We have had a steady crescendo of heat these past two weeks. There is not much respite – except by the sea. We headed to one of our favourite beaches last weekend and enjoyed a refreshing swim. While the Mischief Maker and my husband went to talk to the people from the local Sharklab, I relaxed in my little pop-up tent. Or I tried to. The beach wasn’t crowded but it was hard to drown out all the voices. I looked around me, picking out different nationalities: the Italians, toned and tanned and the loudest on the beach; the Germans, sturdy and tall and smelling strongly of sun-tan lotion; the Brits, mostly middle-aged or elderly, reading the newspaper while trying desperately to get a tan; the Scandinavians, as pale as alabaster and with bodies like seasoned athletes; and, at the periphery, alone and aloof, a small family of Africans, their skin as dark as coffee beans.
The boat people they called them, 12 or so years ago, when they first landed on our shores. Now the adjectives are not quite so kind. From sub-Saharan Africa they are leaving their countries and their families, crossing the ferociously hot desert until they reach the countries of the Maghreb. From there they get on whatever rickety boat or ship will take them, hoping they will cross the water to freedom. Their aim is to reach mainland Europe but sometimes these islands, and a few others, get in the way. And sometimes the sea has other plans.
It’s willful, this sea that surrounds us, and it conjures winds and waves out of the placid air like a magician draws rabbits out of a hat. Sometimes it just claims their lives for itself.There is no media coverage, no headline news; nobody cries, nobody sheds a single tear. There are laws against racism, of course, here and in the rest of Europe. But this continent is a strange place. Despite the European Union, despite the efforts of all the intervening years since WW2, national pride in all the different countries is alive and strong and national idiosyncrasies even stronger. We take offence when others stereo-type us, yet we delight in pigeon-holing ourselves so tightly that we prove the stereo-type correct.
We frequently forget it, but we are living in troubled times. A great migration has started and my country-men, and anyone else who thinks we will emerge from this unchanged and unscathed, are living in a fantasy world. This turbulent sea has never been at rest. It has seen empires rise and fall; cities crumble to dust. It has claimed thousands upon thousands of lives without compassion or compunction. This placid sea, that gently curled itself around my toes last Saturday, has no heart or conscience. Throughout its history, I do not think that there has ever been peace on its shores. Even today, in those easternmost cities as old as the Bible, the fighting rages on.
It is proud, this sea, and it has basked in the importance of its own lime-light for millennia. Perhaps it has started weaving together the final chapter of its chequered history. And perhaps we are all pawns in its game. Whatever the outcome, it would be wise to learn from the past before looking to the future.
Because the boat-people have come and they will continue to come. And perhaps we will be required to go. Because we are just transient beings. But the sea, the sea goes on forever.
Location: Gnejna Bay, Mgarr