The Land of Honey and Milk

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort—to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires—and expires, too soon, too soon—before life itself.
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort—to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires—and expires, too soon, too soon—before life itself.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

The Land of Honey and Milk

One day, we, Karim, Hilal, Issam and I, who, since early childhood, had been engulfed in labyrinths of deprivation and intolerable poverty, made up our minds, in the teeth of our best judgment, to cross the sea frontiers. This decision came as a result of the dreadful necessity of our hellish circumstances. Although we were different in terms of character, our common and sole concern was to successfully cross from our country, Morocco, into whatever European country we would set foot in. Our ultimate objective, as far as we were concerned, was to squeeze some happiness of this damned life. The day came, and we were equipped enough to embark on such a dangerously rough adventure.

It was early on a fine summer’s day, that is, the 19th of June, near the end of the 20th century, when we, as four devoted friends, went to Bni Nsar Nador City Harbour where we could come across a ship that would be a kind of bridge to the other side—a dream that was living within us till it became an insatiable hankering. In fact, we devoted the opening week to the investigation of the whereabouts. Our intent was to know the gory details about ship times for the purpose of having our adventure perfectly designed. Nevertheless, we were completely aware of the fact that the journey would be our first and, to a certain degree, last attempt to reach Europe, the land of milk and honey, so to speak. We were praying to God day and night, for the very thought of not achieving that goal gave us the jitters. Besides, the task of finding the right ship that sailed directly to Europe was laborious and, as the case might be, required us to be more patient than ever. Thus, extreme caution was our principle for fear that we would be undone at any moment.

Every now and then reluctance took hold of our minds until we were about to give up the whole matter. But our fate was otherwise determined since we met someone without whom we might for sure have gone back home. He was one of the security guards, who, after we had told him our story, accepted to help us provided that we should pay out a certain sum of money, and, on this basis, made a pledge that he would guide us through the harbour and point out the ship that would serve the purpose to us. In view of this, nothing needs to be said; nothing could be said. What we were sure of was that there was no going back. To miss this golden chance would be a crime, and to get caught up in a world of misery would be for honest men like us the most despicable of crimes. Our steadfastness to leave Morocco for a new and good life was as strong as a bereaved mother’s craving for her lost child. Admittedly, we could not but believe the security guard who said that the sea journey would last about eight days. In the meantime, we, overcome partly by sleepiness and partly by vigilance, were lying lazily on the beach behind a sand dune with our provisions of the journey at our heads, anxiously awaiting the return of the guard who went to see how the land lay. The provisions, which consisted mainly of dry food such as peaches, apricots, and chickpeas and water, were known among illegal immigrants by the name of “Al-quash.

For one week, the place where the action would take place was under closely constant examination. This struck terror into all of us and, accordingly, did not prevent optimism to begin fading away within us because the overall situation sounded inauspicious. Although worn out, we could not get to sleep because there were huge vehicles passing by, and we were afraid they would accidentally run over our lean bodies. However, the dream of being there, where everything looked great and captivating to our eyes, took away the painful panic that was laid on our hearts like the biggest of mountains. In the same way, Hilal, who was in his thirties, and who was known for his presence of mind, was always repeating his spirit-lifting statement, which we learnt by heart and thus repeated, in case we felt bad, to ourselves, “we have to subdue our unnecessary fears before they shall lead us to complete self-destruction. Our heads will ever be hung down in shame should we stay here in Morocco, while the ‘dogs’ of Europe are leading a life of comfort and happiness. I know that life is inescapably hazardous and problematic, but, take it from me, we can do it if we only believe.” These words were a balsam to our shattered souls. After a few days of waiting had passed, the security guard reappeared in the dead of night and played fairy godmother by saying that guardianship at night was not as active as in the morning. Hence, it was a stroke of luck for us to well prepare ourselves and confirm what we should do before final departure.

It was a leaden evening when the security guard assured us that the ship intended for the journey was going to enter the harbour around three o’clock in the morning. He chose that ship on the basis of his enquiry—upon our first meeting—about the country we did appreciate and prefer to try our luck in. We had unanimously insisted on The Netherlands as a well-liked destination not only to us, but also to the majority of illegal immigrants. ‘I will beckon you over with my spotlight,’ the security guard said, ‘when I am sure that everything is all right for you to move.’ For the first time, my heart jumped wildly from between my ribs; for the first time, I stood rigid with disbelief and scare, and could step neither backwards nor forwards as though I was a statue on a pedestal. As for Issam, a very well-built dark-haired young man, he muttered something under his breath, but we, though half perplexed, did hear him saying, ‘How worthless my life has been! How could man lead a dignified, independent life without a noble work to do and be proudly absorbed in as well as a rosy dream to run after and realise? Alas, my death has been one hundred percent better than my life.’ No one took heed to Issam’s agony-stricken words, for everyone looked absent-minded. We were all thinking of that ship that would at last release us from the shackles of joblessness, indigence, and disgrace. In short, our minds were quite lost in fancies and imaginations, thereby picturing how life looked like in The Netherlands. Unlike the three of us, Karim, the youngest member of the group since he was only sixteen years old, appeared very melancholy and pallid. The days he had spent far away from his own family were beyond all bearing and, with the course of time, grew harsher on him than ever.

