Ahmad Qabaha
Last updated: 5 October, 2015

One novel’s prophecy of the Middle East refugee crisis

Ahmad Qabaha finds thematic resonances between Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's classic 'The Ship' and the collective story told by today's refugees in the Middle East.

In his escapist novel The Ship, written a few years after the Arab defeat of 1967, the late Palestinian-Iraqi poet, novelist, and critic Jabra Ibrahim Jabra deploys many Arab refugee characters on board his fictional ship Hercules, which sails towards Europe. The centrifugal motion of the ship away from the Arab world expresses polemics of the Arab voyagers against their regimes. It also mirrors the transformation of the Arab world post-1967 war from a site of comfort to a locus of instability. This article views Jabra’s The Ship as a prophecy of the ever-present disturbance of the Arab world since the 1967 defeat and its deterioration.

Indeed, Arab refugees’ search for salvation from an endless destruction and havoc after the rise of the Arab Spring should invoke Jabra’s oeuvre, and not only Kanfani’s Men in the Sun (1962) – the text many writers recalled in this context. There are many thematic resonances between The Ship and the collective story told by today’s refugees in the Middle East. The transformation of the Arab world into a site of hostility and menace after the Arab Spring has indeed made the departure of Arabs to Europe, like the departure of Jabra’s characters, a quest of salvation – salvation from the inexorable regimes that decided to turn their countries into ashes upon the rebellion of their peoples against injustice.

No doubt the entire world has been touched by the heartrending photograph of Aylan, the Syrian refugee who was casted by the sea onto the shore, dead. Having a fresh look on Elian’s photograph with Jabra’s novel in mind reveals the politics that Aylan in his silent tragedy dramatizes, but does not tell. His death – with his shoes opposing us – signifies Aylan’s refusal to remain in Mankind’s world. It shows his disappointment with us, the delicate living species on this universe. Like his Palestinian brother Handalah who at the age of 10 turned his back to the world in defiance of its handling of the refugee crisis, Aylan turns his back upon his demise to the world to condemn its indifference to find a solution to the ongoing crisis in the Arab world. Aylan’s death expresses his pessimism over finding an alternative existence in the twenty-first century, where his generation was born and torn by war and grieving. Aylan refuses to establish a new contact with the living world upon his arrival at the shore; he instead portrays in his death an image of a world full of waste and futility. This is what his three years of living in Syria, in a site of constant trauma, taught him. In his death, Aylan also acts as a Christ-like figure who dies for conveying a message of an impoverished people behind the sea, self-sacrificial of a generation thrown into a dead world. His mission was not only to cross the sea – the ephemeral and transitory – into the unknown world, but to alert people there to an endless torture happening to his people.

Photo: Rebecca Harms via Flickr Creative Commons 

Aylan, like the Palestinian refugee in Jabra’s The Ship, WadiÊ¿a, finds even the sea is ‘carefree, indifferent,’ a ‘monster’, and ‘hell’. Therefore Aylan in his death portrays the perils of the sea voyage of Arab refugees and manifests that while some might make it to shore, other voyagers are destined to die. This reminds us of Jabra’s allusion in The Ship to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno – the Italian word for ‘Hell’- which is the first part of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. Quoting Dante’s Inferno, Jabra’s narrator instructs the voyagers: ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here! … Abandon all memories, all ye who enter here! For voyagers, the sea is a tremendous eraser that can wipe out the most stubborn types of ink’. In this sense, Jabra not only introduces the sea as a bridge to salvation, but also he forewarns that it can be menacing: the sea, according to Jabra, can cause physical and psychological damage. ‘Abandon hope’ is a phrase inscribed at the entrance to Hell, according to Dante, and thus the transition from land into the sea might indicate the jumping of the Arab refugees out of the frying pan into the fire.

Aylan even excels Jabra in his act as a proxy for an existentialist philosopher who represents the angst of the Arab refugees. He foregrounds the existential idea of the meaninglessness of the whole world, and he expresses his loss of confidence in humanity after exposure to war trauma. Many Arab kids, unlike most children of the world, are profoundly dislodged from their traditional places, connections and orientations in life. Acting on their behalf, Aylan negates the possibility of feeling ‘at home’ anywhere after losing boyhood home, after ‘exile’ from innocence. His death registers his physical and psychological uprootedness from the course of mundane life.

Behind his footage lurks the crisis of existence and perhaps the first words of the Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. The sea voyage does entail Aylan’s transformation from reality into abstraction, from place into non-place, from appearance into disappearance; from home into ‘exile’, that is, from life into death. ‘To be an exile from your land is a curse, the most painful curse of all,’ reclaims Jabra’s refugee character WadiÊ¿a, ‘ask the Palestinian… he would say that his life, after he’d been evicted from his land, was no life at all. This blue sea sparkles, carefree, indifferent’.