Water, by Gerhild Perl

hope. A collaboration: Sarah Hildebrand (photographs); Gerhild Perl; Julia Rehsmann; Veronika Siegl (essays). Translated from German into English by Alexandra Cox.

alexandra cox translator hildebrand sarah hope christoph merian verlag perl gerhild water

©2018 Christoph Merian Verlag, photographer, authors, translator. ISBN 978-3-85616-860-5

Water, by Gerhild Perl (extracts)

when the west wind is blowing,” says a baker in Tarifa. If the wind is blowing from the west, it is possible to make out the Moroccan mountains and villages, the big ports at Tangier and the Spanish exclave of Ceuta. If the wind is blowing from the west, from the promenade in Tangier it is possible to see the Spanish hills and the lights of the cars that drive along the Spanish coast at night. Fourteen kilometres separate Morocco and Spain. More than six million people cross the Strait of Gibraltar every year, and I am one of these six million who pack their bags, purchase their tickets and present their passports. Most people who cross the Strait of Gibraltar travel like me, drinking coffee and sitting in a faux leather seat in the ferry’s interior or looking out to sea on deck. Every day, Spaniards catch the ferry from the Spanish peninsula to Ceuta, where they work, and students from Morocco cross the strait during the holidays several times a year, to their families in Casablanca, Tétouan, Meknès or Essaouira. Since Spain introduced mandatory visas for North and West African citizens in the early 1990s, on the insistence of the EU, people travel in the shadow of the big ferries and people die in the attempt at getting to Europe in unseaworthy boats, the pateras.

to become an imam,” he says, and passes me a dish of dates. “In actual fact, I wanted to emigrate. To Spain or France.” We are sitting on the carpet in his house; between us are peanuts, tea and the recording device. The imam’s daughter is leaning against the doorframe, and his son lays his head on his lap. “When I arrived in Tangier,” the imam says, “I was arrested by the police.” He puts down the dish of dates and glances at his son’s head. “On those occasions the police searches your clothing first and then your body. If, for example, they find plastic-wrapped sneakers, toasted chick peas or nuts, they suspect you’re planning to catch a patera. And if they find money, 5000 or 10,000 dirham or thereabouts, they know you’re going to catch a patera.” He pours tea into a glass, empties the tea back into the pot and pours it into the glass again. “How old were you at the time?” He puts the pot down carefully. “Seventeen. Maybe eighteen. You know I didn’t catch the boat?” I nod. “I was in Tangier for four days. On the fifth day we left our room, and they brought us to the beach. It was night. What’s the best way to explain it to you?” The daughter enters the room and sits down next to me, reaches forward, and passes me the dish of dates. “It was raining,” continues the imam, “it was raining hard and the waves were thrashing about. I pulled my jacket tighter around me and breathed in the cold, salty air. It was a dark night. The clouds obscured the stars. We saw glittering dots of light on the other side of the sea. We knew that Spain was over there.” He strokes his son’s head absent-mindedly. “The man in the car, who I’d just given the money to, smelled of alcohol. This man ordered us to stand in a row. I was right in front. There were about fifteen men behind me. And a woman, I remember; a woman was with us on the beach that night. In a row we walked up to the water, where the boat was, and I realized that something was moving in the water. I just saw a shadow at first, but when I got nearer I recognized Mohammed from my village, trying to heave himself out of the water into the boat. But the waves kept pushing him off. The man from the car shouted over to me that I should grab hold of Mohammed. I remember wondering how he could make out, from back there, that someone was in the water: his eyes have probably got used to the dark over the years, I thought. ‘Pull him out,’ he shouted. He was afraid that Mohammed was going to die here on the beach. I ran into the knee-high water and pulled him out. He lay in front of me, coughing. That was the moment that God saved me. It was raining non-stop, and there was fear expressed on the few faces that I could make out in the dark. I was certain that fear could be read in my face, too. Everybody was screaming. The mood was tense and panicky, hostile; everybody was cursing everybody else. I will never forget. I didn’t like that mood, at all, and so I didn’t catch the boat.” The son has now stood up and toddled over to his sister, who pops a date into his mouth. The imam likewise reaches for a date and holds it for a while. “Days later we found out that almost everybody drowned. Only three survived.”

the body, stiff with cold, sags into the water and writhes once more and, its force almost spent, thrusts its head out of the water, kicking its legs and thrashing its arms. Imagine this body gasping open-mouthed for air, but only water sloshes into its mouth. Think of the eerie relief that you feel when this body finally vanishes beneath the surface and you watch little bubbles forming on the now-calm water. You heave a sigh of relief, because the spectacle is finally over. But suddenly the head thrusts out of the water again and stares at you with wide-open eyes, and for a moment you see yourself in the eyes of this body in its death throes. In the mirror of its eyes you see that you are scared and are clutching at something floating, to stop yourself from going under. At that point you start hating this body that is refusing to accept its fate, that is trying to live and, against your will, is making you a witness to its struggle for survival. The body that is refusing to die.

