Basman Derawi | 10-09-2017
The sun had just set in a blaze of pink, and the boat docks no longer were visible. The city behind them was only a faint, muddy glow. The sea lay quietly, with the gray sky resting like a heavy blanket over the water.
He stood wedged by the rail on the top deck of the boat, thinking of his uncertain future. It frightened him to realize his attempt to escape might be in vain. He peered at the other people crammed into the boat, studying their faces. Almost every face looked frightened, masking the person’s story. Two women sat on the bench that lined the box, talking in whispers, shoved together by the others. One had two little boys beside her, the youngest one gripping a stuffed bear as if afraid it would be snatched away at any time. A man who looked to be in his mid-20s sat nearby, with one leg hanging over the side of the boat, resting his head in his hands as if it was too heavy to hold up any longer. Another man sat on top of his duffel bag, staring fixedly at the sky as if in a trance. Everyone was pressed shoulder to shoulder, skin to skin. He tried to shove the image away, but it made him think of cattle being transported to the slaughterhouse.
He turned his face to the sea again and wondered what his mother and father were doing right now. He sank down to the deck and drifted off asleep, his knees pressed to his chest.
Suddenly, he jerked awake to the sound of screams. Was this real or another nightmare hunting him again? The winds were strong, shoving the boat sideways into the waves. A huge crest of steel-gray water rose up and slapped the boat hard, tossing it upside down like a child’s toy. He plunged into the bracing-cold water. All around him, people were screaming and flailing about as they tried to swim. He watched the boat sink rapidly into the opaque depths, then disappear altogether. He began swimming against the waves until his arms and legs burned and his lungs ached.
After an hour or so, or perhaps a few hours (it was hard to tell), the wind and the waves calmed and he found himself alone in the middle of sea. Where had all the others gone? His mouth was dry and his lips stung from the saltwater. His body burned from the effort to keep going, yet felt chilled to the bone. Only the sound of the pumping of his heart, his labored breathing and the uneven strokes of his arms as they hit the water broke the silence. How could he keep it up much longer? At that moment, he expected death to be his next visitor. Memories came to his mind—bright and colorful—as if on a movie screen. Most vividly, he recalled his last conversation with his dad:
He stood at the door of the family room, while his father and mother sat talking together on the sofa in front of him. “Dad, you know I have knocked on every business door. I want to travel. There is no future here.” His dad looked at him silently for a second, then said curtly, “The borders are closed!” When he explained hesitantly, “I’m thinking of traveling by sea,” his father shouted, “No way! I understand your feelings, but I won’t let you do it that way.” His mother pleaded with him: “Be patient son. Please don’t do that to yourself and us. I couldn’t stand living without you.”
He had worked hard in high school and earned high marks. Then, after six years of college, he earned an engineering degree. Still, even with his credentials and at the age of 32, he could find no jobs. In a stroke of luck, he was awarded a scholarship to study for his master’s degree in Germany, but the borders did not open and he missed the opportunity. A monotonous pain in his chest was an ever-present companion. Getting out of bed was a chore, his feet feeling like they were lead weights. His stomach turned at the thought of eating, even when his mother made his favorite dish, maklouba.
Finally, one day he gave in to the inevitable, telling his father, "You know I can't find work as an engineer. I talked to my friend who works in a restaurant and asked him to find a job for me there." His father said, "I won't push you to do something you don't want to." He replied, "I want to help you and myself, and I’ll work as a waiter until I find a better job.” His father nodded his head in relief and smiled.
The hours were sporadic, the pay just $200 a month, and his back ached from carrying heavy trays of dishes between the kitchen and the tables. But at least it kept him out of the house and his parents’ sorrowful eyes. Less than a year later, however, the owner had to fire him and many others because he could not afford to pay their wages. He was back where he had started.
I was like a hungry animal: hungry for a job, for dignity, for freedom, for a life. I didn’t think about the dangers I might face at sea. All I could think of was to go, to get out. I left with no goodbye. I couldn’t stand seeing their tears. Now, I yearn to see them again. I hope they will forgive me. Mom and Dad, please forgive me.
A river of tears leaked from his eyes and into the sea. He remembered how his mom used to visit him in his bedroom before he went to sleep, kissing his forehead and whispering, “Allah yeerda aleek” (God bless you). In his heart, a fragile hope began to grow, a hope to survive. As if on cue, he caught a glimpse of dim lights in the distance. A boat? His strokes became more even, more energetic. He swam into the future he had always dreamed of.
Posted: September 9, 2017
Mentor: Kevin Hadduck