After about five hours of anticipation and uncertainty, blinded by a powerful light that seemed to issue from nowhere, we attended the arrival of a titanic ship that was coming steadily into the port. It resembled a mountainous iceberg floating in the water. At that very moment, we felt very ambivalent, with impetuousness and hesitation, audacity and diffidence, action and dreaming, all curiously mixed in us. Finally, our friend’s spotlight could be seen in the distance, and we, looking into each other’s eyes with a sense of relief, hastily went in its direction. Had Hilal made sure that the ship is by no means the one we were impatiently waiting for, we would not have given the sums of money we agreed on, together with our mobile phones ( i.e. because our friend was not satisfied with the amount of money we gave him), to the guard. Because my sight was not as sharp as Hilal’s in darkness, I bade him to have a look at the vessel’s flag which was more or less thirty meters away. He strained his eyes and, albeit uncertain, asserted with difficulty that the thing was Holland’s ensign. We all got happy at the news. As for me, between hope on one hand and faith on the other, I had been sure that the Lord was with us, and that life was smiling at us with its arms wide open. On the other side, Karim was such an incurable pessimist of a few dark words, the reason why rarely did we hear him talking. Thank God his pessimism did not pass on to us. After a good while, we drew nearer in order to help one another to get on board. Yet, before we got there, we, to our shock, found out that the thing was not Holland’s colours, but rather Denmark’s.

Our shock and disappointment seeped away gradually thanks to Hilal. Not only was the latter the leader of the group, but also a big brother of ours and a shoulder to cry on. Indeed, he had the physical and mental fortitude to undergo a lifetime of near-death experiences. But for him, we would not have been where we were now. Unlike us, Hilal had already had a clandestine immigration affair four years ago. He migrated to Spain where he fell in love with Veronica—a French woman he happened to meet in a refugee camp—who unfalteringly accepted to be his wife. After months of happy marital life, they, Hilal and Veronica, had their first and last baby, Nizar, named after Hilal’s grandfather. Unluckily, Hilal’s happiness did not last for long because, for one reason or another, he was sent back to his motherland, Morocco. From that day on, his life went gloomy and unbearable due to his being separated from his own son, the apple of his very eye. What had happened to Hilal was the driving force of every step we had taken since the commencement of the journey. Every time my eyes rested on his, I incessantly wonder whether to find his son was really his only object?! In any case, after we had got all on board, Hilal urged us to circumspectly sneak into the ship, which seemed to carry both freight and passengers. There were some crewmembers on the top deck of the ship, walking around with their black and white striped attires and torches in their hands to patrol the place. Suddenly, we, on our way astern, took sight of some two or three rag-clothed dog-like dark-skinned creatures moving about the ship, thus trying to find a way to get on it. They were apparently the little vagrants of the city. As they were approaching the place where we had been, we knew that they would be such a nuisance to us. Actually, if those intruders were seen from above by any member of the crew, every corner of the port would be double-checked without fail, and, therefore, there might be a high risk of being captured sooner or later. In that case, the only thing we could do was, taking into account the instructions of our friend (i.e. the security guard), to await until the other crew came and took the place of their fellows.

Sure enough, the bell rang, which meant that it was time to act. I could hardly stand on my feet, yet my soul steeled itself with a fierce electric energy that seemed to flow over all my limbs and, magically, move them forward. The coast was clear, and there was nobody at the gates that led directly to the goods store, a good hiding place for us. As soon as we succeeded to get there, we embraced each other for it was the first obstacle of the journey we came to overcome with flying colours. I felt I would swoon, or, rather, die of fright that was accompanying me since we got on board. From these circumstances, I learnt for the first time that if one yearned to move forward, one ought to break a way through the walls of fear and hesitancy as the baby strives through the walls of the womb.

