The strait of Gibraltar as gateway to hope and as waterway to hell
Literary studies specialist, Department of English, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI, USA
Since the Schengen border-regime went into effect in the early 1990s, the name “Gibraltar” has for many North Africans become a metonym for their exclusion from Europe. As the subtitle of Moroccan writer Mahi Binebine’s novel about irregular migration suggests, among Maghrebians “Gibraltar” is also metonymic for the hellish conditions that characterize this mode of human movement across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Binebine’s novel is one of several texts by contemporary writers from Morocco and from other Mediterranean countries that thematize seaborne irregular migration across the Strait zone, the first of the Mediterranean’s sub-regions to have become major crossing points for migrants trying to enter the European Union clandestinely. Although its name has since been eclipsed in significance by other gateways—Lampedusa or Lesbos, for instance—the crossings that took place at the Strait in the 1990s and 2000s generated responses not just from writers but also from photographers, filmmakers, and others whose work grapples with questions of communication and identity in the Straits zone.
Since Antiquity, Gibraltar and its environs have been actual and symbolic sites of connection and of separation. In Greek mythology, for instance, Hercules sundered the two continents and created Gibraltar and its sister mountains on the Strait’s African shores, peaks which then served as markers of the then known world’s westernmost boundary (“The Pillars of Hercules”). Borrowing from Greek mythology, in Canto XXVI of The Inferno, Dante has Ulysses sail beyond the Strait in search of forbidden knowledge.
As punishment for his transgression, Ulysses is consigned to the eighth gulf of Hell. Across today’s Europe irregular migrants are sanctioned for daring to contravene laws that exclude travelers without visas from entering the Schengen Area. Although few European governments have made irregular migration a crime, in practice irregular migrants are often treated as criminals: detained, processed, warehoused in detention camps, and deported. Moreover, it was the nighttime crossings of the Strait in small craft by irregular migrants that first prompted Schengen Europe’s successive waves of moral panic about immigration and about the alleged threats it poses to European security and even “civilization”.
In Spain, xenophobic reactions to the arrival on Spanish shores of irregular migrants from Morocco and elsewhere often connected their landfall with that of the Arabo-Berber armies that began crossing the Strait in 711 CE in a series of invasions and conquests. That connection is treated ironically in the opening story of Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, a series of interlinked tales about subaltern Moroccan travellers who desperately hope to remake their lives in the polities that lie to the north of Strait. As the boat on which he’s undertaking his clandestine journey approaches the Spanish coast, the narrator recalls the story he’d tell tourists about how Tariq Ibn Ziyad had led a large Moorish army across the Straits and had ordered all the boats burned upon landing in Gibraltar, the Rock to which he gave his name (“Djabal Tariq”, “Tariq’s Mountain”).
He’d told his soldiers that they could march forth and defeat the enemy or turn back and die a coward’s death. The men had followed their general, toppled the Visigoths, and established an empire that ruled over Spain for more than seven hundred years. Little did they know that we’d be back, Murad thinks. Only instead of a fleet, here we are in an inflatable boat—not just Moors, but a motley mix of people from the ex-colonies, without guns or armor, without a charismatic leader. (2-3)
Aside from the historical reversal of fortunes to which Murad alludes, what is ironic about the furtive passage that he and his fellow travellers are forced to undertake is that all the peoples and cities of the Strait zone were formed in large measure by the sorts of culture-mixing seaborne migrations that have historically characterized not just the Strait but the entire Mediterranean region. From Antiquity through the 20th century, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Berbers, and others contributed to the demographic make-up of the sub-region’s peoples. As a result, today’s Gibraltarians, Tanjawis, Ceutíes and others are chiefly descendants of the many immigrants who arrived in the area on boats.
While traversals of the Strait by travellers bearing the right documents remain common, ever since the fortification of Europe’s external borders in the 1990s large numbers of people have been precluded from undertaking this short journey in a safe and legal manner. Pushed by intolerable conditions at home and pulled by the lure of better prospects abroad, they have resorted to life-threatening (and highly expensive) crossings by smugglers instead. As early as 1990 the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo had warned that as a result of a shift in the direction of the post-Cold War world’s major political fault-lines, the Strait was destined to become “a New Berlin Wall” of the post-Cold War order.
But whereas the Berlin Wall was chiefly intended to prevent East Germans from getting out, the metaphoric wall at Gibraltar is meant to prevent people from getting in. Ever since then other walls and fences — both literal and metaphoric — have sprouted across the Mediterranean Basin and beyond, but the massive surveillance system put in place at the Strait remains the prototype of the global North’s exclusion of unwanted travellers from the global South.
