The Quality of Mercy

First published on Lacuna, 18 April 2016

“What kind of people are we, the Europeans, that we calmly leave our neighbours to perish? What kind of people are we, that we watch others drown, day after day? We could prevent their deaths, but we don’t, because we find their lives too expensive … Stop forcing men, women and children onto the boats. Have mercy.”

Wolfgang Bauer wrote these words in December 2015 for the epilogue to the English translation of his book, Über das Meer: Mit Syrern auf der Flucht nach Europa.

The book, a gripping and brutally honest depiction of the journeys of several Syrian refugees and an indictment of Europe’s response, was written in 2014. Bauer’s anger stems from the fact that nothing has changed. Or rather, nothing has changed for the good. The European Commission still flounders in its response to the growing numbers of refugees arriving, and now, a few weeks after the publication of Bauer’s book, has opted to simply turn them away and pay Turkey to manage the situation. ‘Gradually and subtly, we are becoming more brutal,’ Bauer wrote presciently. ‘Our protection is proving our destruction.’

In April 2014, posing as English teachers, Bauer, an award-winning journalist, and photographer Stanislav Krupař, joined a group of Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe from Egypt. ‘I had no political purpose,’ Bauer told me. ‘Primarily I wanted to understand what was happening. Hundreds of thousands were fleeing, but no one could explain to me back then what was actually happening on their journeys.’ Bauer and Krupař shared the refugees’ experiences – kidnappings and arrests, detainment and deportation, perilous boat journeys and border crossings – and documented them in what the book’s translator Sarah Pybus describes as a ‘compelling and vital’ piece of journalism. After one failed sea crossing, the group was arrested and detained in Egypt. The German and Czech embassies intervened on Bauer and Krupař’s behalf and they were flown home. But they did not forget their friends who were denied such easy passage to European soil. First-hand accounts of their attempts to reach ‘that Elysium known as Europe’, as Bauer describes it, fill the rest of the book.

Myths exposed and debunked

Wolfgang Bauer, Crossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe; book about refugees crossing MediterraneanCrossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe was published last month by And Other Stories. Recalling his first encounter with Bauer’s book, publisher Stefan Tobler said, ‘When I read it in the German edition, it was clear it was an important book that needed to be published now. To our surprise, it appears to be the only book that gives readers the experience of what it’s like for the Syrians.’ It makes for uncomfortable reading. Even those of us who are sympathetic to the suffering of refugees, who seek out their personal stories in an effort to better understand their lives, will not have encountered anything as vivid or frank as Bauer’s portrayals, which reveal and shatter naïve and lazy assumptions.

Near the start of the book, Bauer introduces us to Amar before he flees. He is saying goodbye to his family in their large Egyptian living room, its ‘magnificent gold-printed wallpaper and sprawling sofas’ forcing us to confront the often ignored truth that not all refugees are poor. In this particular exodus, poor refugees have little chance of reaching Europe. It is a recurring theme.  We learn of the vast sums paid to smugglers, forgers, blackmailers and middle-men – $6,500 for a seat on a boat to Italy; $2,400 for a forged Egyptian visa; $200 for a taxi ride across the Danish border; $150 for a night in a hovel.

‘Things cost twice as much without papers,’ says Alaa, a young Syrian man from Damascus travelling with his brother Hussan. Their desperation and illegality mean they are easily exploited – smugglers can charge the refugees extortionate prices knowing they will pay if they are able. Bauer shows how many refugees, including Amar, despite his gold-painted wallpaper, servants and savings, almost bankrupt themselves on the journey.