(… …)

lurch through the underworld, while the present-day living lark about – or is it the other way around? Are we larking about down here and those up there are lurching? We lark and lurch, and we wait with those who were here before us; we wait, with them, for those who are yet to come. Will you listen to us? We don’t even exist any more! We are dead and dumb, and the living put words into our mouths. They turn us into symbols, figures and shapes. They call us the Beached and the Drowned, the Sunk and the Floating; fear-ridden, they keep their distance from us and turn us into numbers, record us in statistics, name us anonymously with no identity. They try to resist us, while we persist in our monstrosity. We bob up beside the yachts of straw-hatted day-trippers, who are seeking relaxation and fun. But we are the Mediterranean’s spoilsports, though, and we get tangled in fishermen’s nets; that is to say, remnants of us get caught in fishermen’s nets, and we horrify them with our residual existence. We are to them a ghastly torment, and it happens that, shocked, they throw us back into the sea or, driven by conscience or conscientious duty, draw us onto land. Others are outraged that their governments make and let us die. They call us mothers, fathers and children; they call us brothers, sisters and friends; they look for our bodies, our names, our nearest and dearest. We populate a sea in which we do not exist and which you call your own. We are the people of a sea in which you cool off, on the sandy beaches of which you tan your bodies and on the stony coasts of which you coarsen your feet. It is a sea to which you come in order to see dolphins and admire killer whales. It is a sea on the coasts of which you sing the praises of sunsets, drink white wine and eat mussels. We are the people of a world that is denied to us. Whereas the future is yours and you move freely in a world in which you are truly at home, we hurtle against Schengen’s wall and get entangled in the net of visa obligations. It is a sea of the Frontex operations – Hermes, Nautilus, Poseidon, Triton and Zeus; a sea full of sonorous names that are designed to separate, shake off and expunge. Some of you say that this sea is a cemetery. Some say it today, some said it 20 years ago and what, we ask, will you say tomorrow?

(… …)

you sit on your chairs, take a sip of water and lean ever so slightly forwards. You adjust your watch-strap with your right hand, prop your elbows on your knees and clasp your hands together. You say that some people are genuine, you know, and some people just aren’t; and that this difference is essential. You unclasp your hands again, push the glass of water a little further away from you and say, without clearing your throat, that some come with genuine, and some with non-genuine problems, and the task is to check who are the genuine, and who are the non-genuine ones. You say the task is to find out who is deserving of being here: who is genuinely being persecuted, and who has genuinely fled from war. So the task is to establish, you say, who is genuinely suffering. You pause briefly and push the glass of water a little further away from you still and say, without clearing your throat, that the genuinely suffering ones need to be distinguished from those who are only looking for a better life, only trying to escape poverty and mundane violence. Those, therefore – and suddenly you let slip a brief, barely perceptible stutter – who come for mainly economic reasons. You take a quick glance at your watch-strap, push the glass of water a little further away from you still and clasp your hands together.

and a body’s full weight pulls your own body with it down into the depths, you will try your utmost to shake off this body; because, to your mind, this is no longer a human body, it is a physical force, which ought to be nobody’s unreasonable burden, yet it is your unreasonable burden and, on account of your panicked will to live, you are becoming somebody’s unreasonable burden yourself.

no getting used to them at all: “You’ve got to look away,” I said to him. “That’s what you’ve got to learn – looking away – because you mustn’t take it home with you. Not everybody can do this work, not everybody can do it.” For him, looking away was impossible. For him, whom the crisis had made unemployed, the not-taking-it-home-with-him was impossible too. He worked for us for two days, and then he was off. On the first day he came with me to Cádiz, to pick up a corpse; it was a child, such a child; it cuts you to the quick, but it has to be done. “Grit your teeth and get on with it and heave the little white coffin into the car,” I said to my pale-faced companion. The next day he had to go to Almería to pick up a dead man; this time, he had to go on his own, just transportation, after all, that’s not so hard; and he did a thoroughly good job of it; only – how should I put this – it seems he had some bad luck, as, when he drove back into our garage, he saw the child’s corpse lying in the hangar and saw the imam washing her and he came to me, quite pale, and without saying a word he pressed the bill for the recent journey into my hand, and then he managed to get some words out: he said that he was never coming back, never, and then he turned even paler than he already had been, and said that he had been unable to sleep the whole night, it had been impossible to fall asleep, because, he said, grabbing my forearm, “As soon as I’d closed my eyes I saw the small white child’s coffin in front of me.” He let go of my forearm and left, without asking for his wages.