They came from the shores of North Africa. Obadiah thought otherwise – they had left from there. He was sure about it. They would not be welcome; and on top of that, in their homeland they were deserters.
The Mediterranean, that vast open expanse, was always much more real than those boundary stones between nations. Coastlines and mountain ranges are the only real borders. Sawn haphazardly into the fabric of the land, they are far more real than those ridiculously straight dotted lines drawn on maps. He knew they were just that, limits imposed by bureaucracy and territorial fanaticism. Figments of the imagination that had been drummed into the collective psyche until most people believed they were true.
They escaped on that rickety, crowded raft, hungry and cold. But fear was the worst enemy. If you let fear get the better of you, you might as well curl up and die. He felt it in his bones every day, and in his moments of deepest despair that exquisite blackness unique to the Ivory Coast turned pale.
Some people on the boat were ill. They slept, so frail they could be taken for dead. But that wasn’t the worst. Some bodies that appeared to be asleep were now no more than spirits. Game over.
At thirty, Obadiah knew he wasn’t going to get rich. He would never become a star footballer, whatever education he had received would be worthless, and with his exile his savings had disappeared into the hands of someone with the same name as him, but who was far more invisible that the emptiness his departure had left among his family and friends.
All that was left was to survive, survive every day, and keep crossing borders. He didn’t intend to get as far as Lithuania. In Spain, he would draw up his carriage and try to feed his horses as much as he could to keep them away from the slaughterhouse.
They landed far from Puerto de la Rada. The Parque Natural del Estrecho, with its steep shoreline and dense vegetation bordering the beach where they landed, looked to him like an immense island of fantasies and dreams. He knew the love affair would be over as soon as the civil guards arrived. Some were in a hurry to get away. He preferred to wait for the guards and gamble his fate on the goodwill of the sergeant. Whether he was a good guy or a thug would determine his future. Where to? He had a vague idea of getting to Barcelona. Why? His kids were fans of Messi and Iniesta, and he would find enough to live on, but Madrid wasn’t bad, either. He knew that his blackness would be better accepted in cosmopolitan cities than in a village. It was the same in his country, and all over the world. Racism was less rampant among educated people. Not much less, but enough to take the pressure of those branded with the double stigma of foreigner and refugee. Not tourists; they were always welcomed with open arms, even though the smiles were often as fake as the shopkeeper’s interest in their country of origin while he totted up his potential profit in his head. Not even money could buy lasting respect; ingrained prejudice created warped stories of ill-gotten gains and sordid characters who, after all, must be guilty of something if they had to flee their own country.
He got out of the boat, and was immediately overcome by a wave of nausea. He had expected to feel better on dry land. but his body had adapted to the heavy waves and the dense, salty air. He took a couple of uncertain steps, like an astronaut landing on an unknown planet. He felt like an alien, which is after all just another name for a foreigner.
He lay down on the sand with his arms outstretched, Christ-like. He wasn’t too tired to get up, but he didn’t want to. But he should. Some of his fellow travellers, in their haste, had jumped out of the boat too soon, and would undoubtedly have drowned if they or the others had not been able to swim.
The waves lapped gently at his feet. like topsy turvy baptism. He couldn’t make up his mind. Get as far away from the sea as possible so that he never had to see it again in his damned life; or go back the way he had come until he came across a deserted island with a tropical forest abundant in food and sweet water. A unclaimed land that would be his very own kingdom. He would be his own servant, both king and slave in a solitary, free place surrounded by an ocean so vast that it would make him feel like an ant – a black ant, course. It was not a nightmare; no, it was a dream. Greatness only ties us more firmly to the ground. It makes us heavier and clumsier. No-one ever heard of a grizzly bear catching a gazelle.
He dove in; there was no need to swim too far. Most of them were a few meters away, easily within the depth of any swimmer, but they had no strength left and were at risk of dying within sight of the finishing line. He helped the group of four. After hauling the first one to safety, he saw that there were only two left. He could have assumed that someone else had rescued him, but he knew better. He would be washed up at night, when the tide rose and there would be no one to welcome him or congratulate him for running such a marathon, the kind won by blacks that are used to running – probably from the law. The drowned man would remain oblivious to the bleak loneliness of the night. His body would cross the finishing line, but he wouldn’t win. He would be disqualified, however you looked at it. That’s what rules, like those newly erected borders, are for, and yet he didn’t feel them. A hint of rebellion rose in his mind. He had the same right as anyone else to be there, simply because he was a living being. Borders were a decadent excuse. Would the sea stop at the border? Or would the sea bounce off an invisible wall to show what part of its vastness corresponds to the French or German coast? That was the fault of the human race. By dividing open spaces all it does is limit its freedom, and confuse us into believing that the horizon is a strange, unattainable place.
The civil guards arrived at the scene. A sergeant approached, politely but firmly. In a heavy accent that Obadiah had to strain to understand, he said that the group would be taken to a refugee camp. Those who were in better shape and had traceable identity papers would enter the country after months of paperwork. The rest, would be given food, coats, and a place to sleep, but there was no need to tell them what they already knew. Their fate was sealed, and most would be expelled without further ado.
A woman spoke in Baulé, a west Ivory Coast language that our hero understood perfectly, imploring someone to take care of her nephew, whose mother lay lifeless beside the boat. A corporal asked Obadiah if he was his son. He looked at him, and said that he was. He had just adopted a child he barely knew. He didn’t even know his name. “Aylan” said the boy. A silence of withdrawal invaded the African and European alike. It was then that Obadiah confirmed his theory. Borders are pure shit; the only things that are real are cultures, languages, customs, and of course, the old tandem of power and money, which eventually ruins everything. Everything else is nothing more than a rumour.