He debunks other myths too. ‘Refugees should not just be portrayed as victims,’ Bauer told me, ‘because they’re not.’ But the media often ascribes very simplistic identities to refugees – victim or hero, alien or criminal, romanticised or demonised figures. Lauren Beadsworth explores this well in her recent article for Lacuna about an exhibition of photographs taken by migrant women in Hong Kong. Like those photographs, which challenge simple myths about migration, Bauer’s book explodes the conventional approach with depictions of complex individuals from the whole spectrum of humanity. We’ve all met someone a bit like Hussan, described by his brother as lazy and too dependent on his family. ‘At home in Damascus, he just played on his Game Boy and messed around on Facebook,’ Alaa complains. Hussan is hurt by his brother’s accusations. ‘When I get to Sweden I swear I’ll change,’ he tells Bauer. ‘I’ll be a better person in Sweden.’ These are ordinary men, with foibles and flaws, no different to us.

Whatever their tendencies, each person in Bauer’s narrative is portrayed as a human being with a past and a future, quirks and pet hates, deep-seated desires and complex emotions. They cannot be reduced to simple labels, like ‘refugee’ or ‘smuggler’. Each person we meet – whether refugee, smuggler or boat captain – is individualised in a brief but expressive sentence or two. Bauer tells us that Abdullah, the captain of the boat that will eventually take Alaa and Hussan to Italy, wears a floppy hat, chats a lot and is friendly to his passengers. Abu Nagin, a smuggler who helps Amar in Turkey, has thinning grey hair, a ‘carefully coiffed walrus moustache’, a little belly and a high-pitched voice.

The people in Bauer’s book are themselves aware of the power of the labels. The night before he starts his journey, Amar reflects on how he ‘must cast aside everything he once was: a father, a businessman who solved problems over the phone. He will spend the next few months as a refugee, nothing more.’ Even the most well-intentioned journalists often forget that these people were not always – and are not only – refugees. Bauer shows us Amar’s life before he flees; his constant doubts, his frustration at the smugglers’ inefficiency and his phone calls to his wife Rolanda, who begs him to return. In doing so Bauer restores Amar’s other identities to him, just as he does with everyone he writes about. He shows how their pre-refugee lives seep into their present and constructs his account in the same way, allowing past and present to overlap. This is most striking in the description of Amar leaving his family home to start his journey. He gets into his car and drives away, soon getting stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway on his way to meet his agent at a Kentucky Fried Chicken 30km from downtown Cairo. The banality of such a journey, reflected in Bauer’s simple, concrete language, jars with its significance. Without intruding into the text unnecessarily, Bauer makes a powerful point: there is no solid boundary between being a refugee and not being a refugee. The journey begins in the same way as any other and those who make it carry the emotional and mental baggage of their past with them, along with mobile phones and life jackets. Normal life continues around them too. Locals eat chicken, go shopping and drive their cars in the same streets where the refugees are kidnapped, hounded and blackmailed.

Bauer’s book is unique in its telling of the refugees’ journey from Egypt to Europe. The majority of refugee stories are retrospective – people are interviewed after they have arrived in Europe and, although their future is often uncertain, their path to ‘Elysium’ has already been trodden. We know they survive the journey. With Amar, Alaa, Hussan and the others, we have no such knowledge – and nor do they. Their journeys are erratic and involve many backward steps, which we experience alongside them. One refugee, Asus, has already made five attempts to get to Europe when he joins Bauer’s group. Rarely in control of what will happen to them next and subject to the whims of the internal politics of the smuggling gangs, the refugees live in perpetual uncertainty. They wait for days in an apartment with no idea where they will be taken next, or they board a boat and travel for over a week in an unknown direction, assured by the captain that they will reach Italy soon when in fact they are near the coast of Libya. ‘I was flying into a void,’ says Amar, as he remembers being released from detention and given the choice of flying to Lebanon or Turkey. The reader flies into the void with him, equally unaware of what lies ahead. Bauer’s narrative allows us to experience something of the confusion, lack of control and unpredictability that govern the refugees’ journeys, albeit in a very diluted form.

Bauer uses language to bring us closer to the reality of Amar and Asus, Alaa and Hussan. Like the facts he conveys, his language is blunt and unadorned. The sentences are often short, even truncated, packed with concrete nouns and devoid of unnecessary adjectives. ‘Hands reach out to them, hands push them from behind,’ Bauer writes, describing how the refugees are moved from one boat to another in open water. ‘The smugglers rope the boats together. There’s a real danger that the boats will hole each other. Two old car tyres between the wooden hulls cushion the impact. Changing boats is the riskiest part.’

