Fiction

Refugium

THIS IS HOW it began for those in flight: with the scent of the sea, the sun playing on water, the light refracted by the Laguna. The invaders who pursued them took fright. The islets and marshes, and the swathes of wetlands repelled them. They feared the wildness. They cursed the loss of their spoils and retreated to their northern lairs on the mainland.

When the sharp crack of voices and the howl of dogs evaporated, those who had shaken off their pursuers ventured out of their primitive shelters and set to work. They made their way forward through trial and error. They invented ways to build edifices upon shifting foundations. From the swamplands there rose a city of islets, and from the city an empire; and from the empire, the inevitable fall. But the city remained, kept afloat by its beauty, and the echoes of ancestral memory, recorded in the annals and engraved in its decaying buildings. Fifteen centuries have gone by, but this is how it had begun – as a refugium.

 

IT IS NIGHT when Nathan leaves the airport. The water taxi hurtles across the Laguna. It skims over the wakes of boats that have preceded it. The young man at the wheel is in a hurry. He has been paid a set price and wants to complete the job quickly. These are difficult waters to negotiate but he knows them well: the hazards, the lay of the buoys and the locations of the deeper channels. As he nears the city the boat slows. Entering a narrow canal, he steers carefully. He pulls up to a tiny landing. Nathan disembarks. A doorway in a narrow alley. A foyer. A flight of worn stone stairs ends at a door on the first-­floor landing. He steps inside the apartment, exhausted. Tonight, he will fall into the deep sleep of the long-­distance traveller…

 

THIS IS NATHAN’S plan: at least one time on any given day, he will set foot in the ghetto. His rationale is to view it in relation to the city. The ghetto square is his touchstone. Unlike those who once dwelled here, he is free to come and go as he pleases. There are no curfews, no drawbridges, nor guards patrolling the waterways. There are no padlocked gates to contain him. He walks from morning till late at night. Each day he allows a different route to unfold before him.

In time, he begins to see beyond the apparent symmetry, the intentions of those who laid the foundations of empire and their quixotic attempts to create perfection. It may be a matter of millimetres, but the city is tilting; the walls are leaning in on each other. The tilt can be seen in the piping that runs beneath the garrets. It is in the archways, the stone entrances and the wooden beams that frame the ceilings. It can be discerned in the slight slant of the pavements. It is in the stone supports of balconies and the wooden frames of shuttered windows. It is in both the sinking and the resistance.

This is the paradox, the city’s central tension: Venice is fluid but fragile, built on mud and swampland, shaped by water, baptised by reflected light, in sharp contrast to the terra firma that can be glimpsed on the mainland. In the walking Nathan comes to understand the meaning of the term. Its origins can be traced back to this city: terra firma, denoting the territories on the mainland that were once subject to the state of Venice. The city has risen on the interface between sea and land, fortified by a natural moat, the perfect setting for a haven…

 

IBRAHIM DREAMS OF Senegal each day, each hour, each minute; he dreams of Senegal as he stands late night on the Riva, a stone’s throw from the Doge’s Palace. The chill is rising. It penetrates the marrow. He stamps his feet and digs his hands in his pockets. He jogs on the spot and hunches in his down jacket. On the ground before him are two rows of imitation designer-­label handbags.

‘I cannot give up,’ he urges himself. There is time enough for one last sale. It has been a bad day. One transaction may redeem it. There are people about, tourists strolling by and photographers lined up on elevated vantage points, lenses trained upon the lagoon in pursuit of yet another Venetian sunset.

This is Ibrahim’s calculation: he will ask for forty euros and allow the buyer to bargain him down as far as twenty, leaving a five-­euro margin as profit. Better a small profit than no profit. This is how it has been since he arrived in the city, a battle waged between two obsessions: the imperative to eke out a living against the enduring ache of his longings. He churns over the figures, balance sheets, receipts versus expenses. Stocks are running low. Tomorrow he will journey by train to Firenze. He will purchase handbags on commission in clandestine warehouses and return to Mestre where he lives in a two-­roomed flat with eight compatriots, four to a room, a tiny kitchen their assembly point.

