It was a bright 1st of October, high cloud, the breeze slightly cooler: autumn edging in. We set the table up on the crossroads back from the main road, a scruffy site with a couple of benches, a vent from the metro where an old Indian guy often sleeps in a pile of rotting food and covers, some spindly trees and one or two cheap food outlets. One of them is a Sudanese restaurant. Across the street it’s a Somali fast-food place. This area in general is a magnet for people on the move, arriving from further south, most often illegally, some who have already had to leave the fingerprint trace of their passage through Europe behind them, in Italy, or Greece, others who have made it this far, and further still up to Calais, without yet having had to declare their administrative status: asylum seekers, fleeing war in East Africa and in Syria and Afghanistan. A few minutes after I had stuck up my pictures of the fence at Calais, a couple of men, then more, gathered around the table. Yes, Calais, yes, we have been in Calais. Terrible Calais, we are trying to get away from war, trying to find a life, and Calais is terrible, violent. Not possible. Yes, they would like to go to England, Britannia, but it is not possible. The first man who spoke at length was Ethiopian, older than many. Perhaps in his mid thirties. Calm, fluent in English. He had applied for asylum in France, didn’t know when his application would be treated. He was sleeping in a makeshift camp, just around the corner, a dirty mattress. But he wanted to stay in France. Again he said: Britain is impossible, although for him who speaks only very little French, it would be easier. Better. He could study, perhaps. Here, in Paris, he has still to learn the language. But he will, he will learn fast, he’s sure, and I am sure with him. I have met many people like him who after only six months are able to get by. If they speak English, they’ll learn French. But how long will he wait until his situation is stable enough to be able to envisage studying? He shrugs.
The crowd has grown, many of the men are young, in their early twenties, some younger, much younger. They’re talking among themselves, discussing the pictures of the fence, the huge embankments of concrete, the isolated figures walking across them, the piles of rubbish in the foreground. I gather that one of them is describing how he has tried to climb over. Or how he imagines trying, it’s not clear to me. I ask him to slow down, to show me more exactly on the picture, maybe to draw something on it. But he doesn’t want to. Why are you doing this, asks one man, we need help, it is very, very bad, do we need this? I can’t make the route to England any easier, I say, but you’re in the street, day in day out, and perhaps it is better to have something to do, something to discuss, to share some words. Perhaps it is better to get off the street a bit, to sit in a space that is calm, away from the noise, the filth, the fear of the police. This part of Paris is sunk in squalor and jumpy nonetheless. Groups of people are living on most available bits of public space, lying around with the few possessions and donations they have, while the larger sites, the public gardens, and underpasses below the overground metro, which have previously seen the build up of very large camps – over a 1200 people in the largest one of last summer – have all been fenced off by the police. Some asylum seekers want to be “removed” by the police for that is the only way they can get into the teeth of the administrative machine, some even leave the bed they have been lent for a night or two by a local person to go down to the “camp” at daybreak in the hope that the police might do a round-up that day, and they will be “taken.” The word in French for this sort of police action is “rafle,” the same word used during the Nazi Occupation and under Vichy, though some public figures have objected to its re-emergence today. All are wary of the police, however, even if they want to formalize their situation in France, and the tension runs high around here, night and day, even though there is nothing to do but sit and wait.
Yes, one of the men agrees, it is better to do something. He wants to be part of the discussion. But the one who asked the question shakes his head. He stays, watches, doesn’t say anything more.
