When the statue of Saddam Hussein came down in Baghdad, a vicious brawl broke out in the TV room. Six young Sudanese had a fight with a group of Iraqis who were celebrating the fall of the dictator. It was a remark by Youssef the Sudanese that lit the spark: ‘The American troops will fuck your women, so why are you so cheerful?’
The Afghans and some young Nigerians tried to break up the brawl. As for the Iranians, they left the room and started to watch through the windows. Blood was shed and one young Sudanese was taken to hospital after he fractured his skull and lost consciousness. By the time the riot police arrived there was a horrible smell coming from the room and the furniture was completely smashed. I watched the battle coolly from the door. I had spent more than three years in this refugee reception centre in this small Italian town and I had seen many furious fights. They could break out over washing powder or a pair of women’s underwear. That’s what happened with Parvin the Kurdish woman’s pants. Parvin told the Kurdish refugees she had seen a young Pakistani man steal her underwear from the clothes line. Thereupon a battle of honour broke out between the Pakistanis and the Kurds and it did not stop for three days. The manager of the centre called in the police when the guards at the centre failed to stop the fighting.
What aroused my curiosity in the battle of the TV room was Ali al-Basrawi. He was hugging his bag and grinning like a madman. This delicate young man had changed completely since he came to the centre. I invited him that evening to have a coffee in my room to make sure he was well and say goodbye to him. He had decided to continue his travels to Finland and I was not fully convinced he had made the right decision. I advised him to go to Germany or any other country where maybe he would have a better chance of finding work. We spoke at length that evening about his
dreams, his fears and his plans. He told me he could hear his mother’s voice. She was speaking to him lovingly and giving him advice, but she was also reproaching him for
what happened to her head in the Greek forest. He too was happy that the dictator had fallen, though he was worried by the thought that the European countries might stop granting asylum to Iraqis. I told him that things might change in Iraq and we might be able to go back to our homes and our families, but he reminded me of his black bag and said: ‘I have no family, no friends and no hope. Everything I possess I’ve been carrying in my bag. I’m hoping I can take my mother to a place that’s safe and comfortable, because the poor woman has suffered long enough.’
More than once it has occurred to me that I will spend my life writing about the events and surreal happenings I have experienced along the routes taken by undocumented migrants. It’s my cancer and I do not know how it can be cured. I’m afraid I might meet a comic end like the Iraqi writer Khalid al-Hamrani, who spent his whole life writing about the street market close to his house. When the market was demolished and blocks of flats were built in its place, Hamrani killed himself, leaving six collections of stories, all of them about the world of the market. Once I was talking to a young German novelist about my personal experiences in the world of migrants and my ideas about turning what I had lived through into material for literary fiction. When it was the young German’s turn to speak he told me that he
had never written anything of merit and that his youth and lack of experiences in life were the reason for this failure. I felt he wanted to tell me that he envied me the strange and painful life experiences I had had. But what he said, instead of making me feel privileged, severely embarrassed me. His remarks reminded me once again what a broken and insignificant creature I really was. I was overwhelmed by a bitter sense of shame, like the man that the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky talks about: a man who has an accident in the street and has his arm cut off, and when the passers-by gather round him waiting for the ambulance to arrive, the man takes out a handkerchief and and puts it on his arm in an attempt to hide it from the gaze of the onlookers.
But I was always tempted to write the story of Ali al-Basrawi, even if it is loaded with grief and gloom, along with a few Third World clichés which try to appeal to the sentiments of Western audiences. Whenever I thought of the story, it reaffirmed the poetic nature of the human face hidden like a jewel under the millions of tonnes of this trivial life’s rubbish. Perhaps because I am a poet and live as a refugee in a place like this, a cattle pen, I have a hard heart or perhaps a brain with a trace of a fatuous belief in absurdity, a brain which tries through meagre words to express its anger
and interest in human terror at the same time. But whenever I looked at a tree or contemplated a night filled with the wolves of doubt, my heart was overwhelmed by a flood of naïve and childish sadness. I believe that writing should not be handicapped by the banal emotions that emanate from human masses like the smell of sweat from their shirts and that are all identical, like a row of toilets in one bathroom. But Ali’s story seeped into my blood and could bring tears to my eyes on many nights. I wept that my heart had turned to stone and I wept because the world is much purer and more beautiful than it appears.
When Ali al-Basrawi arrived at the refugee centre last year there was a great commotion. The refugees had a riotous time laughing and making jokes about what his black bag might contain. It was a travel bag of a design that dated back to the 1950s. As soon as Ali arrived the officials called the police, who detained him for three days and then rseleased him, but they returned his bag to him only after three months. In the meantime the bag was examined in laboratories in the capital and the manager of the centre was stunned to hear that it was returned with all its contents.
