Posted in conjunction with the course Multicultural Germany in fall semester 2015.
Author: Evelyn Roth
Along a Dangerous Road – “Der Schlaf in der Ténéré hinterlässt eine unzerstörbare Spur im Körper. Eine Erinnerung für das ganze Leben“ (Sleeping in the Ténéré leaves its mark within one’s body. A memory that will last a life time)”.
The same thing can be said of “Bilal” – it leaves the reader with a trace. To call this outstanding book a travel journal would diminish both content and impact. Centered around the topic of migrations routes through Northern Africa, the content is more pressing now than ever before. Fabrizio Gatti’s “Bilal” addresses the problematic and directly confronts the reader with the dangers that await refugees choosing this track to Europe.
Burdened with a 10 kilogram backpack and the fear of a man who knows the consequences of his very actions, Italian Journalist Fabrizio Gatti (Links to an external site.) sets off on a journey that makes readers hold their breath: A route through those regions that are considered the most dangerous in the modern world: Form Dakar through Ténéré, from Libya to Tripolis and Tunis. From the moment he hops on an heavily overcrowded truck with 160 refugees (Bilal; 2007, p. 153) that sets off for a three day trip through the Ténéré desert, we realize: This man is serious.
It is risky business to take this road, a dangerous choice. However, dozens of people choose this road every day. Given the overwhelming volume of news coverage on refugees entering Europe, we easily forget the effort requires in getting there. Often times we are reminded how dangerous the sea route to Italy is and how it all too often ends in tragedy – but Gatti impressively reminds us of how deadly it is to reach these boats in the first place. According to estimates, as many people die in the Ténéré desert as in the Mediterranean Sea (for further information) (Links to an external site.). Gatti illuminates how many sadly fail and end up in slave camps along the way. His description grants us a glimpse into an abyss that is much deeper than European news outlets cover: A whole world that lives from the lives of the desperate who try to reach a “Promised Land”. What is being taken from the people along the route is their money when lucky – and their life if they are not. Slavery, prostitution and exploitation of every kind – imaginable and unimaginable – are described clearly by Gatti’s language that avoids using too much subjectivity and at the same time can be described as emotional observation. In fact, this journey does not leave the author untouched. Through him we can glimpse through a window that makes refugees’ experiences accessible for us. And with every mile, we feel the change in Gatti as he connects with these people, their hopes and fears. It is through him that we can sense this feeling of “espoir”, the hope for a better life that drives hundreds of people along the deadly route through Northern Africa.
The word espoir has a tragic twist to it when Gatti describes the EU financed fountain “espoir 400” built in the middle of the route through the Ténéré – to me the key scene of this book. Although the water reservoirs of the truck are nearly empty, the driver refuses to stop. It is explained, that the fountain is too deep and that a stop would cost too much time. This misconstruction interestingly seems to mirror some of the problems of humanitarian aid. Some solutions are well-meant but lack hands-on-experience to be adapted for to the circumstances. In this way the fountain sadly reminds us how close espoir and desespoir are.
Gatti’s journey ends when he decides not to enter one of the overloaded boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea. However, his investigation does not stop at that point. A second part of the book reveals the inhuman conditions of Lampedusa as Gatti, under the false identity of Bilal, manages to smuggle himself into this prison that deals with the refugees that are strandes on the Italian border. It was this part of the book that caused a major uproar among Italians and the international press triggering discussions and causing further actions.
However, in my opinion the journey he shared with the people in North Africa is truly atthe heart of this story. Both the unveiling of the conditions in Lampedusa as well as the description of the effort it takes refugees to reach Europe make this text worth reading – today more than ever.
 Gatti, Fabrizio: Bilal. Als Illegaler auf dem Weg nach Europa, 2007, p. 194 .
Gatti, Fabrizio: Bilal. Als Illegaler auf dem Weg nach Europa. Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag 2011.
– Evelyn Roth