African Titanics

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The people who risk their lives on the African Titanics, the barely seaworthy boats that set out to bring migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe, are rarely seen as individuals.

But some of their perspectives are brought to life in this novel, newly published in English. Author Abu Bakr Khaal is from Eritrea, the east African country that provides a disproportionate number of the people who risk death on the seas to get to Europe.

He fled Eritrea and has lived in Libya and in a refugee camp in Tunisia. The novel is not specifically about the recent crisis as it was originally published in Arabic in 2008.

The characters it contains are travelling from a range of countries for different motives.

Bakr Khaal suggests why people look elliptically at the problems they are faced with: “No one can easily stomach the prospect of boarding a boat he knows is likely destined to flounder. Even those who had not heard the term Titanics applied to the boats routinely referred to them as ‘The Doomed’.”

The main character Abdar is restless in his home town — unlike the author he does not appear to leave for political reasons — and alienated on his journey. At one point he escapes arrest because of a misunderstanding with police.

Much of it is the story of how a group of migrants try to cross the Mediterranean, first by travelling across the Sahara desert to Tripoli in Libya, then, when their first attempt to get on a boat fails, along the north African coast to Tunisia.

The short novel is a realistic story of adventures and hazards, including a horrific interlude lost in the desert without water. But it is not an adventure story. The mood is meditative and reflective.

It is also about the stories and rumours people hear and tell, constructed of spiralling stories within stories, relating earlier voyages, myths and legends.

The travellers rely on rumours for information and inspiration. Is life better in Europe? What is the best way to travel? Some doubt the stories of the dangers, some of the benefits. Along the way people they meet share stories and warnings.

People from different backgrounds find themselves thrown together in life changing or life threatening situations.

In one memorable scene people waiting for a boat find themselves in a courtyard containing luggage from earlier travellers but also messages about their hopes.

Some stories are explained, others are left open ended. Sometimes the book appears to drift into magical realism, but that might just be the way that some of the characters see it.

Though people suffer, it doesn’t dwell on the suffering. The book is not especially political, but it humanises a group of people who are regularly demonised by the state and the media.