The Reality Behind New Novel ‘African Titanics’

The Mediterranean Sea has always been a significant hub connecting Europe to Africa, enabling trade and migration, and also facilitating colonial invasions. It was a battleground between the Italians and British for almost five years during World War II, and it was also a strategic point for the slave trade during the Middle Ages. In 2014, it is becoming a mass grave for migrants and refugees whose journey into the light ends in darkness. This year, the numbers of those crossing from Africa into Europe have almost tripled from 2013, highlighting the desperation of those embarking on this horrific journey.

An Italian navy motorboat approaches a boat of migrants in the Mediterranean SeaTo those of us fortunate enough to live on the more prosperous side of the Mediterranean, we travel to its coastline to swim, relax, and indulge on the delights of Mediterranean cuisine. Consider those who reach Italian or Maltese sandy shores, disillusioned and dehydrated, not to mention their uncertainty of knowing the fate of their family and friends. Many make the crossing safely, but tragedies are far from being a rarity.

Eritrean author Abu Bakr Khaal’s latest novel African Titanics follows the adventures of migrant Abdar. As he journeys north from Eritrea, the narrative mirrors the rhythm of his travels; at one moment they are speeding away from bandits in the Sahara, and at the next they’re patiently awaiting news of a calm sea, maintaining a constant tension between life and death, hope and despair.

In September, over 500 people were killed when a boat travelling from Egypt to Malta sank. Two Palestinian survivors claimed the traffickers intended to sink the rickety vessel after those on board didn’t want to switch over to another boat. In October 2013, a boat travelling from Libya to Italy sank off Lampedusa’s shores. 155 people were rescued, but authorities estimated the death toll was “over 360”.  These two tragedies exemplify the colossal scale of the crisis, and the ruthless nature of those orchestrating the boat trips.

Khaal discusses this almost unavoidable ‘bug’ that grips the hearts and minds of young Africans, feeding their imagination on what possibilities lie ahead on European soil. It is almost impossible for us to consider what our lives are lacking in order to set sail into the unknown. Abdar’s story creates an understanding of why so many people who are affected by war, poverty and famine choose to do so, and why this really is a transition between life and death.

Considering the vastness of Africa’s land combined with harsh temperatures, little alternative exists for those willing to risk their lives in search of prosperity. In reality, the European Union are struggling to cope with such numbers, placing insurmountable pressure on the Italian Mare Nostrum operation who continue to be overwhelmed by the influx of immigrants reaching their shores, and even more so with those who do not. Organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are fighting for better coastguard facilities in hotspots, the increase of alternatives to these often-fatal journeys, and to provide access to asylum and solutions for those travelling from conflict zones.

9781850772835Although African Titanics is a novel, this story of perseverance and desperation is a reality for millions across the world, and Khaal brings this to life in our hearts through Abdar’s journey.

Abu Bakr Khaal is an Eritrean novelist who now lives in Denmark after spending many years in Libya. He was a member of the Eritrean Liberation Front for a long period of time and fought in many battles against the Ethiopian occupation. African Titanics is his third novel following The Scent of Arms and Barkantiyya: Land of the Wise Woman.