READ CHAPTER ONE HERE.
This is chapter two of Tahmineh Hooshyar Emami‘s three part re-imagination of the classic children’s story Alice in Wonderland, told this time from the perspective of Alice the refugee. In this chapter, we are told of the perilous journey Alice has to take to Europe, across the Aegean Sea. This is a story of exile, loss and hope – a fictional retelling of an all too real story. Tahmineh’s piece demonstrates some of the ways in which storytelling can be deployed as an alternative way of understanding conflict and displacement. You can follow Tahmineh on @TahminehEmami.
Alice’s Alternative Wonderland: Chapter Two
By Tahmineh Hooshyar Emami, University College London
An Armada on the Aegean
Without much thinking, she boarded a passenger ship to Turkey. ‘I have no other choice!’ she said to herself. ‘If I go home, I die. If I stay here, I die, homeless, without any money. The only way is to go to Europe’.
Europe…such a strange place… she filled this word with all her dreams, she imagined a whole new life in this word.
Europe… the last hope she was hanging on.
So, she found herself on board a bus to the coast.
“People smugglers roam freely around Turkey’s coastal towns and cities, whispering fantasies of happy ever after in the ears of the desperate. A cynical industry has sprung up to help them on their way. Cheap and probably useless lifejackets hang everywhere along busy streets, in shoe to sports shop windows, their owners eager to earn a few lira from those about to risk their lives at sea.”[i]
Moments later, she had found herself waiting under a row of olive trees alongside an army wearing bright orange life vests, awaiting their voyage across the Aegean Sea. This seemed to be the uniform for the desperate – heavy, cheap and useless life jackets which could rather take lives, than save them. Day and night, an armada of inflatable boats and dinghies would set out from the Turkish coast, headed towards the Greek portal into Europe. Often, overloaded boats were returned from their path, ‘rescued’ from the dangerous waters of the Aegean – their fantasy fell apart in front of their eyes. Some were abandoned by smuggler-captains in the middle of the water circling a few times as if they were in a caucus race, others were lost at sea and had perished.
It was as if Turkey had not only opened the doors, but also the waters… encouraging a sprawling culture of smuggling which grew and took over Izmir like mushrooms over the next few months.
Humanity Washed Ashore
Alice remembered the lemon tree that had grown together with her in their Damascus home.
The boat vanished. Alice was yet again on the coast of Izmir waiting under the shade of the olive trees. Something curious had happened while she was daydreaming – it was as if she had never set off in the first place.
She decided to relive the experience of sea voyage a second time. This time, they found their way and after 10 miles they stepped off the dinghy onto a field of plastic, covered in deflated boats and orange uniforms. Mountains of orange fabric and rubber were piled on the shore and every day they grew bigger and bigger, soon to take over the island.
She looked from the coast to Izmir – she could just about see the point they had set out from earlier. It was curious how close the shore of Izmir was, and yet, how many had failed to reach the destination.
She approached a rescuer who was climbing the mountain of plastic, and asked which way she was headed. The only choice was to confide in people she did not know. ‘What is your name?’ he asked.
‘My name is Alice’, she muttered. He then gave her a paper and directions to ‘the port’ without saying one more word. Once she reached the port, she was told to seek passage to Athens aboard a large boat.
She wished she was this size back when she was last on the route. She could have found her way so much easier. Back then, she was so little, she could easily get lost in the crowd, be left behind or lose her way.
Along the way, many were resting on benches in parks, under the trees and alongside the roads, lighting fires to dry clothes drenched in saltwater. Others were in tents or had gathered around a group of four clowns who were performing and entertaining the travellers.
This was the land of transit, the longest corridor between Greece and Serbia lined with transit points, buses and train tracks. Alice was given a paper to get her through the transit corridor and aboard a train which would take her to the door at the end.
Some had passed, but soon after, the doors would close and the fences would grow taller and taller.
The Train with No Destination
Alice and a large group of travellers boarded trains to destinations they did not know; she could only hope that the train would leave Hungary towards the next crossing point. The train left the platform, with barely any space to move or even sit. It stopped 45 minutes later in a town in Western Hungary where a make-shift camp was erected, but conditions in the camp were worsening and fights would break out between the guards and the travellers.
Others who hadn’t boarded this train had bought tickets they could not use. Booths had been selling thousands of tickets to nowhere.
Soon after, the train station closed its doors and a make-shift camp sprawled over the underground subways and outside the station. The daily commute of the Hungarians continued through the train station, separated only by a sheet of glass from the heart-breaking scenery of thousands of homeless travellers.
Beyond the door, Alice hit a wall. Whatever was beyond the door was hostile and unhomely. The doors were closed and the cold impermeable wall had risen above them, sending a clear message to not go any further.
This was the point where Alice’s journey was put on hold for the first time. This was the first barrier she faced, the first opportunity to sit down and rest her feet. She had been walking for days, thinking of the beautiful garden she yearned for. There was no way back and so she approached a few pitched tents along the road and entered one of them, invited by a family of four who were resting. She was welcome and rested for the night, dreaming of her home, the lemon tree and the garden.
She remembers now!
It was a cold evening and they had stopped moving. Her fellow travellers were sleeping wherever they could, trying to keep themselves dry and warm. Some recited memories of ones they knew who had boarded the right trains to the destination and had continued their journey, others were captured and incarcerated, maybe forever. Time was unmerciful to them and there was no place to go, some tried to escape by going forward or backward but had perished along the way. Hopelessness, crime and disease were spreading quickly and travellers were adamant to avoid this route now, since there was no escape from there.
To be continued…
Featured Image: Artwork by T. Emami (c)