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WELCOME TO PARADISE
by Mahi Binebine
English translation from the French by Lulu Norman
Granta Books, 2003, 181 pp.,
ISBN: 1-86207-517-4

Review by Charles Dickinson

The dispossessed of the world, for whom citizenship must seem utterly without value, often risk life and limb to gain a toehold of a meager living somewhere else. They might be Haitian boat people. They might be Mexican river waders. They might be, by one EU estimate for 2001, any of 500,000 illegal immigrants who left Ceuta, Spain--a postage-sized Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast--and crossed the Mediterranean for the shores of Spain and greater Europe beyond.

With WELCOME TO PARADISE, Morrocan writer Mahi Binebine gives us a stark tale, told in taut, evocative prose, about a group of North Africans at an undisclosed village on the north coast of Morocco who've gathered to make the Mediterranean crossing. All paid fortunes--by their dismal living standards--to jovial Morad (Momo), a go-between, who's made the journey to Europe--and been deported--three times. They wait in the dark on a cold beach for the word from their trafficker, who'll decide when to launch their row boat into a sometimes treacherous sea and past a possibly lurking Spanish coastguard.

Chapter by chapter, while the silent trafficker, wrapped in his oilskin, apparently deliberates between go and no-go, we meet all the characters gathered in the cold night, ready to attempt the eight-mile crossing. Telling the story of how each person came to huddle in the dark is the story's youthful narrator, Aziz. He needs the courage of two to keep his nervous cousin Reda with him on this fateful adventure. Stories of desperation brought the two cousins from the interior of Morocco to the coast for this escape. Equally desperate, if differing in the details, are the stories of their companions: two Malians, Pafadman and Yarce, an Algerian, Kacem Judi, a Berber, Yussef, and a woman, Nuara, who brings with her the infant fathered by her husband she hopes to rejoin in Europe, though she hasn't heard from him for more than a year.

In one sense, WELCOME TO PARADISE is a testament to what these eight human beings endured just to be able to make this risky voyage across open waters to a better life. As we approach that moment when the trafficker says, yes, and they actually push the boat into the water, we know in certain terms what is at stake for each.

Needless to say, this fictional drama happens millions of times each year and it's a daily human struggle lost on many. The illegal immigrant, if successful, usually works invisibly among us; if not, it might be the carousel of deportation or in the shocking extreme, suffocation in a truck or freight container. Binebine succeeds admirably in being a witness and WELCOME TO PARADISE honors Aziz and his dispossessed companions everywhere for whom national borders are barriers to no less than survival.

© Charlie Dickinson August 2003
website: http://www.efn.org/~charlesd

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