Dublin City of Sanctuary has a thriving Arts Stream which has run several successful poetry and music evenings. This story by Antain Mac Lochlainn was read out to a crowded audience at the Monday Echo, held in a busy pub arty pub. The story was particularly poignant coming as it did just at the time several governments, including UK, announced they were pulling funding from Mediterranean rescue ships – a powerful example of arts reaching places and people we normally don’t get to see.
We took our young out of the schools – our soft-handed boys who chalked verses on slate, traced the lines with their fingers and murmured the words until they had them. Then they would wipe the slate clean and begin again. I liked to watch them work, as if their minds were like the Great Desert, with room enough for all the words in the Koran. When we were packed into the trucks at Arlit, they knew what to say even when their mothers were speechless. They chanted prayers for a long journey and lifted our hearts so we faced into the sand like brave children standing up to a tormentor who encroaches and steals and stands between you and what you long for. First we would go to Tamanrasset in Algeria. Then, why not, to the treasure cities of Northern countries, whose names we hardly dared say, whose streets we couldn’t imagine, despite a hundred letters home. Our men said very little in their letters, only: ‘Here there is plenty. Even too much.’ And they proved it with dollars towards our passage, to give to the men with rifles and trucks.
The boys kept up their prayer as we entered the wilderness:
In the name of Allah, and Praise be to Allah. Glory unto Him Who created this journey for us, for we were unable to create it on our own. And unto our Lord we shall return.
It was good to leave Arlit, where the water is poison and dust rises from the mines the French dig in search of ore. It is a tainted place, and will be for a thousand years. Good to see it shrink to nothing behind our party of seven men, thirty-eight women, three score children, two trucks. The Great Desert is pure, be it scorched clean or chilled. And it is not empty. Under the sand is a causeway of bone lain down by slaves who fell on the path to Cairo or Tripoli, who held up the caravan or escaped to become meat for jackals. We, their descendents, remembered the stories and shuddered, but not too much. We were not stolen and we didn’t grieve for the towns of Kantcha or Zinder, red roads and mud houses. If you could have seen how my first born danced her way up the hill where the trucks waited, her hair braided in the style of the South. If any of our people saw her, in a market-square in Madrid, outside a mosque in London, they would know her as one of their own, would place some coins in her outstretched hand and maybe even take her hand.
Not my fault that one truck broke down beyond the power of prayer. Our guides took turns tinkering with the engine and cursing. ‘A whole day’s water wasted,’ they complained, although they drank most greedily of all. These men who were in our hire, who had from each of us what it takes a honest man ten years to earn, they began to bark their commands like jailers. Our men said nothing because our men had no guns.
The other truck went off to find water and parts. We waited. We prayed five times, which makes a day and a night. Long enough for thirteen to die. I should have admitted then how hopless it was and led my children back when the distance wasn’t impossible and while our bodies had strength. You despise me for clinging on, but who made you a prince and a judge over us? You didn’t hear the guide say: ‘We can’t make graves for these, for the border guards to discover. They will go with you in the trucks, standing up.’ You weren’t struck dumb by the wrongness of that.
That night we drove on sand that belongs to Algeria. Our guides were worried. We must sleep in a trench, they said, so as not to be seen by the border police. So we lay in the dying warmth of each other, looking up at the skies the slaves perished under; the unchanging stars. By sunrise my boys were as cold as their slates.
How quickly, how completely, we were erased.