Others have pushed in. More exuberant. A few speak very fluent English. One gets very angry. He was an English teacher in Somalia. He is already a refugee, but he has nowhere to go, nothing to do. He bangs the table, flips it up off its trestle legs. This is no good. We’re all liars. We say we want to help, but we don’t. His anger punches into us. I’m reeling but not the others. He leaves, we keep talking, some shrug, smirk, bend down to help put the table back. Someone else is explaining what we’re doing to a compatriot and the word “workshop” keeps spinning and flashing in his cascade of words. His friend smiles, nods, looks at me. Another young man with a bobble hat is adamant that this is good, he has always dreamt of going to university in London. He is a pharmacist, studied in the Philippines, speaks Filipino, Arabic and English. He’ll learn French too, not difficult, but he’d like to go to Britain, yes, Britain would be good. He will try, he will keep trying. But for now this is good. His certainty is a relief, but what are we trying to do? To shift the focus just ever so slightly from the burning intensity of each of their individual situations? But is that realistic when everything around them is so hostile, so confusing, both unpredictable and terribly unalleviated? Another older man hands me his piece of paper. He won’t be coming back, he is living in a centre too far from Paris, he has no work, no papers yet. He has written half a page in English: All Sudanese want to go England, he writes. The main reason for that is language and other reasons are they are feeling like in their countries. Because there is lots of things the same between Sudan and Britain.
His text continues with more detail of his own situation, the family he has in England, the fact he would like to study. He also hands me another page with three columns: name, country, phone number. He nods: I need to make a proper note of the essential.
Invalides. The word was suddenly cumbersome, heavy with its historical meaning which the habit of French pronunciation and daily passage through its turnstiles usually kept at bay: “Invalides,” I said in English, trying to keep my voice down though the difficulty of getting over this key nugget of information was prompting me to shout into the phone. “Invalides, line 13, Invalides. It’s a metro stop, after the river – Ah, Invalides.” You stressed the final syllable, “desse,” and the word again shed all its military bearing. “You see it? Okay great, two o’clock. Call me if you can’t find it when you get there.”
Of the fifteen or so people who had joined the first makeshift workshop, eight crossed town to the unlikely address of the University of London Institute in Paris, perched on the edge of the great empty Esplanade in front of Napoleon’s gold-domed hospital for wounded soldiers of the Empire, now a museum, in an area of museums, and palaces and ministries. All had crossed the desert, the sea, found their way past the administrative and security obstacles that make the continent of Europe an increasingly distressing place, to Paris, but the chances of them getting to the right place in the 7th arrondissement seemed slim to me as I stood under its broad, bright sky, looking out for the conspicuous appearance of young black men. But those were my own doubts speaking, my own doubts about what the right place for this sort of encounter would be. Your focus on even the slightest opportunity to gain some ground in this long battle to have a life would see you through the disorientation of a teeming city and its ambient hostility to young black men. Like reaching for a branch as the current is pulling you out and down. The University of London in Paris: for the first time, perhaps, in a number of years the possibility of that combination struck me, all that might hang on the idea of the University of London for a Sudanese student fleeing Darfour, but here in Paris, and not there, beyond the ever more impenetrable barrier of Calais, its fences and jungles, and the sea again beyond those.
None of these men knew one another beyond the sort of acquaintance one can make on a bench, in a makeshift camp. Their experiences prior to Paris were all radically different, and their routes north too, though some questions could be shared: had they been forced to leave their finger-prints in Italy, in Greece, or had they made it to France without yet declaring their presence in Europe? Where had they crossed: from Libya, from Egypt, from Turkey…? and how long ago: one month, three months, last year…? For all of them, though, the idea of university and of London, and of a university of London in Paris spoke loud and clear through the cacophony of the streets and offices where sirens cut across instructions that are often no instructions at all, only further obstacles, additional handicaps. So we set the chairs up in a circle in the quiet of a lecture theatre and embarked on the work I thought we could do to find ways of hearing their stories from within the stories that have been told over the centuries of fleeing France for England, for refuge from political persecution and deathly repression.
