Sunday, July 28, 2019

July/August 2019: What We'll Be Reading Next, Part II

"The swimming venue of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin."
by A. Levers, dated 2008
via Wikimedia Commons
ASIDE FROM the Humboldt travelogue, I've listened this summer to an audiobook of a modern journey: Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian - My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini's involuntary travels from Damascus, through Turkey and Greece, the Balkans and Austria, to Berlin. She grew up with her parents and two sisters — one older, one younger — in the suburbs, until their house became part of the war zone. Then they took shelter in the city of Damascus itself, which became increasingly precarious as bombs and shrapnel became risks in daily life. Her swimming ambitions were also endangered by a peacetime obstacle: girls were not strongly expected to become professional swimmers as grown women, since it was assumed that they would drop out of training to marry and have children. So her father (who had moved to Jordan to find work as a swimming coach, given the oversaturated job market in Syria) sent his two eldest daughters the money that would be needed to flee to Germany.

Yusra and her older sister Sara stayed in Turkey briefly, riding in a bus to the shore near Lesbos. Then, after a smuggler swan-dove overboard and abandoned a boat full of refugees with a motor that had stopped functioning and that lay too low in the water underneath their weight, they were stranded for hours near the Greek island without being able to reach it. To keep the boat from sinking, some of the refugees slipped overboard and held onto ropes, and nudged the prow of the boat so that it was pointed toward the Greek shore even if they could not propel the heavy vessel themselves. Yusra emphasizes that Sara was in the water as well as she was. What is more, a few fellow refugees also slipped overboard even though — unlike the Mardini sisters — they could not swim at all.

The journey from Lesbos (the boat was saved) through Hungary and Austria is a long story in which the generosity and the venality of strangers is absurdly intermingled. There is the degrading treatment and the brutality with which refugees' money is exploited even by 'respectable' authorities and individuals: money taken for substandard lodgings, tickets sold for trains which people are never permitted to take, beatings in Bulgarian forest escape routes by 'law and order,' etc. Even so, Yusra Mardini points out that those who could afford to travel over Greece into Europe were the lucky ones; those with no money at all are stranded in Turkey or Lebanon. There are also, by way of contrast, gifts of clothing, the offer of an Orthodox church as a night shelter, and other practical assistance. It is strange how all of these actions are natural to humanity, and it is a sign of strength that Yusra's head and heart seem to have accepted these contradictions without bitterness.

When Angela Merkel expressed the wish to handle asylum claims for all Syrian refugees in 2015, Germany became a comparatively welcoming country. Indeed Yusra saw cheering crowds at the station as she arrived across its borders. And yet life here was not perfect.

Mardini remembered the war trauma and was still losing friends who had stayed behind; and Berlin was not nearly as pretty or familiar as Damascus. Then her parents and her youngest sister hoped that German government policy would reunite them; then they were forced to abandon that hope at least temporarily. In the end they risked their necks smuggling themselves into Germany as well; they fortunately succeeded. Then her sister Sara performed the endless waiting for asylum claim processing at the LaGeSo in Berlin (the State Office for Health and Social Issues), which was one of many trials prepared by the German bureaucracy. Add the fact that the housing schemes, for instance, for refugees were at times negligent or even inhumane. Also, she did not want to accept charity all the time.

I'm worried that rejecting the label 'refugee' as Mardini does undermines the cause, although it's cheeky of me to speculate at all. While the press is undoubtedly wrong in finding Syrian refugees more presentable than, let's say, Sudanese refugees, I don't know if it helps to make flight respectable for anyone, if 'refugee' seems to remain to the end of this book as a degrading term for weak dependents rather than as a neutral term for individuals who seek to stay in another country because their own government will not protect them.

Her book is also about media frenzies. It starts with one or two interviews with reporters who bump into her while she's still traveling between the shore of Lesbos and the outskirts of Berlin, and who find to their delight that she speaks English. Some of these journalists use their skills and experience to assist her journey through the Balkans, which seems justified even if I'm uptight enough to worry about journalistic objectivity. But later, when Yusra is considered for the Olympics, other journalists bombard her and her German swimming coach with interview requests, waylay her so that she is afraid to leave her housing for fear of missing her morning training, ask impertinent and hurtful questions of her sister and, after hounding Yusra for the boat story for the thousandth time, then misrepresent the story so that she tows the boat to shore like Skippy the heroic dolphin. Yusra was just 17 years old when she took the boat from Turkey to Greece and, whether she inspires people or not, perhaps adults can find a spokesperson in a more ethical and thoughtful way, preserving something of her private sphere and respecting her age and her family.

Butterfly is aimed, I'd guess, at teenagers. But I enjoyed it as an adult. From a literary standpoint, the boilerplate descriptions of people (I think at least two different people have 'open faces' and others are helpfully described by hair colour) and the first-person, present-tense narration are bound to shock the snooty critic inside me. As for the narrator — Lameece Issaq — besides rendering the Arabic names perfectly, or so I assume, she does a brilliant job of the German language. She only mangles LaGeSo (lah-GAY-zoh) and Sonnenallee (ZON-nen-UH-lay), the street that is famous as a hotspot of Arabic-speaking Berliners; and I'd say that her sometimes boastful, upbeat athlete's tone, not out of place when describing the Olympic triumphs of Michael Phelps in the swimming lanes, is at times just a bit out of place when describing war.

Note: I was led to listen to this book by Emma Watson's "Our Shared Shelf" book club on Goodreads.

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