Youssef Rakha: He Threw Himself into the Sea

The Sultan’s Seal reviews one of Darf Publishers’ recent titles: the Eritrean writer Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics, translated from the original Arabic by Charis Bredin

Photo by Alex Majoli, source: magnum photos.com

I immediately began to suss out the reputations of all the local smugglers, remaining in a state of anxious indecision as to which of them I should do business with. There was ‘Fatty’, known for his reliability and the care he took of those who travelled aboard his Titanics. His reputation extended all over Africa and travellers from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ghana and Liberia would hunt him down as soon as they arrived in [Tripoli]. Other smugglers were known for how swiftly they could arrange crossings. Every week, one of their Titanics would leave for the far shore, completely devoid of safety precautions, and likely to sink a few miles out to sea.

Like Samuel Shimon (An Iraqi in Paris, 2005), and Hamdi Abu Golayyel (A Dog with No Tail, 2009), Abu Bakr Khaal writes reportage with fictional license. Though a Tigré-speaking Eritrean with no apparent connection to the Arab literary scene, he belongs in a recent Arabic tradition of confessional narrative that benefits as much from its authors’ down-and-out credentials as their distinct vernaculars. Whether Khaal’s language is interesting because of influence from his mother tongue, I don’t know.

In Charis Bredin’s decidedly British English, African Titanics is a breezy read, worthwhile for its first-hand take on an essential topic and its pseudo-mythology of pan-African wanderlust.

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