My starting point was a famous poem about a beach on one side of the “tranquil bay” of the Channel, the lights from the coast of France gleaming on one side, the cliffs of England glimmering on the other, and the roar of the pebbles with their “tremulous cadence” sounding a note of eternal sadness. I was interested to hear whether this evocation of the sea struck any chords, whether we could use this to begin to find ways of describing their experience of crossing. We listened to an audio recording, but there was no need to explain the words. The sadness of the last line of the stanza opened out onto descriptions that had nothing to do with tranquillity, or with melancholy for a land of dreams, and everything to do with the noise, the fear, the smell of diesel and the terrible uncertainty of a boat unworthy and over-full.
“Random” was your word for the movement that had tossed and terrorised your days at sea, ten in all, and the last ones with a ration of seven dates in the morning and seven in the evening, with some desalination crystals to keep thirst at bay. Ten days of zigzagging “random” skirmishes with the waves between Libya and Italy, a trip that can take a matter of hours, and you had never seen the sea before, knew not how to swim, and all the possessions you had on leaving Libya after months of work to pay your passage lost overboard in the first vessel that ferried you and how many others? More than made it with you to dry land, that much is sure. Ferried you to the inflatable craft that set out across that untranquil stretch, under the scorching sun and the cold of wet nights. We put words on the whiteboard, inadequate words that were the best I could find as I listened: tipping, sloshing, splashing, dazzle, staring… and you, you all talked more and more, the sheer length of time at sea eclipsing the calm of the lecture theatre: ten days, fifteen days, six days; or you who had crossed from Turkey to Greece, for you it was the vanishing of time in the force of the water, no distance but forced at knife point to embark on a raft made of materials you had carried yourself from the bus where you had felt you were going to suffocate, everyone piled in together, old women and young children too. “Materials” was your word, “but not good materials,” you added. We made the boat, not good boat, and then we could not stop, could not turn back, they said the police would come and so we had to go, though it was not possible to all stay up in the water. The knife, pointing, you stepped out, towards the water, and you mimed your gesture as I tried to understand. “You lost your footing”: I wrote it on the board. Yes, you said, yes, yes, I lost my footing, but my words had no purchase on the fear you were describing, grabbing for anything, catching a branch, hauling yourself up, then a rope, a Greek man pulling you in. I lost all sense of sequence, of which shore, as you did then, no idea where you were between there and Europe.
“We are dead anyway,” you said; “that is why we have to, we are dead anyway, so we have to, even though we know we may die.” And you explained the terrible burden too, of knowing that your passage was paid by a debt that your family would have to repay even if they never hear from you again. We are poor, you have to borrow money, and how do you know if you will be able to pay again, when you are in the pit of a small boat surrounded by bodies and water, unable to swim, waving in desperation at the large vessels that pass in the distance, with no navigation. “Random.” Do you know the word “limbo?” I asked. “Les limbes.” I wrote it on the board. I explained: the suspension, not knowing, between two states, between two coasts. Clinging, shouting; no melancholy. There is a proverb, you said. Yes, there is a proverb, and it was you who had left the camp in Yemen, seven years in the camp in Yemen, then the war caught up with you there, and no school ever, so the little English you speak and the Arabic that you know, you learned in the dust of the camp for you said, I have never held a book in my hand, but the proverb you knew meant the limbo of which I was speaking. So your new classmate wrote it down for you, and said it means “between death and life.” I hesitated, your death sounded like “desse.” You apologized, my pronunciation is not good. But it was my listening that was weak, timid. Between death and life, you sounded long the “th,” again and again, and then in your own language. I tried to repeat after you, so you marked the syllables, “Geeri iyo dhimasho dhex deed,” and the final fall of that compressed “d” which I could only come close to by imagining a stutter, or a sob swallowed, was that the life towards which your expression reaches? Between death and life, not life and death. You smiled, you will teach me. Your friend nodded, and prompted you to write more: “dhinac ma jiro dhinac ma jiro dhex da taaganahay.” What does this mean? I asked. It is the proverb, the same thing, between death and life, you explained and you nodded, but it is the proverb. Do you understand?