He is on constant alert. If he is caught the police may turn a blind eye or issue a warning; he may be taken to the station. He may receive a fine, or have his possessions confiscated in lieu of payment. At worst, he may be threatened with deportation. The scenarios are varied, but the danger is always imminent.

His mind is drifting. He is in Dakar, with his mother and father, his two sisters. They are in mourning for the third sister. She has been dead three months. She was pregnant, in her final trimester, feverish. She vomited. She was admitted to hospital and died a day later while her brother was in Venice. When Ibrahim received the news, he sank beneath the weight of his grief like a stone cast in water.

The city’s beauty eludes him. He ponders the paradox: among those who pass by him in Venice are tourists who have been welcomed in Senegal. They love the Senegalese in their habitat. They find them handsome and photogenic. They take snapshots of smiling children. They are taken by the Senegalese drums and buy them to display in their living rooms on returning to their home countries. When they see the Senegalese in Venice with their goods laid out on the pavements, it’s a different story. Some pass by with indifference, others with contempt. Some stop to bargain. They whittle down the margins. They possess wealth beyond Ibrahim’s wildest imaginings.

He has become immune to the contempt; yet there are times when he rages against his daily humiliation. He vows to purchase a ticket home tomorrow, but again he hesitates. He does not want to lose face, to court a sense of failure. Just one more day and his luck will surely change, and he will return home laden with riches. Just one more week and he will find employment. One more month, maximum, he promises himself. ‘That’s all,’ he says. ‘I swear it…’ He has been in Venice seven years now.

It is approaching midnight. This is his chance to occupy the piazza of San Marco. By day he would be exposed, and the presence of his goods too obvious. The coast is clear. He lines up the handbags in front of the basilica, but the fog is closing in and the people are leaving. He gathers his goods and moves to the square’s centre. He is the sole person remaining. The air is thickening. One by one the famed landmarks are receding: the ducal palace, the prison, the belltower of St Mark and the basilica. The fog is descending. It envelops the isle of St George, and the lion atop the towering column. Ibrahim envisages the text inscribed in the open book the lion is holding: ‘Peace be with you Mark, my evangelist. Here shall your body rest.’

He must not rest. He cannot afford to rest. Yet it is all closing – the orchestra rostrums, the Florian Café where the price of a coffee is akin to a bad day’s takings. The fairy lights of the arcades have dimmed; then they too are gone, along with the Christmas decorations. The fog is at his feet. The last to vanish are a flock of pigeons. He is shrouded, cloaked in the heat of his own body. The journey that has led him here has been wiped out. He has no past, no future. He is on a cloud. He is the cloud. He is heartbeat. Pure being. Invisible. He stands in solitude, a non-­presence. And dreams of Senegal…

 

GHETTO. NATHAN IS aware of the history. From the Venetian getto: ‘foundry’. The first ghetto was established in 1516, when the Jewish residents were confined to the former site of a foundry. Some argue it is from the Italian borghetto, diminutive of borgo, ‘borough’. The journey of the word is ongoing. It has assumed many guises: ‘A part of a city, especially slum area, occupied by a minority group.’ ‘An isolated clique or enclave.’ ‘A neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged residential area.’ As verb: ‘to restrict to a segregated district…’

 

IN VENICE, THERE is a House of Refuge. The location shall remain nameless. Night has fallen. Nathan heads for a bar off Campo do Pozzi. A gathering of men and women stand by the counter. They are celebrating the birth of a boy born two hours earlier. They raise toasts to the baby, to the elated father and to all who join them. The spirits are warming the body. ‘Damn it,’ they say, ‘let’s have another.’ After all, it isn’t every day that a baby is born in Venice. The population is in decline, and far outweighed by visitors. Each birth is a bonus.