In the 1990s Ali was living with his seven brothers, all of them older than him, in one of the miserable districts of Basra. His father worked as a night watchman at several
shops in the city centre and his mother, like most Iraqi mothers, was a creature on whom was dumped all the muck of injustice, sadness and human brutality. She was the victim of a depraved male world beyond hope. It would be easy to forget that God exists if you could experience a single day in the life of an Iraqi mother. This might seem like just a naïve and romantic sentiment, but if there were hidden cameras exposing to the world the abhorrent things that happen to a woman in Iraqi homes, then the very stones would speak out to denounce the state of affairs and curse whoever brought it about. Ali’s brothers had inherited from their father an addiction to imposing on their mother all the problems and misfortunes of poverty and fate. She would be beaten for the most trivial reason and the mother would repeatedly rebuke her Lord for failing to provide her with a daughter to help with the housework and sympathise with her. Ali could not easily forget the day when his eldest brother punched and kicked the poor woman until she was unconscious because she forgot to wake him up to go to market to look for work. The mother’s only response to all the brutality and insults was to sit near the old wardrobe and cry, imploring the righteous saints to save her from the iniquity. Ali was a boy at the time, and his mother hugged him and sobbed. She might have been hugging a child who would grow up to beat her.
Ali says that when she tired of crying she would take from the wardrobe her small bag, the only thing she possessed – an old travel bag which contained a wooden comb, a mirror, a picture of the Imam Ali, a Quran wrapped in a piece of green cloth and a black-and-white photograph of her when she was young, sitting with her father on the waterfront. She would undo her black headscarf and start to comb her white hair idiotically for a full hour as she hummed the tune of an old song about sympathy for one’s mother. But perhaps the woman’s constant prayers to be released from this life did find listeners among the devils in heaven, because she suddenly died of a stroke, and after her death Ali would have to wait years before he could get revenge on his brothers and his father, that pile of shit that now lives paralysed in his wheelchair.
Ali planned everything quietly and carefully for more than a year. He decided to flee to Iran first and on the night of his departure he went into his mother’s room, took her
bag and slipped away. His friend Adnan was waiting for him at the end of the lane carrying a pickaxe and a shovel in a sack. The two friends lit cigarettes and set off towards the cemetery. The sky was clear and a moon as big as Ali’s fear shed its light on the grave as the two friends dug it up. With a piece of orange cloth Ali cleaned his mother’s bones, then put them in the old bag.
Ali picked up the bag with his mother inside and fled to Iran, happy to have his revenge. He imagined how everyone’s face would be as pale as death when they discovered what had happened. He never parted with the bag of bones throughout his next journey to Turkey across the mountains. He would sleep in the valleys with the other migrants, hugging the bag close with love and veneration. His strange bag, and the obsessive way he guarded it, gave rise to amusement and derision, but he took no notice of that and he did not reveal to anyone the secret of the bag. For a year he worked in Istanbul in a balloon factory so that he could continue his journey as a migrant, and for that year Ali would talk to his mother at night about the distant country that he would choose to live in peacefully, and about how he wanted to start a new life and forget about all the torment. But Ali could not easily get over the enormity of what he had done. He would often get goosebumps and sharp stomach pains when he thought about it. Fear of the unknown, mixed with fear of remorse, wrenched at his heart.
Before the cruellest days of cold descended on Istanbul Ali made a deal with a smuggler to travel with him on foot across the Greek-Turkish border. Winter is the best season for crossing borders because the border guards grow too lazy
to go out on their daily patrols. Ali was worried about the river they would have to cross, but the smuggler reassured him, telling him they would make the crossing in a boat big enough for everyone, as it would be impossible to swim in the cold water. Ali bought some plastic bags nonetheless
and wrapped his mother’s bones in them. His fears were
misplaced and the smuggler did not make them swim across the river, the way you hear in stories about dishonest smugglers. Instead it was the forest that would bring Ali to grief, through an event which gave him pangs of conscience and dragged him into a deep depression.
As soon as the group set off into the forest behind the smuggler, some border guards appeared and began shouting at the group, ordering them to stop. But the smuggler urged the group to run behind him as fast as possible. They fled between the trees in the darkness of the thick forest, letting the branches scratch their faces and rip their winter coats. Ali was running as fast as he could, clutching the bag to his chest and trying to keep up with the smuggler so he would not lose his way. But he crashed into a tree trunk, was knocked backwards and fell to the ground, and his mother’s bones flew in all directions in the darkness of the forest. Ali bent down to the ground, bleeding from the forehead and trying in fear and confusion to gather the scattered bones. He felt the bones carefully before putting them back in the bag. He wiped the blood from his eyes and staggered on again, as the guards shouted in the distance from time to time.
Miraculously the group escaped the ambush set by the border guards, thanks to the smuggler’s intelligence and knowledge of the paths through the forest, though a young Iranian and a Kurd lost their way and may have been caught. The rest of the group reached the capital Athens safely and the smuggler handed them over to an old Greek man who would take them across the sea to Italy.
While Ali was staying in a house in Athens for trafficking migrants, he checked his bag. His mother’s bones, the mirror, the wooden comb, the picture of the Imam Ali and the Quran were all in place, but what was missing was her head, which used to rub cheeks with his as she watered it with her tears and tortured sobs…
Ali will definitely take his bag of bones to a safe place where he can bury them, a place which no one else can find, and maybe he alone will hear one of the songs sung by his mother, whose head went missing in that forest.