You hesitated before adding the last leg to the M of your name, a split second and then a slightly wavering stroke downwards. You’d been at both of the previous workshops, had told briefly of the years in the camp in Yemen, and were early to arrive for the second afternoon in the big empty lecture theatre. I’d brought you a book, a comic strip book chosen from overflowing shelves because the language was simple but the story had a historical dimension. I’d thought it might interest you, a twenty-five-year-old man. I showed it to you, explained my choice. We started to read, and you repeated each word almost before I’d finished it, without even that split second you would have at the look of the letter M on the whiteboard when it was your turn to write your name. None of the delay as a sound forms in your mind and attaches to the idea of a word with its first stroke and last stroke on the page. While the others arrived we muddled our way towards some basic idea of the story with gestures and a straining towards this thing between us that held us close in that space, and your bulky chest, or perhaps the shape of your lips, suddenly reminded me of my brother when he was no longer just my brother, but a young man who had gone elsewhere and who had filled out with that elsewhere. Then I left you with the book. There were new people in the group, introductions to make, and a commitment to keep.
I’d said I would tell you a bit about this place where we were meeting, and you would say something of where you are, in Paris, after everything you had said the week before about how you had got here. And so I began again with the Invalides, that military hospital, and also London. A strange fold, and stranger still when laid alongside your journey up through Egypt, over through Italy, across the Alps. And perhaps, if possible, across the sea again to England. How not, in the shadow of that golden dome, to see in reverse the expansion of Empire and its collapse in Franco-British rivalry? I’d thought about this through the week. About how possibly to find a good starting point together in that story. And I’d made a day-return across the Channel to central London to talk about how rumours and unofficial stories are filtered out of public history, and how they might just occasionally find their modes of infiltration. Meanwhile through the same week the imminent destruction of the “jungle” in Calais, decided by the French President in a new spate of pronouncements, had made the headlines, prompting ever more desperate attempts to get across before those who had pinned their hopes on England found themselves “evacuated” far from the coast. I wandered through the forecourt of the British Museum, a reprieve from the conference, and saw the Rosetta Stone in different shapes and sizes for sale in the gift-shop.
Its journey was along some of the same route as you. And its intersection of languages is offered to us today as a symbol of both the changing codes of public and vernacular narratives and the possibilities of reading between them to unlock the enigmas of a lost script. So I stumbled through a short-shrift version of why this stone might be something we could extract from where we were together, in this lecture theatre, to build a common text. Who was this Napoleon, you asked, and someone laughed back at you and explained in Sudanese Arabic. And then you spoke of where you are, here in Paris, of the different foyers and centres where you had been allocated a bed, in a room with others, and most often not in Paris at all, but dotted around the city, more or less remotely. The complex set of coordinates north, south, east and west of the city, held together by the train lines that cross it, quickly superseded the rough map that I had sketched to give some sense to the where that is mine, in these monumental spaces in the heart of two capitals, straining across my own preconceptions as I had with the storybook to make some common sense with you. The centre where you are staying is no good, you said, no food, cold, no school. You want to learn, French and English, and then to look for home and make relation with the people. That’s what you said. All you have known, in Sudan, in Libya, you can’t begin to tell, it would be a book, a big book. You don’t want to tell that. You don’t have time. First you have to learn, and then you have to live. But the security guards, they make it difficult. If you leave the centre, they make it difficult for you to come back. If you try to take a train, the police stop you, search you, even if you have a ticket. Where did you get that phone, they asked you, having forced you to empty your pockets again. So you don’t take the train too much. If you miss the bus connection, it is more than three hours walk to the centre where you can sleep. And if you are stopped by the police, well, maybe you will miss it.
