Letter from Alkebulan: the Mother of Mankind

It was dusk by the time my postponed flight to Paris from Heathrow strained into the sky like a goose late for migration. What should have been a direct flight to East Africa had been canceled the day before. There was I, traveling because of a conflict on another continent, with my own continent providing all the obstacles. Even if the African cancellation was said to be because of a lack of spare parts or sabotage, even if two terminals at my final destination had already experienced power cuts, it was still whether or not I would even make it to my African connection at Paris that was concerning me.

At Charles de Gaulle airport I had only 15 minutes in which to waste 10 of them waiting for a shuttle bus to carry me on an 8-minute journey followed by a 400-meter walk. It just didn’t compute. Thanks to Brexit, I also had to check out of transit and then go straight back in again, including through security. At least the French were courteous and sympathetic, but when I reached my correct longer-haul terminal, I had to race through the modish architecture and ascend a long set of stairs as if they went on forever. It was like being trapped inside a work by Escher. Even worse, when I reached the top, it was — incomprehensibly — a dead-end. So I had to come straight back down again, until finally — way over in what felt like an unachievable distance — was my gate number. I was so out of breath. I was wheezing like an Atlantic seal. I didn’t know how, but I made it. Several hours later, next to a bearded Frenchman asleep upright in his seat, I monitored the flight path on his screen. We were within the Sahel region and about to turn eastwards.

Having landed on the world’s least industrialized continent, with its under-reported conflicts and incredible personable strengths, my checked-in suitcase was nowhere to be seen. I waited what felt like hours by the carousel. It must have missed the connection. ‘It is very sad,’ noted the manager of the hotel I was staying in. ‘It used to be the pride of Africa,’ she said, referring to the airline, even though I had already said to her it was just as likely to be the fault of the British carrier arriving late into Paris. I had also told no one there were one or two important pieces of film kit in the suitcase, just in case this made it overly attractive to thieves, though I was largely trusting, and these items were of far more practical than financial value.

Suitcase or not, I was heartened by the camaraderie of everyone in a land with over half a million refugees. They knew a thing or two about being there for someone. Some of these refugees were recent influxes; others from over 30 years ago. I kept meeting more and more of the latest influx, which was in part why I was in the region. These were interesting and dignified people. Their resilience was astounding. Their manners and good grace was for me second to none. Nor had I slept for over 36 hours. At least there was a fan in my room whose sound felt as soothing as the air it was trying to generate. It was not for the first time I was reminded of Martin Sheen’s renegade Colonel Willard in Apocalypse Now, though there were no accompanying helicopter sounds, and the closest to explosions were celebratory fireworks outside my window.

One night I was with an expert of the region taking a taxi through a series of narrow back roads. A makeshift street fire was burning to our left. Picked up by rising and dipping headlights, battered road signs were displaying far more character and resilience than the unbattered ones. One man sat in the middle of the road. He looked like an important piece of sculpture. This was until his hand reached for his head and he began to scratch it. I was actually in the middle of being taken to meet two special people staying a few days in the capital in temporary accommodation. Both had left a country torn asunder by conflict and were in fact here from a neighboring haven. This was only for a few days. The room where the four of us sat was small but the hospitality was enormous. Fruit juice. Tea. A chocolate biscuit. Warm smiles. Language-compensatory nods.

Both were political writers who had been dragged by fate from both their one closed and one still open publications. I listened and listened, speaking only to show appreciation. The man was wearing a flowing jalabiya outfit in a traditional light brown color, just like his skull cap. It spoke of deserts past as well as the free press. The woman wore a patterned ankle-length dress and retained the restless composure of a heroine in an ambitious novel. Such brave and special people. They were seated on a tight green sofa by a drenched red and yellow wall, enjoying the shadows while the colors continued to contradict them by beckoning for someone to film them. I knew my protocol. These people were relatively under the radar, and I was like a guest in the house of loss. As for getting to know people generally over the next while, I knew it would take time, months even, and would require further exploratory trips, further establishments of trust, before I could even dare to declare true knowledge or any green light. Hence, if you like, my deliberate obliqueness. Hence my gentle, though unwavering, reports of progress. Meanwhile, traffic sounds competed outside like a metropolis yearning for trains again, in a city first begun as a rail depot.

I knew I would soon be moving to a neighboring country, a place considered the biggest refugee-hosting country in the world, with over one and a half million refugees. It is not just to the north across the Mediterranean that migrants and refugees from the vast continent of Africa are drawn, such as the 61 missing people presumed dead off the Libyan coast at the weekend.

But first I wanted to find out more about the women and youth within this diaspora. As a result, I was privileged enough to meet among many others one young highly creative group of both sexes, all miles from home. In this group, there was a very young musician. He asked tenderly if I could help him quit cigarettes. ‘Gum,’ I said: ‘At first.’ I noticed he had been tearing off the tops of the sugar sachets on the table before pouring the granules into his mouth and crunching them satisfactorily.

The spirit among each young person — around a table in the shade by a series of long and hanging vines — was impressive beyond belief, and the manner in which they were so obviously looking out for one another was impressive to witness. Monsters stalk this earth but they are not like their people. I asked one shy artist, a painter, wearing a really cool bucket hat, how much he wanted people to see his work. This was knowing that he was in exile and divorced therefore from the usual oxygen of exhibition or criticism. ‘Some of it,’ he said, self-protectively. ‘I would like people to see some of my work.’

A young woman meanwhile said she would like to speak about the war. She wore a light-coloured hijab and placed a hand on her heart before attaching all of the blame on men. That day, two of her fellow nationals had been killed and seven badly hurt in an attack on an aid convoy in her country. A few days later, not so far from her own coastline, a western destroyer shot down a suspected attack drone from another conflict altogether. Everyone is at it. ‘Hey, don’t worry about your lost suitcase,’ chipped in the musician from across the table. This was out of the blue, I was thinking. ‘Just because we guys have escaped war,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings for others.’ I would happily sacrifice my suitcase to meet a person like that every time.

Peter Bach lives in London.