Sunday, May 25, 2008

More Melilla

I am back in Tangier now and rounding out my last few days on this trip. I will back in Canada on Wednesday, if all goes well. I am looking forward to getting home, moreso than on any of my other travels. I miss my wife, my friends, my family and the easy conversations. I've also never returned from a trip with so much to do.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent the last several days in and around Melilla. I slept most nights in the village of Beni Ensar on the Moroccan side of the frontier. This border area is the ugliest place I've seen in Morocco. The streets are torn up for roadworks and there are heaps of rubble and wire everywhere. The winds from the Atlantic cast about the trash bags and dust. Puddles of grease stain the ground along with the slugs of mucus left by spitting men. Stray dogs limp around the streets afraid of everyone except for the teenage boys who huff slovents from dirty rags. At night, the streetlights flicker and men fight.

It is a shock crossing the border into Spain. There are smugglers everywhere. They are mostly old women who carrying huge bundles on their backs, or tie items beneath their clothes with twine. The word 'smugglers,' is not quite right. It suggests something furtive and secret. There is no doubt what these women are doing, but as long as they drop a few coins into the palms of the Moroccan border police everyone is happy.

I went to investigate the 'wall' and I found it means different things to everyone in the city. It was built to keep out illegal migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, but the migrants find other ways in. And once they are inside, the wall takes on a different meaning. As I wrote earlier, it becomes a symbol of imprisonment. It was built to keep them out, but now it reminds them are trapped within.

For the Spanish 'Christian' population in Meilla, the wall represents a barrier between their life in Europe - with tapas bars, bull fights and art modernista - with the wilds of Morocco. For centuries, Spain's primary adversary has been the Moors, and this wall represents another facet of ancient animosities. This is our side. That is yours.

But for the 'Muslim' population in Melilla, the wall means little. The border is fluid. They can come and go, legally and illegally, without much problem. The Muslim's are more concerned about what, if anything, their European citizenship means to them. Melilla's largest slum, dubbed the 'Canyon of Death,' lies just inside the border fence. Residents here are Melilla's poorest and are treated with disdain from the 'Spanish' elite. Steel wires and barbed wire are more forgiving that poverty and bigotry.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Thinking about walls

My walls project is in its early stages, to be sure, but I´ve been musing a little lately about what all of it means. What do these various walls have in common? What do they tell us?

At first I was thinking that these walls are simply expressions of fear, but I think that might be too simplistic a take. I wonder, instead, if the walls are monuments to failure. They represent a lack of ideas and of imagination. The walls are not solutions, but are a manifestation of the failure to find a solution.

Any thoughts?

Border stories: Melilla

I wandered around Melilla during siesta the other day. I drank espresso and brandy in a cafe near the art deco synagogue, then found a tapas bar behind the old bull-ring. The bartender poured me a short draft beer and cut me a few slices of salty serrano ham. In the old city, at the Church of Our Lady of Victory, a priest said a quiet Mass for five Catholics among the statues of weeping virgins and bleeding Christs. And in the Plaza de Espagña, just in front of the city hall and the modernista casino, two dozen illegal migrants lay on the sidewalk weary from their third day of a hunger strike.

Melilla is Spain´s other autonomous enclave on Africa´s Mediterranean coast. It is a fascinating place that takes great pride in its mix of cultures. Christians, Jews, Muslims and a scattering of Hindus all live in relative harmony in the city. Each group sticks to their own, but everyone seemed to get along, and the local tourist board portrays the city as a rare beacon of tolerance.

But everything is not well. Just like Ceuta, Melilla is a popular destination for African and south Asian migrants trying to live the European dream. Once here, however, most find that they are stuck. They languish in the immigrant detention centre, some for years, waiting for passage to mainland Spain. Many end up deported to where they came from. The strikers on the square - Algerians and Indian Kashmiris - are tired of waiting and hope their action speeds things along. Sadly, though, no one is paying much attention.

Melilla´s ´wall´is a high-tech fence that runs for 11 kilometres along the Moroccan border. The green-posted structure leans into Morocco and has a distinct reptilian look. Three high fences are equipped with motion-detectors and barbed wire. A ´moat´seperates the first and second fences is filled with a tangle of steel cables meant to trap jumpers. It is impressive. At one point, a vine of pink flowers breached the barbed wire and were growing across the cables, but since the Spanish erected the fence two years ago, no human has made it through.

The fence is clearly visible from the immigrant detention centre. It is just outside the front gate and across the road. The irony is that the residents of the centre made it into Melilla by circumventing the fence. They paddled in on overfilled boats, strapped themselves under trucks, and stuffed their bodies into the trunks of cars. In a way, they defeated the wall. But now the wall has become a symbol. It is a visible reminder that they are trapped here, not by the fence itself, but by bureaucracy, politics, and poverty. I asked a man at the centre what he thought when he looked across the road at the wall. He was from India and said in imperfect English ¨I feel terrible. I feel like we are bounded here.¨

While I stood outside the centre, an African woman came out of the front gate on a bicycle she borrowed. Her braided hair bounced in a pony tail as she pedalled up the hill in front of the fence. Two of her friends came out to watch. When she reached the top she turned around and coasted back down. She lifted her hands from the handlebars, and her friends cheered her bravery. Once she reached the bottom, she pedaled back up the hill, getting breathless, and sailed down again past the wire, barbs and steel.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Border Stories: Ceuta

I've spent the last week or so in and around Ceuta, one of Spain's two autonomous enclaves in North Africa. Ceuta's border is also Europe's most southern frontier. As such, it is a major destination for migrants from Africa and Asia. If they can get into Ceuta, they are in Europe without risking a deadly sea crossing.