The goods store where we hid bore a strong resemblance to a tremendous supermarket. Everything was in its place. There were all types of things (i.e. food, kitchenware, wine, clothes, etc.) you could think of. We really forgot about our provisions because all what we needed was available in a larger quantity in that store. While taking our seats in the far corner of the store on a shabby fabric, Karim sat beside me and said to me in a whisper that he had noticed three persons hiding somewhere on the other side of the store. Just then, a sudden blow from an almost invisible hand blasted all my inner happiness. The piece of news the pessimist Karim broke to me was preying on my mind. No sooner had a few minutes of thinking elapsed than I decided to cast a glance around the store to see who was there. To my amazement, I discovered that the three persons were the vagrants we saw when we had been on board. One of them fixed me with a stare of both distrust and anger, made for me and said with a threatening tone, “Be careful not to saw through the branch on which we, poor immigrants, are all sitting. We stay where we are and you stay where you are, and nothing shall threaten our safety.” I did not utter a single word for I was shaking like a leaf. I only nodded in agreement and retraced my steps to my friends.

The place where we were holed up was narrow, small and completely dark, but we managed to make ourselves comfortable. It looked like a cell, and we like prisoners. Obviously, the entrance of some cabin boy or steward into the store was fully expected. Under these circumstances, the rule was: “whether the cat is away or not, we, being the mice, should not at all play.” Accordingly, the best thing we’d better do was to dive into the sea of our silent prayers. The Danish ferry had already put out to sea, when, all at once, a strange noise made us jump out of our skins. We could not investigate where the noise came from, but we thought it was produced by certain ship staffers who were standing at the kitchenware section. As we were straining to hear what they were saying, we understood that the noise came from the fact that one of the ropes that tied the ship to a post was not properly released upon its departure. Apart from this, our so-called ‘cache,’ as far as we were concerned, was a universe of our budding dreams, and the goods store an extension of that universe.

On the first day of the sea journey, we were all incredibly excited except for Hilal, who never stopped thinking of Nizar, his beloved child. Like mutes, we were very wary not to speak to each other, since it would be a deadly blunder beyond a shadow of doubt. We were by turns watching out for anything that could put us in danger. Deep silence reigned over us to the extent that we could hear each other’s heartbeats as if we were playing drums, and laid its soothing hand over everything like death. The first day required us a great deal of patience, and “patience implies suffering.” On the following day, we felt a little bit much easier than the day before. We were forced to get out of our cache, which was a grave to us during the chilly night, so as to inhale some fresh air and relieve ourselves. In the store, there existed a galley not far from our place, where the crewmembers usually had their meals. Two days were enough for us to be familiar with their mealtimes as well as their movements. This helped us a lot because we knew when we should be in and when we should be out. The food we had brought with us from home had nothing to do with the refreshments the crewmen ate, especially at lunchtime. The thought of all those delectable refreshments made us salivate. Ipso facto, inasmuch as the crewmembers stepped out of the store, we immediately ran into the galley to devour the leftovers. According to the chats that took place between the ship staffers, the ferry was sailing for Agadir City, and thence for Europe. Having been on full alert throughout the voyage, we spent most of the time lying down in our dark cell. Sometimes we thought the journey brought hope and security, othertimes it seemed to carry sickness and faithlessness through us. Like many adventurers, we were not spared the fact of being before some trouble. Hilal, for instance, was a terrible snorer; he snored very loudly when asleep. So, whenever we heard his snores, it was our job to wake him lest everything we had done up to now would turn to dust.

To tell the truth, no mortal could ever imagine how bored we were in the store, seeing that time seemed to pass at a snail’s pace. Eight days of excruciating monotony had barely gone by. Following the crew, the journey was about to be over, whereas the real life, we presumed, was in the offing. I could discern the ecstasy bursting in my fellows’ eyes and waves of pure suspense racing over the floor of their minds. As to me, conversely, the blackness of the grief crept over me when I remembered Mother, whom I, devotedly attached to her, was missing so much and who, in turn, was for sure remembering me in her prayers.

On the ninth day, we were preparing to leave the ship once it berthed. We were all aflame with enthusiasm save Hilal who looked very much disconcerted. When I asked him about the reason of his being so, he replied from experience that the forthcoming stage would be the most sophisticated one ever. Hence, we felt it incumbent upon us to be on the safe side as best we could. Having had some new clothes in our bags, the first thing we agreed upon when the sea-craft reached its destination was to dress up as perfectly as we could and act as though we were ship passengers so that to be beyond suspicion. Hilal, Karim and Issam were thinking loudly, planning to find a way out of the ship without being observed by some steward or port guard. I did not pay attention to what they were saying, for I, lost in a stormy sea of ambition and bewilderment, was daydreaming about how my life would be in Europe. Issam noticed my inattention and, boxing my ears, shouted, “Hey Ayoub! Stop daydreaming and join us.” After some give-and-take, Hilal, our leader, decided that we were to wait till the anchor’s ship was dropped and the passengers started to disembark because, as he emphasised, watching in the European harbours is more intensive than in the Moroccan ones. While waiting, each one was thinking about what should be done afterwards to reach The Netherlands, our dreamland.