Meryam is waiting. She lives in the House of Refuge. The bar is her meeting place. She sits with her circle of Venetian friends. She is twenty-­one. She radiates warmth but her smile is tempered by a deep melancholy. How can it be otherwise given the tale she is about to tell them?

Her journey began in central Africa. They left the town they had lived in all their lives: eighty men, women and children. Meryam was sixteen. They boarded a truck and headed north. They travelled by day and slept at night under open skies in forest clearings. They travelled the length of entire countries and stole across borders. Many weeks after their departure they arrived at their destination, Tripoli, a city of the waiting.

And they waited. A full twelve-­months until the chance presented itself. Meryam boarded a boat and set out on the journey with strangers; the money she had made in cleaning jobs financed it. The passengers sailed on the Mediterranean, a mythical sea, a sea of longing. The name evoked the allure of freedom. And danger. Meryam was confined below decks. She could not step outside. She remained in the same place for the entire voyage. A girl sat between her knees. Beside her lay a young mother nursing her newborn baby.

Three days went by and still the boat sailed on. They were lost. They sailed in circles. The crew was unfamiliar with these waters. At some point the boat passed a threshold from the real to the ghostly. With each passing day, the panic mounted. The passengers wept. They prayed. They could not sleep. They vomited. They pissed and shat where they lay. The air stank with the smell of shit and urine.

On the fourth day, the ghost ship ran out of food and water. On the fifth day, a man fell overboard. The passengers mistook the fish for a shark. They were certain he was done for. The fish leapt from the water. They caught the silver glint of its hide. The dolphin circled and dived. The man rose above the waves, carried aloft by the dolphin. It nudged him back to the boat and stayed by his side until he was winched to safety, then turned, headed back out to sea and vanished.

On the seventh day, the passengers heard the drone of a plane. It circled and dropped food and water. Within hours they were transferred to a police boat. The rescued were exhausted. They wished they could rest in this moment for eternity. They prayed their trials were over – and as she tells the tale in a bar on a winter’s night in Venice, Meryam pauses. She cannot look her friends in the eye for fear of what she may betray. She gazes at an unseen point, composes herself, and resumes her story.

The boat docked in Lampedusa. They showered, shaved, washed away the stench and revelled in their cleanliness. Their stay was brief. The passengers were transferred to a naval ship. It rounded the coast of Sicily and headed north on the Adriatic, bound for the port of Cavallino-­Treporti, located off the Laguna by way of the Lido opening. As the boat approached the port, the passengers saw before them a series of towers rising from the flatlands: outriders of Venice, built as a network of surveillance, partnered by coastal batteries, gunpowder factories, forts and barracks.

That is how it appeared as the ship drew up to the marina: the port was both fortress and shelter. They lived there for two months, then were dispersed to Padua, Treviso and Venice. Meryam entered the fabled city over the Bridge of Liberty. She was ferried on its waterways and ushered to a three-­storey building – the House of Refuge.

Waiting. Meryam knows every nuance of waiting. She has lived in the house for three years now. She knows the false alarm of raised hopes, the interminable boredom. She knows indifference and the kindness of strangers. She knows nosthalghia, the pain of longing for the return, the curse of Odysseus. Her father had died in her absence. She yearns to see her mother, her brothers and sisters.

She has pared down her expectations and reduced them to a single aspiration: to make a living. She wants only to move from A to B. She plaits people’s hair in intricate tresses. She prepares African banquets. She phones her mother every day. ‘I am fine,’ she tells her. ‘I have friends. I am well looked after. Don’t worry.’

