The sea, the sea - all you can see is surface

A reflection of the sunset. Photo: Getty Images

The refugee is vague. He is caught in a condition of waiting. He has travelled from Asia to England but, having no documents, he has never officially arrived: “It isn’t easy to live here. It is a very heavy wait. You know life is quick but I’m always waiting.”

His notion of the sea has no edges. He can’t quite remember how he crossed it, because the sea, to someone closed for several days in the boot of a car, is only slightly different from the land:

“It’s very heavy. I can’t remember dates. From Baghdad to the north we need six hours, more than six hours, I don’t know. Then walk, walk, walk. We sleep at day, we walk at night. We cross a river up to here” – his neck – “I don’t know where it is because nobody speaks my language. They say let’s go this way. They put us inside the car. From Syria to Turkey, perhaps.

“The car drives on to the boat, maybe two days, maybe three days, from Turkey to Greece, from Greece to Italy. I don’t see anything. I don’t know where I am because I don’t go out. When they say they need four people, I don’t ask. My brother pays. No one tells me where
we’re going. Just they give me some bread. I take a big breath. I’m very scared and I go inside.”

After a while, he can tell he’s on a ship because different engines start up and dogs come sniffing the car deck. “Big dogs, they check the car. I can’t breathe I’m so scared. This time I’m lucky but not before.”

Then the sea makes its presence felt as a queasiness, a movement of waves, or “amuwaje” as he calls them.

Ninety feet above him, the ship is layered, like a theological system. The middle decks have shops and cafés where the sea, a blue or grey line through windows, is mostly ignored. In passageways there are charts that show the sea divided by dots and shadows into sections.

Then there are the upper decks, where the sea has a close relationship with light. It marks out the edges of eyesight. It resembles a huge photographic plate that catches the sky exactly. People lean over and all they can see is surface, the uppermost level of another world. It’s as if they were flying over rooves.

The sea has this contradictory quality, that the more you see of it, the more it overwhelms the eye and disappears in its own brightness. Like a flame, whose meaning is light but whose centre is dark, it demands to be undefined.

Anchors away

“It is remarkable,” writes Samuel Johnson, in the introduction to his Dictionary, “that in revising my collection, I found the word ‘sea’ to be un-exemplified.” Imagine him, closed in his room, studying a sea-girt language: when the sea flashes into his mind, it is dramatic, momentary, complete and then gone.

“At the very best,” writes Simone Weil, “a mind enclosed in language is in prison. It is limited to the number of relations which words can make simultaneously present to it a closed space of partial truth. The only way into truth is by one’s own annihilation.”

The refugee holds up his hands: “They have broken my future. Believe me, life is gone. I can’t say everything. I try many times to get from Syria to Europe. I watch the sea every day. There are many big boats and I see just the flag and I think ‘Europe!’ I climb the anchor chain maybe ten or 12 times. There are six of us hiding with the anchor for two days but whenever the boat starts they find us.
We go back. I don’t know when this was.”

With thanks to Ali. Next week: Felicity Cloake on food