and answered in Arabic. His hand swept back and forth in negation.

“No work here,” Saleh said. “There’s nothing here.”

Ilham nodded and asked no further.

Saleh started tickling the girl again, and said over the sound of her laughter: “He worked somewhere in France. They busted him.” He spoke to Murat, then said: “In the Languedoc, he says. As a, what do you call that… commerçant?”

“Salesman, or something,” Ilham said.

“He polished crystals for tourists. After a year, they kicked him out.”

The old woman kept nodding the whole time, as though following the conversation closely.

“So how old is he?” Ilham asked. “He seems so young.”

Nineteen, Saleh figured. He lifted the little girl off his lap and put her on the ground. When she jumped onto him again, the old woman shouted at her to behave.

The pastries tasted dusty. Saleh sat up straight and said: “The Idrissi’s are very poor. France was their opportunity. It was really bad luck that he got picked up there.” His gaze moved silently from Ilham to Thouraya. Ilha sensed what was coming. “They need us,” he said. “We’re here to help each other, right?”

How long has he been working up to this? was Ilham’s only thought.

“It’s really easy,” he said. “We take your car. Murat in the trunk, stuff piled on top of him, and that’s it. Lots of Moroccans cross like that. It happens all the time.”

Ilham shifted on the sofa uneasily, everyone in the room was looking at them.

Saleh’s voice: “It’s easy, really. I’ve never been checked, I swear to God.”

“Saleh,” Ilham said quietly, “you can’t do this.”

“In our car?” Thouraya said. “We can’t do that.”

“I’ve done it so often,” Saleh said.

“What are you, a smuggler or something?”

Ilham shook her head. The old woman got up off the sofa and sank to her knees in front of her. The tattooed crosses, dots and lines on her face must have been put there an eternity ago, the ink had faded to a pale blue and blurred beneath the skin. The woman seized Ilham’s calves and begged.

“We have to help these people,” Ilham heard Saleh saying. “Look for yourself. We can’t just leave them like this, can we?”

The old woman’s laments mixed loudly with the music of Tom and Jerry. She took Ilham’s hand and rubbed it against her face, her temple. The closeness of that strange, ancient body; Ilham shivered. She realized what she represented to the old woman – a last resort, a way out, a future – and was ashamed. If her own parents hadn’t risked the crossing, she might be in the same situation as this woman on her knees, this desperate family that smelled of poverty. A bitter feeling of guilt rose up in her – she, the ingrate, who had been given every chance in life and was now denying that to someone else.

Murat spoke. He went on longer than before, this was his plea. His voice was quiet, compelling. The grievous bearing of the martyr.

“He is prepared,” Saleh translated, “to do anything for the two of you if you take him along. He prays to Allah that you… that we will take him along. He is grateful for all eternity if you give him that chance. He…”

The old woman rose to her feet and slapped her skinny ribcage with the flat of her hand. She spit out the words.

“What’s she saying?” Thouraya asked.

Saleh waited for a moment, then said: “She says she’ll kill herself if we don’t take her son along.”

Ilham groaned quietly. “Tell them we need to think about it,” she said. “It’s dangerous. We’ve never done anything like this before. We just don’t know yet. Right, Thour?”

Her friend blew into her cup and said: “The car isn’t ours, you know? We rented it. If we get caught, they’ll take the car. What are we going to do then?”

“We won’t get caught,” Saleh said.

Thouraya shook her head. “Fuck off, Saleh. You go to jail for shit like that. I’ve heard about that.”

“It’s the way everybody does it,” Saleh answered angrily. “Zero risk.”

Ilham stood up. “We have to go. Really.”

Saleh communicated their thanks, their best wishes, the formalities back and forth took a long time. Murat followed them outside and watched them go. Ilham looked back. He waved.

 

***

 

Translated by Sam Garrett