Remembering My Uncle, The Silent Harraga.
We grew up with them. It was like growing up with flowers. Flowers that would bloom, and fade away.
They would come and go. Sometimes they would stay overnight. Sometimes they would take shelter and become just like us. But they would always leave, like
the seasons. And those who didn’t want to leave were finally torn away. For us, migration only starts once the migration has ended.
The world called them harraga. They carried their own names on their sleeves and had different stories to tell. And they all had their own smoking habits and would arrive at the doorstep without their shadow. A thick cloud of aftershave engulfed them; clean-cut faces, brown eyes, and no money. They made us feel great again. We would lavish them with our hospitality and then the waiting would begin, like a game, waiting for this person to leave. I would call him Uncle.
He stood in the room and said, “Hi”. There he was, the new arrival from outer space; he smoked Marlboros, the expensive cigarettes.
He had class. He inhaled and exhaled, but he made it look like one effortless movement.
Adagio ma non troppo.
His head was buried in a cloud of smoke, it somehow made his despair look glamourous. He didn’t speak much. The cigarette spoke for
him. A soliloquy of smoke screens.
One day, coming back from school, I sensed he was going to fail in his endeavour. Something was lacking. He lacked the power of speech. Only words would be able to fill the enormous gaps in the road ahead.
The silent ones carry it away, the silent ones die young. My uncle was not fit for this struggle. He lacked the words. He smoked too much.
To survive in a world of silence one has to be able to talk.
Remembering him is like receiving a late eulogy, broken into bits and pieces, wrapped in an empty packet of Marlboro.
He was my uncle.
And he went.
And he came back again.
Like in a lullaby.
First in realtime,
than as a memory,
and in the end as a nightmare,
but he always returned
to where he came from,
living in a comfortable cycle of give and take,
In those days people started
to turn against smoking,
the state turned against smoking.
He would travel from family member to family member. I don’t remember him carrying luggage. His body was his luggage. And if there was nowhere to sleep, he would sleep in his packet of Marlboro. That was a
joke he made. Sleeping in a packet of Marlboro. But we tried to kill him with our hospitality.
When he stayed at our home he slept on the sofa. He woke up very early in the morning; had breakfast before us, and then he would leave. I never saw him eat. I never saw him drink. He had his Marlboro food.
Talking to him felt special. He was not into chit chat. He was very much into smoking cigarettes. He looked like one of those outlaws I saw in westerns. It made me respect him even more. A proud and lonely outlaw for whom our advanced society was barbaric territory. He came to catch cattle and burn the land and feel lonely on the plains and meadows of Holland. Someday he would make love to a girl, have kids, start herding cows and be happy.
He didn’t seem to have a plan. He didn’t fit with the classic image of an immigrant; the classic image is the sum of the prejudices we have about ideal behaviour. The image of the harraga, the illegal, is that of a martyr driven by an
engine of despair. We seem to find this reassuring. Despair equals energy. Despair is good. So we look at the boats and the sea and the crossings and the beach and the whispers and the phone calls and the rocks and the moon and the gloom and the muscles and the children and the wives and the men and the fish and the energy bar and the salt through a prism of continuity. There will be terra firma after the
sea. But after the sea comes more sea. And everyone sleeps in his own packet of Marlboro.
He didn’t smile like an immigrant. He didn’t have the energy of an immigrant. He didn’t show the strength of an immigrant. He didn’t talk hopefully about a better world like an immigrant. He didn’t beg like an immigrant. He didn’t sleep like an immigrant. He didn’t eat like an immigrant. He didn’t have a philosophy on
his present status. When he disappeared from our sight, we felt he had entered the house.
The more I look at him, the more he becomes a number. A nobody. I think he lacked the talent to be an immigrant. Because before you can become one, you have to study them. It’s an education.
My uncle wasn’t eager to suffer for a better future; he wasn’t eager to tolerate scorn and poverty and isolation. None of the above. The suffering was already there before the migration, and that type of suffering made him unfit for the suffering ahead.
My uncle sat on the sofa, with his head buried in smoke. I learned not to ask the harrage many questions. What could he possibly tell me about his history? He had already burned it. What could he tell me about his past? He had burned that too. What could he tell me about his future? There was none. What could he tell me
about his present that I could not see with my own eyes, him sitting right in front of me.
People who are not used to being alone quickly lose their spirit when they are left alone for too long. Where he came from people were silent, but where he went to people talked and talked and talked. There was no one to share his silence with.
He would walk for long hours and make sure nobody would suspect him. He disappeared. The fact that the police could catch him assured him in a strange way. He was in safe territory, he was important, he had value. He was someone for the benevolent authorities. He was not afraid of them.
When I came home I would see him talking to his sister, my mother. Talking
silently. When he sat with my father he would ask for nothing, just nod in silence.
On New Year’s Eve we walked into town. I wanted to share the mood of New Year’s Eve with him. We walked and walked and somewhere during our walk my optimism got lost. At midnight we saw splendid fireworks. The feeling of entering a new year, with new possibilities in which the old and tired were cast away, got to me. The idea of a new time made me hopeful. My uncle looked for his cigarettes, smoked and puffed. He didn’t say anything. We walked back home. He let me enter the house first, he would come later. He stood outside in the afterglow of the fireworks smoking his Marlboro, his head covered in smoke. The next day he was gone.
– Abdelkader Benali