Despite the tale she is telling, Meryam speaks gently. Her voice is melodious, and the tone understated. Time is suspended. In this moment, there is hope; transient friends gathered by a fire. Then it is over. It is past midnight. The celebrations for the birth have long finished. Time will not stop, despite the longing. It is five years since Meryam left her hometown, and the prime years of life are flowing by her. She leaves the bar escorted by friends. They accompany her to the House of Refuge. They hug at the door. One by one they disperse to their own neighbourhoods…

 

IBRAHIM STANDS IN the square of Santo Stefano. It is Sunday. Late morning. The winter sun has broken free of its moorings. He dreams of Senegal, but in the hard light of day his dreams evaporate. Dakar is a chimera. He has laid out ten handbags on the pavement. On a Sunday, there is an air of festivity. A sense of lightness descends on the city. Venetians appear more open, benevolent. For many it is a day of rest, a time for outings and family visits. For the street traders, Sunday is a good day to do business.

Ibrahim is lulled into a sense of security. It is too late by the time he sees them; three policemen are bearing towards him. He snatches up the handbags and threads them over his arms, five on either side, evenly balanced. They nestle in the crook of his elbows like a cluster of bracelets. He takes off towards the Accademia Bridge holding his arms up before him. The police are closing in. He climbs the steps two at a time to the apex.

He is exhausted. He has been up since five. He had taken the bus from Mestre on the daily commute over the Bridge of Liberty. On arriving at the terminus, he had searched the waste bins for discarded newspapers. He had spread the handbags on a bench and used the newspapers to stuff them. When extended the bags are more likely to attract buyers. He had made his way into the heart of the city and stopped to lay out the goods in a succession of locations, and he had grabbed them on hearing the warning via the street traders’ grapevine: the police are nearby, get moving.

Just one instant off guard, and he is cornered. There are no alleys to duck down, no squares to take flight in. All escape routes are closed to him. He edges towards the railings and extends his arms over the water. The police are within metres. He unbends his elbows and releases the handbags.

The gesture appears like an offering. His pursuers have been thwarted; to be detained a trader must have the goods in his possession. The police turn away, deflated. Ibrahim leans over the bridge and stares at the discarded goods bobbing in the water. He calculates his losses, then shrugs his shoulders and resumes his air of stoicism.

The handbags are moving downstream. The paper stuffing keeps them buoyant. The silver clasps glint in the sunlight. The bags are buffeted in the wakes of vaporetti and barges. They weave in and out of the Grand Canal traffic. They separate and reform in new constellations. Water is a leveller; the handbags are no longer imitations, but waterborne Guccis. They are the portents of a new Venice. A new tradition is being born, a marriage between sea and designer label. One day, surely, there will be a festival of floating handbags.

One by one they sink, as if they had talked it through beforehand and drawn straws to determine in which sequence they should give way. One solitary bag makes it to the lagoon. Like a salmon battling its way upstream it finds its way to the Adriatic. It collides with ocean liners and freighters. It brushes against a dead cat floating, its legs extended beneath it, as if it had walked off land and kept walking. The sea is littered with hazards, but it is open. It conveys the scent of freedom.

The Gucci’s freedom is short-­lived; it is trapped in a fishing net. The net is hauled aboard a trawler and unravelled on deck where the fish are sorted. A fisherman curses as he retrieves the handbag. With each passing year, the amount of rubbish trapped in the nets increases. He is about to fling it back into the sea when he glances at the logo.

The Adriatic has yielded a treasure. On reaching port the following morning he cleans off the muck, allows it to dry in the sun and wraps it in gift paper. He takes it home to his wife. That night, for the first time in months, they make love, all thanks to a man who stands on the streets of Venice and dreams of Senegal…

Refugium is an extract from a work-­in-­progress by the same name. Arnold Zable was one of several international writers invited to take part in ‘Reimagining the Ghetto of Venice for the twenty-­first century’, a project initiated by Shaul Bassi, a professor of English literature at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice, and hosted by the university and Beit Venezia: A Home for Jewish Culture. It was first presented at Incroci di civiltà (Crossroads of civilisations) International Literature Festival in 2016, coinciding with the five-­hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the first Jewish ghetto in 1516. Refugium will appear in Italian in the anthology Il Ghetto reimmaginato, to be published by La Giuntina in 2021.

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