160 BEATS, Jose Luis Alvarez Cedena

-Run, Moussa, run

His jaw clenched, his head held upright, his long, graceful stride, his speed, his arms pumping up and down – a perfect machine gathering speed. A body pushed to the limit. Five seconds, ten, fifteen… The powerful start was always one of his strong points.

-Never spit into the wind Moussa. It’ll come back to you.

-What if I spit faster than the wind, dad?

His father looks at him, amused. Moussa is ten years old. He is skinny but strong. The child kicks each stone he comes across as they walk along, hand in hand, raising clouds of dust that coat his feet.

– Huh, dad? What if I spit faster than the wind?

The father stops and thinks. He likes to stop and pretend his son is asking him a very difficult question. The boy, impatient, tugs on his hand, waiting for the answer. Finally the father, rolling his eyes, starts to speak very slowly…

-Well… in that case… you should be careful where you aim. Because a spittle with such power could perfectly well travel several meters. Do you remember Uncle Ousman? Mom’s little brother? Why do you think he’s missing an arm?

-Why? He doesn’t like to talk about it…

-Well… he once spit so hard that the spittle flew several hundred meters, with such bad luck that it landed on the river bank… and hit a crocodile right in the eye.

-I don’t believe you! Ousman is a wimp. He could never do that.

-And that was no peace-loving crocodile… as soon as the spittle hit it, it launched itself in the direction of the town and tore off your uncle’s arm with one powerful bite. A bite this big!

The father opens his arms imitating the jaws of the reptile and runs after Moussa, but he soon gives up. The boy runs as fast as a cheetah, and he is too old.

As he rounds the first corner, Moussa notices that his muscles have warmed up, and he starts to pick up pace. A damp salty breeze reminds that he is near sea.

-Run, Moussa, run.

Beach workouts are his favourite. He trots first, barefoot on the sand, very gently. The other runners are young and beautiful, like him. They are all naked from the waist up. Their bodies glistening with sweat.

-Run, Moussa, run.

At the coach’s signal, he increases his pace and lengthens his stride. Only a few others can keep up with him. But they gradually lag further and further behind. In the end, only Ahmed can keep up. They look at each other, complicitly. Ahmed nods and they run towards the sea. They dive in shrieking with laughter and start ducking each other.

– Run, Moussa…

He hears a voice urging him along. He sticks to the inside, like his coach taught him, to gain those few meters that he knows can be the difference between winning and losing. He wishes his father could have seen him run in the city. He wishes he had heard his name spoken on his little transistor radio. “The Doctor” they call him, like the dry, furious wind that blows from the desert to the sea. His grandfather, Dad said, knew 117 different names for the wind. And his great-grandfather knew even more. But no one remembers those names any longer.

He’s going to win. He has to. For himself, and for the others. Above all, for Ahmed. He remembers clearly the day he first dared to hold his hand. They have been training, and they return home at night. They make plans, they win medals, they run in the Olympics. They walk close together and whisper, because the neighbourhood is so quiet. And then Moussa takes Ahmed’s hand and they stop. He can hardly see his friend’s face, but he doesn’t need to, he knows it so well. He sees him every day, he dreams of him every night. Ahmed leans in and kisses him gently. He opens his lips and greedily kisses him back. They continue walking slowly, without a word.

-Run, Moussa, run.

If he wins. If he could just gain a couple more meters on the next corner, he would be home and dry. He always knew he was made to run. He listens to his body, and goes over each part in his mind… His flexible ankles, his thin, wiry calves, his bunched quadriceps, his robust hips, his heart pumping inside his chest, under pressure, strong (140, 150, 160 beats)… and his cool head. He always keeps his cool. Staring straight ahead; every thousandth of a second is precious. Clear headed. All that matters is his body and his feet that barely kiss the ground with each stride.

When Ahmed’s father discovers what they are doing, he threatens to take them to court to be severely whipped. They can’t deny the obvious – love has made them careless. They often sleep together at Moussa’s house and flirt with each other in the street. One day, his mother removes one of the kitchen tiles and pulls out an envelope thick with money. “Go away, Moussa, run, please,” she says, “I can’t protect you.” So he leaves, and heads towards the city, and then beyond, further north, where kissing is not a crime.

As he waits for the truck that will take him away from that town and its dusty streets, he is struck by a stabbing pain in his head, like a knife plunged deep into his brain. Then he realizes that Ahmed is not going to come.

-In Europe, we can live together, Moussa. We can ask for asylum. And run. And win medals. And have a nice house – he had told him a few days ago.

Moussa had believed him then. But Ahmed never got on that truck. He didn’t cross the desert. He didn’t see exhausted, hopeless men and women die. He didn’t have to hug a child shivering with cold for 14 hours to save him from the voracious sea as he cried for his mother. He didn’t have to beg for them to believe his story, when at last he found someone to listen to him. He didn’t have to feel the shame of saying the forbidden word, of asking to be welcomed in that strange country because he had committed the crime of loving. He didn’t despair, despite the constant noes and the ultimate certainty that he would have to accept being a nobody.

-Run, Moussa. run.

He urges himself on, even though he is confident. He knows he’s fast. Perhaps the fastest. And he’s almost there. He turns his head to see where his pursuers are, and when he turns back again he sees, just ten metres away, a stroller emerge from between two cars, pushed by a woman talking on the phone. Moussa quickly runs through his options. If he jumps over the stroller, he’ll most probably escape capture, but he might hurt the little girl. To the right, he his hemmed in by a fairly high wall. So he digs in his heels and stops, and almost immediately feels the weight of the cop as he careens into him and he falls flat on his face. He comes down hard, and feels a sharp pain in his left knee. “Don’t move,” shouts the panting policeman, exhausted from running. He has landed at the feet of the woman, who looks at them both, astonished and confused, as if she wanted to say something, but didn’t know what. The girl’s face peers out of the stroller. She must be around two years old, and she smiles at Moussa. Despite the weight of the policeman’s elbow pressing his shoulder down, Moussa, raises his head enough to return the smile.

He almost made it. Almost. “Run, Moussa, run…” he murmurs as the policemen lift him to his feet. So close… he’ll try again.

The webdoc is financed by the programme Horizon 2020,
RAISD – Reshaping Attention and Inclusion Strategies for Distinctively vulnerable people among the forcibly displaced


 This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 822688.