The border fence around Ceuta is remarkable: two tall fences seperated by a road for border patrol vehicles. Huge coils of barbed wire and electronic sensors. From a distance, and I was only permitted to see it from a distance, the fence has an unexpected beauty. It emerges from a thick forest and juts out into the sea in an elegant curve. It reminds me of the silver filigree in Morocco's jewellery souqs. Like a fine bracelet for some fantastic bride.

This beauty is lost, I am sure, on the men who try to scale the fence. I met one of them in Plaza los Reyes, a polished square in Ceuta's shopping district. His name is Jeffery James and he is from the Sudan, and when I met him he was begging for coins. I sat with him for a while and he told me about trying over twenty times to climb the fence. He had been beaten by soldiers, had his flesh torn by barbed wire, and deported to the no man's land between Algeria and Morocco many times, but always made his way back to the fence.

He was lucky the last time. He wore thick jeans and tied cloth around his hands. And he put on three jackets; each time he was snagged by the wire he shed a layer and carried on. Five men attempted the climb that night, but only three made it over before the Moroccan guards caught them. When Jeffrey reached the other side he was taken in to custody by the Spanish soldiers. They didn't believe he made it over the wire, but Jeffrey showed them his jackets still hooked in the barbs.

Jeffrey was brought to an immigrant holding centre called CETI where he will be housed and fed while his immigration application is being considered. There are over 400 migrants in CETI. They come from all over Asia and Africa, and each waits for the opportunity to reach mainland Spain: 'The Peninsula,' they call it. CETI is a safe place, but not a happy one. Nobody wants to be here, jobless, living among strangers, and fed food that they hate. The centre might be a thousand miles closer to Europe than where they began, but it is only a tiny step forward and by no means a certain one. Every month hopeful migrants are deported, usually in the middle of the night.

Five weeks ago, the 72 Indians in the centre got word that they were marked for deportation. Some had been at CETI for almost two years and had absolutely nothing to return to in India. So they decided to flee. Now the young men live in makeshift camps in the hills around CETI, and just behind the local SPCA. They have built tents out of plastic tarps and scrap wood, and fashioned stoves out of broken bricks they've found. They prepare curries from donated food, and grill fresh chapatis on a griddle made from the hood of an abandoned car. Some of the men 'work' outside the big duty-free supermarkets near the port, directing shoppers to parking spots and helping them with their groceries for whatever coins they might spare. And in the afternoons, they play cricket with a tennis ball and a bat they carved from a plank. The penned dogs howl from their kennels, as if they can sense a ball is being thrown nearby.

Mostly, though, the men wait for someone, somewhere, to care enough about their plight to help them. They harbour no illusions. They have come so far. Some crossed the Sahara to get here. Some were stuffed into the trunks of cars. One man spent three months blindfolded on a ship. Now mainland Europe is mockingly close; you can see Spain from the hills. But without papers, without officials working for them, they are as far away from that shore as they have ever been. They all know this.

I spent a few days with the Indians, listening to their stories and trying to play cricket. The men treated me as if I was a guest in their home back in India. They made me beautiful chai with shards of real ginger and spices they pounded fresh. I ate warm chapatis and hot curries. They asked me if I've ever been to Surrey, British Columbia, and whether it was true that there were so many Indians in Canada the street signs are in both English and Punjabi. They laugh often and joke constantly. Their bright spirits made my heart hurt.

At the end of my first visit, one man, Rocky, walked me to the edge of the camp. I asked him if there was anything I could bring them the next time I came. 'We don't need anything,' he said. 'Just pray for us.'

Monday, May 5, 2008

Reconsidering Tangier

Tangier's reputation intimidated me. The seedy and licentious city the Beats tumbled through in the '50s had long since become a place travelers were urged to avoid. I read about the muggers and the pickpockets and the dangers of the medina. I was ready to find the worst of Morocco. I came to write a story about the old Anglican church, and would stay only as long as I needed to.

Now I have fallen for the place.

The old medina may be the most interesting in Morocco. It is filled with surprises and sudden revelations. The walls change colour as you walk, turning from white and turquoise, to yellow and rose, to red and yellow. Streets end suddenly in blind corners, or onto four-step stairwells leading to locked wooden doors. I got twisted and lost. I followed pencil-thin corridors and passed beneath balconies that brushed against the houses across the lane. At points, the canopy of walls open up to tiny squares with, say, a perfume shop and a teleboutique. The road is paved here, tiled there, and rises and falls without logic.

