Ali Latife: Immigrant No 1

Paolo Pellegrin. Mediterranean Sea near the Libyan coast, 2015. Source: magnumphotos.com

Paolo Pellegrin. Mediterranean Sea near the Libyan coast, 2015. Source: magnumphotos.com

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And so these used ideas

here worn like clothes

will be compensated, without apology,

by the softest chords of their instrument.

— Jim Jarmusch, “Verdict with Guitar”

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We were drinking homemade alcohol in a small rented apartment in Tripoli the night they stole the statue of the naked women and the gazelle from the city center. That was the last naked woman in Tripoli, possibly even in Libya. No one knows where they took it, but the word on the street is that they destroyed and threw it away or that they sold it.

We were six young men drinking homemade alcohol in a country torn apart by civil war, and for four years since the uprising in 2011 we had all suffered from humiliations inflicted by the rebel militias on almost everyone.

Four of the young men who were sitting with me in the small apartment had been incarcerated for protesting in front of Sudan’s Embassy during the Sudanese protests back in July 2012. The militia that caught them follows the same ideology as the ruling regime of Sudan. The Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist and rebel allies were the rulers of the streets back then and nowadays too. Another had been captured because he is descended from an oppressed Libyan tribe some of whose men had fought the rebels in 2011. We talked about Denmark, Germany, the beautiful lives that awaited us if we could some day get out of this god-forsaken land.

Everything had became tiring lately, the war and what was happening around us and the memories. Even to think of it is tiring, or write about it.

“Humiliation makes a frog of a man,” said Immigrant No 1 after passing me the lighter, so I could light the hashish in Mr de Silva, the wooden tribal totem designed to hold joints. This was the third time I’d seen Immigrant No 1. I don’t recall ever seeing him sober. All I knew was that he was a friend of the landlords, and was studying medicine at Tripoli University.

He seemed miserable when I focused on his facial features. You know an unhappy man by two things: the bluish colour of his lips, the black colour under his eyes.

Bluish lips mean that he doesn’t put out the cigarette until the butt has burned the blood vessels, causing discoloration. No one smokes a cigarette until the butt has burned except two kinds of people: mad, or miserable. After finding out about this from a friend of mine I’ve always – or else usually – thrown out my cigarettes in time. I do not want to wake up one day and look in the mirror to find a very miserable human being in front of me. A man must let his misery rot inside, mustn’t let it affect his outer appearance. Humanity renounces the miserable, embraces the cheerful.

As for the black color under the eyes, it too means one of two things: lack of sleep, or sleep disturbance. There is a big difference between the two: the first is when the person doesn’t get any sleep at all, only few hours; the second is when the person gets the required number of hours but in a troubled pattern.

The black color under the eyes of immigrant No 1 was caused by lack of sleep. Immigrant No 1 often slept only four hours. He stayed awake till morning smoking cigarettes till the butts burned and looking for an affordable and guaranteed way to leave.

After the closure of all foreign embassies in Tripoli because of the war in July 2014, Immigrant No 1 hoped that Germany, the country to which he had applied for a Schengen visa before the beginning of the war, would accept his request. But history always teaches you about the future. In this case history tells us that European bureaucracy does not consider the human life over administrative protocols whatever the circumstances, the administrative protocols change for no one even if the sky rained frogs.

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This is what I saw in the sky when I heard about it that night, two days after Immigrant No 1 left the shores of Sabratha on a large fishing boat to Italy: “La Vida No Vale Nada” or “Life worth’s nothing” (as in Jim Jarmusch’s 2009 The Limits of Control).

I wasn’t intoxicated by any means possible.

Immigrant No 1 was sitting all alone in an old big fishing boat with more than 100 strangers, no one understanding the other’s language but all sharing the same dream: “a better life in a better world”. He carried his entire life’s worth of official papers translated into Danish in his bag. It was then that I understood why we were talking about Denmark.

Coincidences are ugly lies. There are no coincidences, only luck. Whoever can reach the Italian shores on an old fishing boat, escape the police and then get to Denmark must have luck on his side.

Captained by an immigrant who will become a terrorist in Belgium after a few months, the old big fishing boat reached the shore. And immigrant No 1 applauded, the little Nigerian girl applauded, the pregnant Tunisian woman applauded. All the passengers applauded. Applause is a language everyone can understand, the physical expression of victory.

The joy was short-lived. The sirens of the Italian police broke the joy, although the wind and the waves and the sound of freedom were a million times stronger than those police sirens. Then everybody started running in the opposite direction of the evil sounds, all sharing one thought: I will not let any son of a bitch take my hope away from me.

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“They can run but they can’t hide,” said the policeman Ricky Marlene to his partner Giuseppe.

They came very close to capturing Immigrant No 1, but he escaped. Police officer Ricky was a chubby man, he couldn’t catch up with him. Ricky doesn’t realise that “They can run but they can’t hide” is always said by the bad guy at the beginning of the film, that the good guy wins in the end, or that the film ends with a bad joke that everyone laughs at anyway.

In every life story there is a consequential moment that differentiates one man from another. Here, it’s the image of two illegal immigrants under the clear blue sky of Italy in front of a busy train station 10 meters away from the ticket office. Immigrant No 1 and the terrorist come from two similar social backgrounds, they were both raised in a patriarchal religious eastern society which hangs anyone who thinks differently from the high ceiling of a mosque or in the backyard of a dictator’s castle or from a tree at tribal gatherings.

“Where do you want to go?” asked the terrorist.

“To Denmark,” said immigrant No 1.

“I’m going to Belgium, in its soil is my eternal paradise,” smiled the terrorist as he walked towards the ticket office.

Immigrant No 1 pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. He stood next to the trash can that held a green ashtray and gazed upon the terrorist who was standing in the queue in front of the ticket office.

He knew what a terrorist looked like. Four years in Tripoli is enough to understand the expressions of someone’s face when he says, “I’m going to heaven.”

One does not become serious until one risks one’s life. The terrorist risked his life to reach Belgium and reach heaven by exploding like a firecracker, and immigrant No 1 risked his life to reach Denmark and reach heaven by “just living” there.

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“I am marching to life and he’s marching to death,/I am a happy frog pouring with rain, I am the spirit of Mr de Silva,/I am human, the immigrant No 1.”

His friend – one of the residents of the apartment I last saw him at – read these words when we met one random night.  He had written them on the toilet wall on the train to Copenhagen after he saw himself in the mirror as he had never seen himself in the past four years.

I was stoned.

 

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