At last, the vessel got ashore, and the passengers began setting down. The three persons, who were on the other side of the store, alighted from their “hole” and, being ignorant of the troubles they would cause, followed us. They looked like nothing more or less than stupid fools. What really added fuel to the fire was their down-at-heel appearance. We saw the cloud, but we did not foresee the storm. As they, for all their thoughtlessness and inexperience, climbed the stairs through the passageway that led outdoors, the vagrants were suddenly and unexpectedly arrested by the guards who appeared to be posted everywhere. This incident made the blood beat up like fire in our veins, since it, unfortunately, was the very beginning of our end.

Overpowered by fear and cowardice, the vagrants let it slip that we were inside the goods store. We could not run away as we heard the guards’ ferocious dogs barking outside. We were not surprised of being informed on because, in a case as such, such egocentric creatures were not to be trusted. Because of them, our dream vaporised at the stroke of pen before our very eyes and turned into a nightmare. We knew to our sorrow that our journey had come to a dead end, a fact that we accepted with unquestioning resignation. In short, it was an exceedingly heavy misfortune to us. We stood motionless, looking into each other’s contenance in irritation, till we were all taken to the police station for questioning. “We shall ever be stuck in the mud of poverty and hard luck,” Karim, on whose face I beheld the expression of sombre frustration and of an intense despair, clamoured, “for there is nothing to hang a rag of hope for us upon.” I could not describe how wretched I was, for to think of being sent back home just as we had left it withered my consciousness and burnt the pith of my mind. For an instant I wished I had been embraced by death in the blind hope of reaching something better on the far side of darkness.

The guards were not that severe with us; they did not treat us as illegal immigrants, but rather as human beings. They led us to a room which seemed to be reserved for people like us, and where we spent the “black” night. We felt very terrible the morning after because we did not get a wink of sleep the whole night. We were served a good breakfast, and then told by a tall blond blue-eyed person, who addressed a few broken Arabic words to us, that we were going to be transferred to the Central Danish Court. Officially, an illegal immigrant should be interrogated first so that to have his case considered from different angles before any step could be taken. We stepped into a little room in which illegal immirgration cases were investigated. We hopefully happened to be standing in front of two respectably well-dressed people who spoke Arabic in a perfect manner; the first one was a handsome fair-haired Tunisian man in his fifties, and the second a good-looking young Egyptian woman. We were enquired by turns about the reasons for running the risk of being here.

When my turn came, a shiver of nervous torture went over my veins, and I unconsciously started lying to them. I said that I came here to find Mother who was Danish in origin. I went further to claim that when my parents got divorced, Mother was not allowed to take me with her to Denmark, the reason why I thought of migrating in that illegal way after a long bitter quarrel with Father who did not let me to be in contact with her. The pretty dark-eyed woman only stared at me with an ice-cold look as if she knew that I was lying and, after a few seconds of deep silence, asked in so sympathetic, yet cunning tones, “Do you still remember Mother’s full name and address?” I instantly stammered out Elizabeth as Mother’s first name, but her surname and address, I added in pretense, were things which I could not be so positive about. Then, she enquired about my present occupation. I might have told her I was jobless and the story was over; but, as the devil is an indefatigable tempter, I went on concocting, coming out with the fact that Father, who was a real scrooge, owned a textile factory in Morocco and that I was his right-hand man. The Tunisian elder, who seemed to be a man of singular learning, was only sitting back and listening lazily to my glib answers. I was deadly sure that he had perceived that I was not weighing every word as I spoke. The young woman, on her side, did not stop posing one question after another, probing for any inconsistencies in my seemingly well-plotted story. “To be a professional liar,” a cousin of mine once said, “one must not forget his past lies.”