“On foot” but “by train,” or “on a bus,” or should you say “in a bus”? You remember when I tell you, but it is hard, these things only come back slowly, but you do remember, you will remember: “with a fork,” not “by a fork,” and the station is at the corner, but the television is in the corner. It’s years since you’ve been in a classroom. Years spent getting here. And you are writing it all down, but no, you don’t come at the corner of the river, you come to a corner in the river. But when I read the new version of your crossing from Turkey that you are busy writing while we try and sort how English positions us, I’m wrong, you were also at a corner in this river, for a long swirling moment of no clear direction. I explain, and you laugh, shrug while someone else asks do you sit in the grass or on the grass, and we all laugh as I mime the grasses around me. So you are on the sea and not in the sea? You’re at sea, I say, but it is true too that you are on the sea.
We’re losing you. You gesture at the blank piece of paper in front of you, and it slips to the floor. Your frustration also makes me think of my brother. You’ve never been in a classroom and these forms that are resurfacing for the others from lessons learnt by heart in another place mean nothing to you. I pick up the piece of paper and try to simplify. One sentence and some pictures: I go by boat to Yemen, I go by plane to Turkey, I go by foot to Norway… underlining the “by” and the “to.” You hit the page and your gesture says this means nothing. It’s a way of telling your journey, I say, the journey you told us last week, the one your friend wrote down. I write at the top of the page “My journey.” Again that angry gesture, and you shake the arm of the person sitting next to you. His hands tell me that he is explaining how the sentence works to you, but it’s too late. You look away, maybe you’re going to walk away. No food, cold all the time at the centre, no means of even saying where that centre is, what the name of it might be, or any landmark that might have enabled us to situate it on our summary map of the group’s far-flung holding places in the Ile-de-France. Maybe somewhere beyond Nanterre, someone said, but we left it with a vague arrow pointing outwards from the centre. So we have some tea, we eat some dates. Some of you have to go, to catch that bus, and there is a football match. I try one more time with our piece of paper, and you point to the letter M, questioning. But it’s there, I say, stepping back towards the whiteboard, in your name. It’s the same. He needs all the alphabet, you say, not lifting your head from your own writing. He has the book but no alphabet. So my friend and colleague sits down with you and together you start work on an alphabet.
The others have left but you want to explain again, each step associated with figures, 300, 600, 800, the amounts paid – in what currency? – for each part of your journey, for your sisters and your mother too initially, but they’re no longer with you. You are alone, and you are afraid of being sent back to Norway because it is in Norway that you have left your finger-prints, but in Norway too that it was “negative.” Again and again you said “negative” in this story which I was barely grasping, just the numbers and the places, and even then only very approximately, and “negative.” In Norway you said 300, people I think, 300 Somalis and all of you “negative.” You used sheets of paper to signify each person, you would have leafed through the whole ream of paper on the desk, “negative,” “negative” and that word you kept on pronouncing gesturing to something tall, but I didn’t understand, so we tried a translation app on a phone and perhaps we thought it meant court, so you got your phone out too and found a photo of the piece of paper that said “negative” in words I understood much less than yours. Then you wrote the date 2016/11/4, and I read backwards to the realization that this is the date when you think you might be sent back to Norway, and from there perhaps back to Somalia, where you haven’t lived for fifteen years, where no-one of your prior life lives now, where life is under a duress that I can’t begin to quantify or qualify in the way you are working so hard to qualify and quantify your route here. You pull out a paper, your temporary registration under the Dublin procedure, Cergy you say, two weeks, you need help. I scan down the document, your date of birth is given as 01/01/1991, your name as “known as,” your address is a “plateforme d’accueil,” a welcome platform. Your existence on paper is so slight, and yet here you are, wearing a flecked blue jumper with a long necklace of uneven wooden beads around your neck. I haven’t seen you with the necklace before. Perhaps it’s usually under your shirt. I’d like to know more about it. How far it has come with you? But I write down the phone number for the platform, at least I can try calling, and perhaps there will be someone there, out there or up there on that welcome platform – is there a better preposition for this mechanism of dispatch? – who is willing to help situate you a bit more steadily on the map, somewhere at the end of that suburban train line. You’re probably still on that train, while I sit here letting the afternoon slip away into another autumnal evening in Paris.