There are closet-sized shops filled with used televisions and even smaller stores loaded with old shoes. A woman irons trousers under a single light bulb. Boys play video soccer in a room with three computer terminals. There is the sudden damp scent of shampoo from the public showers, and the noise of a television from a huge cafe with high ceilings that seems impossible here where everything else is so small. There are street signs everywhere, but the shops have no names. Nothing here makes sense. It is exhilarating.

In Tangier, mens' beards are longer and whiter. The lunatics are louder, clumsier. The woman are more beautiful here, dressed in bright clinging fabrics. And there are people from everywhere. European travelers get their first or last looks of Morocco in Tangier, and they are either wary or weary. Desperate African men pass through on their way to board night-hidden rafts to Spain. They leave their wives here to tend to the children. Often they simply die in the sea. Women from the Rif mountains come with their woven lampshade hats to sell zucchini and tomatoes. There are aging homosexuals hoping for Naked Lunches, while local men kneel with hash pipes in the backs of the cafes. I walk and write. I swim in it all, just on thrill's edge of drowning.

There is so much to this place, and none of it feels like fear.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The South, under Surveillance

I am being followed.

At least I was. I found out when I was sitting in a small cafe in Tarfaya eating grilled sardines. Sadat, the man who I came to Tarfaya to meet, came up to my table. "I got three phone calls today about you," he said. "You are the centre of attention. Let's go somewhere else and talk." He brought me to a little cafe run by an old man with hair like white lamb's wool and a cement mixer voice. The authorities had told Sadat that I had met with a known activist when I was in Laayoune and that they wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. Sadat told them that I was a student and was his guest. He also advised me to leave the hotel and move in to his place where I would be left alone.

I had not met with anyone in Laayoune, but I did meet with an activist in Smara, the town where I started my visit to the 'occupied zone.' I wanted to go to Smara because I had heard so much about the place when I was in the camps. In fact, one of the camps is named for Smara. Smara is also the closest city the 'the Wall.' I figured a visit here, to the other side, would be a poetic echo to the place I'd seen in the Algerian desert.

Smara is a beautiful city, with a surprising vibrancy to it considering its location far from anything but an oppressive heat. The nights are especially active with the streets filled with shoppers and walkers, and the cafes jammed with men watching European soccer on satellite television. After being a tourist in the 'north', it was refreshing to be among regular people whose welcomes were not edged with commerce.

I had one o my best meals in a while in Smara. On a street filled with meat shops, a butchers hacked off a few bits of lamb for me, slapped them into a plastic bag, and pointed to the grill next door. I handed my meat to the man standing over the coals. He grilled my meat alongside some tomatoes and onions, sprinkled the lot with salt and cumin, and dropped it in front of me with a round of fresh bread. Some days I pity the poor vegetarian.

The activist in Smara didn't tell me much that I didn't already know about the Saharawi situation. He, like the rest, still hope for Saharawi independance in the face of increasing odds against it. It is likely that my meeting with him in Smara was the reason for my being followed by the authorities.

They must have followed me to Laayoune, the 'capital' city of the south. Laayoune is a strange place. The only neighborhood that is more than 30 years old is in ruins. The central square is called Canary Plaza but has none of the lightness and whimsy that the name implies. Instead it is filled with rubble and trash and a few trees that scarcely have the motivation to grow leaves. The surrounding homes are falling apart, and marked with cracks and lesions. This is the old Saharawi neighborhood.

The rest of the city, though, is new and prosperous. A beautiful new mosque boasts carved plaster and stained glass. It sits on a city square made of spotless tile. The new soccer stadium grows real grass - a near miracle in the desert. The wealth here is inorganic, built of subsidies and tax exemptions, but manufatured prosperity is still prosperity, and the citizens are enjoying a sort of boom that doesn't exist elsewhere in the country.

For all of this, it is an ugly city. I remember speaking to some young women in the camps. They had been born in the camps and had never seen Laayoune, but they were sure the place was beautiful. In the imagination of a refugee, home, wherever it is, must be a beautiul place. Why else fight to return there?

From Laayoune I went to the fishing town of Tarfaya. The place is just north of the disputed territory, but is was here that the Green March of 1975 set off to claim the Western Sahara for Morocco. It is also the place where tea was first introduced to the people of the desert by a British trader passing through on his way home from India. The fortress he built still stands in the surf a few metres from the dune-curved beach. I came to meet Sadat, a kind man who is the only Saharawi I met who doesn't believe that independance is a realistic goal for the Saharawis. He is a community development worker who focuses on keeping Saharawi culture alive, but he is not convinced that a sovereign Saharawi state is an attainable goal. It was valuable for me, and for the book, to gain this differing view.

I stayed in Tarfaya for a few days, a guest of Sadat and under the eyes of what ever authorities followed me this far. I was rattled by the news that I was being monitored. Everybody warned me that this would happen, but just the thought of men in uniform in different cities calling each other and talking about 'that Canadian' burns a hollow in my chest. I wasn't afraid. I'd broken no laws and gave them no reason to arrest me. Still, the whole episode made me feel uneasy.

I am in Rabat now, en route to the far north where I will begin the second part of the research for the Walls book. I am far from disputed lands and I doubt the officials still care about me. Still, I can't help but look behind me every so often just to see if I've seen any of those faces before.