After a brief exchange between the pretty lady and the handsome gentleman, the latter turned to me with a certain cruel calm flickering under his brownish eyes, and said at last, “We could have done something for you if you had been alone, but given that the clandestine immigration law here is extremely strict, we are obliged to send you, along with the others, back to your homeland.” He stopped for a moment, and then resumed emphatically, “However, if you have crossed the sea with the very idea to lead a happy life here, you are mistaken. Life here is harsher than you think, especially when you are an illegal expatriate in a society entirely different from yours in terms of language, culture, religion and lifestyle. To be surrounded by people you know perfectly how they live and think is one hundred percent better than to be surrounded by people you do not, and will never, know no matter how hard you try. The piece of advice I can give you, my son, is to have the steadier mind for the things you know, and never trouble yourself about the things which you cannot be sure about, for there is a profit in that.” I felt the warmth of every line of his little speech comforting my soul, and every word he had uttered was a truly sweet dagger to my heart—feelings that awakened me to the illusion I had been wallowing in, and made me restored, for the first time since the beginning of the journey, to my power of thinking, and ultimately to myself.

We had been kept in a prison-like anteroom till they found a ship that transported us back to Morocco, and more precisely to Tangier City, the only African city that overlooks two seas: the Mideterranean and the Atlantic. Unlike my friends who were so disappointed, I was somehow relieved and glad to return to “The Land of my Ancestors.” At Tangier City Port, we were subjected to another interrogation by an angry-looking clear-shaven policeman. Inattentive to the latter’s questions, I was still obsessed by the Tunisian’s affectionate, earnest words that were ringing in my head like the church bells, prompting me to forget what was past by the felicity of the days to come. It could not be expressed by terms how deceptive the image of Europe was from the outside. Rationally speaking, the hellish circumstances under which I had been living prevented me from seeing the true image of the other side. Suddenly the policeman’s shout put an end to my ceaseless thoughts by showing me a picture of a thick-black-mustached man who resembled, it seemed to me, the late Father very closely. Because it was not my day, the policeman, searching my face on one hand and the picture on the other with an air of suspicion, said with a confident smile on his visage as if he had achieved something that I was the wanted smuggler and drugs dealer they had long been looking for. Not only that, but he added that I was a leader of a drug smuggling network that was gaining ground in Morocco, Holland and Denmark. The impact of the policeman’s indignant accusation was so heavy on me to the extent that I could hardly utter a single word to defend myself. I would not deny the fact that the man in the picture and I looked somewhat alike, but to be arrested on a trumped up charge like drug dealing would be an indubitably fatal mistake as well as a complete catastrophe. It was not until I had collected myself that I replied to this injustice, “How can this be! I am sure you are mistaking me for someone else, for I have never been involved in such a black business. Besides, how come you accuse a destitute twenty-year-old youth who tried to immigrate clandestinely of being a leader of a drug smuggling network?” My appeal seemed to have fallen on deaf ears because listening, as everybody knows, is rare in our chattering society.

I had been put in a cell like a prisoner for an hour and half till I was called for an interview with a prosecutor. I was really sick of being questioned like a felon. Fortunately, the prosecutor, a corpulant adult, was very understanding and patient with me since I told him, in a free and easy manner, the whole story of my life from A to Z and of our illegal journey, trying to convince him of my innocence. No sooner had I finished off giving him a detailed account of the sea trip than the clear-shaven policeman came in with the news that, after a thorough investigation and screening, the whole matter was only a question of a passing resemblance. “What a funny old world we are living in!,” I said to myself. I heaved a profound sigh of relief and gratefulness at the news, and felt as though I was at the threshold of a new life. After some standard operating procedures, they let me and my friends go back to our homes on the condition that we gave our word that we would never think of another attempt?the pledge they obliged us to make was for our own good.

I returned home and found, to my great stupefaction, Mother lying in her bed, sick, wasted and as pale as a paper. As soon as her olive green eyes fell on me, she jumped to her feet as if she was in anticipation of my return. Without shaping a syllable, I run to her like a little kid, kissing her from head to feet, and, sobbing my heart out, went down on bended knee to implore her godlike forgiveness for having left her alone. With tears that oozed slowly from between her tight-shut eyelids, she clasped me so tightly to her heart, and imbued me with every spark of her tenderness that exorcised the memory of the ordeal I had gone through. I looked upward into her pure, soft mien, and, in tears of remorse and regret, said, “Mother, my hopes of a luxurious life turned out to be an illusion. There, things are not what they seem to be here. You were right when you said that my future is in my fatherland. What an untrue son am I to have deserted a blessed mother by herself in this vale of tears! No one would ever love and feel for me as you do. Mother, in Morocco I shall assert myself, and in Morocco your great-grandchildren shall ever live, God willing!”







The end

Submitted: April 18, 2017

© Copyright 2023 ELHARRAK. All rights reserved.

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It is an amazing short story, I love it.

Mon, August 7th, 2023 4:08am

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