One major difference between the ways in which Western European officialdom and the mass media often represented those who risked life and limb by crossing the Berlin Wall and those who have done so by crossing the Strait is that whereas the former were regarded as worthy victims of Communism, the latter are often depicted not only as agents of invasion but as vectors for the infection of Europe’s body politic. Thus, xenophobic sectors of Spanish and European society regard the unarmed, exhausted, often hypothermic, and frequently terrified migrants themselves as threatening, and the small craft on which they are ferried across the Strait became figures for a putative social, existential, and civilizational “menace.”
To capture the manner in which the Strait of Gibraltar and Gibraltar itself have been transformed into emblems of exclusion, writers have had recourse to a variety of metaphors. In Salim Jay’s Tu ne traverseras pas le détroit, for instance, the book’s opening chapter is entitled “The Bolt/Barrier of Gibraltar” (“Le verrou de Gibraltar”), and the frontier between life experienced as a curse and emancipation from unremitting hardship is referred to as a “raccourci fatal ou salvateur” (7), a short cut that can kill you or save you. In other texts of the subgenre the Strait is variously figured as a locked entrance, as a Dantesque hell on earth, as an impassable moat, and as an impregnable wall, or conversely as an obstacle that is intended and designed to be utterly inaccessible to irregular migrants but that with luck or by dint of desperate determination can potentially be breached.
The starkest of these metaphors is that of the Strait as a maritime burial place, an image that appears in the opening pages of Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel Partir in the middle of a dream sequence in which the protagonist dreams that he has drowned after the fishing boat on which he was crossing the channel capsized,
…ever so slowly in the center of the sea, for Azel has decided that the sea has a center and this center is a green circle, a cemetery where the current catches hold of corpses, taking them to the bottom to lay them out on a bank of seaweed. (5)
Since most irregular crossings of the Strait would take place under cover of darkness, even during the period when several thousand migrants were crossing the Strait every year, daytime observers of maritime traffic across and along the channel could be forgiven for thinking that the deadly voyages reported in local media were more imagined than real. However, the bloated corpses of drowned migrants that would periodically wash up on the Iberian Peninsula’s southernmost beaches made it brutally clear that the toll of irregular migration was no mirage. Yet nowhere along the Strait’s shores, northern or southern, have monuments been erected to commemorate the lives and deaths of the denizens of this vast underwater necropolis.
In this context, therefore, literary texts in which the life histories, circumstances, and subjectivities of migrants are rendered not just visible but central, serve as memorials to those who fled marginalized lives in hopes of improving their lot but ended up drowning when their boats capsized or when they were abandoned at some distance from Spain’s shores. As for survivors of the crossing, they have usually been condemned to a disenfranchised and illegalized existence on the margins of Europe in ways that mirror their disenfranchisement and powerlessness in their home countries.
Nevertheless, and despite the transformation of the Strait into one of Fortress Europe’s main bulwarks, it is possible to regard the channel not solely as 20th century revival of the Roman limes but as a contact zone, a place where borders—for all their ostensible rigidity—are contingent, contested, unstable, and mutable. Straddling and subverting the multiple borders of the Strait are commonalities of history, geography, demography, and meteorology, among others. Similarly, even though the lot of irregular migrants who risk their lives by crossing the Strait is grim, it’s possible to regard them not as purely abject victims of force majeure but as agents of alternative ways of conceiving the current demarcation of the world into territorially bounded national polities.
From this standpoint, it is possible to say that today’s migrants are undertaking audacious journeys that like Ulysses’s transgression of the “nec plus ultra” undermine the organization of the globe into territorially bounded nation-states premised on a dynamic of exclusion and inclusion. In their vulnerabilities, in their sacrifices, in their migrant modes of living and dying, these travellers are showing us the glaring limitations of our world and embodying the reasons why it ought to be reorganized among more humane lines.
- Ben Jelloun, T. (2006). Partir. Paris, France: Gallimard.
- Binebine, M. (1999). Cannibales. Paris, France: Fayard.
- Goytisolo, J. (1992). Constructing Europe’s New Wall: From Berlin to the Strait. Middle East Report, 178, 17–19.
- Jay, S. (2000). Tu ne traverseras pas le détroit. Paris, France: Mille et une nuits.
- Lalami, L. (2005). Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books.