The occasional metaphor or simile he uses can jar with the simplicity and directness of his usual language. When he describes how the cook on a boat ‘orders the refugees around like a shepherd boy’ or how a fishing fleet is ‘as beautiful as stardust’, we are jolted out of the immersive experience of reading Bauer’s vivid narrative and brought back to our own reality. The gulf between us and the characters in Bauer’s story that this book tries to bridge suddenly widens once again and the narrative momentarily loses its power.

But these are brief and rare moments in an otherwise deeply engaging account that is perfectly complemented by Krupař’s photographs. The images press home Bauer’s message – that all refugees are individuals, that they had a life before becoming refugees and that the journey to Europe is filled with obscurity and terror. We see Amar hugging his daughter, a man counting money for the smugglers and a blurred, lopsided image of an Egyptian Navy vessel carrying the soldiers coming to arrest the marooned travellers.

There is plenty in Bauer’s book that could be used by the right or left-wing media to argue for either a more stringent or a more humanitarian response to the refugee crisis.

He meets some Egyptians hoping to find better jobs in Europe. ‘When they arrive, they will claim to be Syrians,’ he writes. Others have left their passports with friends in Cairo ‘because they don’t want to give their real names in Italy. They all want to continue on to Sweden or Germany.’ You can almost see the tabloid headline writers rubbing their hands with glee.

The left-wing press might focus on the plight of Bissan, a 13-year-old diabetic girl travelling with her family, or the horrors of detention in an Alexandrian prison. But unlike most journalists, Bauer does not shy away from nuance or context, complexity or ambivalence. This doesn’t equate to neutrality, however. His political position is unambiguous and he sometimes intrudes too much in stating it. Defending the refugees’ decision to give false names in Italy, he argues that the Dublin Regulation ‘is what forces them to play this game of hide-and-seek.’ In Bauer’s view, ‘European bureaucracy’ is the villain, not the refugees. As a reader, I sometimes wanted Bauer to step back to allow me to form my own opinions about the facts he was narrating. But his passion, so palpable in the extract I quoted at the beginning, compels him to be explicit. And having read his harrowing account, I cannot judge him for using it to call for, in his words, ‘a great act of mercy’ from Europe.

Journey’s end is a new beginning 

For Amar, Alaa and Hussan crossing the sea was just one of many threats they encountered on their way to Europe. Bauer shows us how the traumatic journey has changed and damaged these men. Amar, once so optimistic and good-humoured, emerges listless from his interrogation in Alexandria. ‘This clever man of action […] is falling apart before our eyes,’ Bauer writes. Amar later falls asleep ‘and hopes to never wake up.’ Meeting Alaa after his arrival in Europe, Bauer notices that he has lost weight and ‘seems exhausted from his time at sea. The skin hangs across his face. He’s nervous.’ And their journeys did not end with their arrival in Europe, the place they called Elysium or paradise, the place in which all their hopes had been stored. Life in Sweden is alien and confusing for Alaa and Hussan and they face xenophobia and ghettoization. Amar’s new home in Germany brings its own problems too. How will he make a living? Will his marriage last in this foreign land? Is he the same man as he was in Syria or Egypt? ‘One long journey has ended,’ Bauer writes. ‘Another is just beginning.’

I felt something similar as a reader. I had, in some way, accompanied these men on their journeys and I knew that the experience had transformed my understanding of the refugee crisis. I would now see it through the eyes of Bauer and Krupař, Amar and Alaa, Bissan and Hussan. Reflecting on her decision to translate Über das Meer, Pybus said, ‘It is pure accident of birth that I am the translator of this book and not one of its subjects, and I think that is something that people often forget.’ Bauer does not let his readers forget – his book draws us uncomfortably close to these people’s lives and haunts us with its call for mercy.


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