Rabie wa Shetaa (Spring and Winter) by Atef El-Hagg Saeed, (Ibiidi Book Data Publishing Services), 2019.
Ever heard of the Sudanese refugees in France? Probably not, this group came to life less than a decade ago. In his novel Spring and Winter Atef El-Hagg Saeed explained the mechanism of the existence of this group.
Early in the novel the writer entangles the two main characters, the translator Tarek and the immigrant Assef. The translator received the novel of his own life by mail, an intelligent way to attract the reader into a magical world. A beautiful insight about novel writing was mentioned in the first few pages, “an effective technique in narration is to tell the story when the event is at its peak,” the peak in this novel is that Tarek’s wife leaves him, and then the flashback starts.
The story of both men is an interesting adventure. Tarek arrived in France after receiving a scholarship, got his PhD (the field is not mentioned), and eventually he became a facilitator/ translator for the Sudanese immigrants who managed to reach France after the political unrest that Sudan has seen in the last few years. He would be considered the top tier of immigrants, studied in their universities, found a French woman to marry, slowly integrated into the French society and understood their habits from food to lifestyle.
The second character would belong to the middle tier of immigrants; Assef who took a boat to Italy from Libya after escaping from Sudan. His destination was France. He used a trick of not giving his name or information to the Italian authorities in order to present his case in France. His life in France was taking to the streets, sleeping in the cold, and living in a plastic tent like many other immigrants coming from Africa. He ultimately found his way to be a gigolo for an older French woman, a miserable position that many immigrants found themselves in; there are well established networks and brokers to provide the bodies (men and women) for these guilty pleasures.
The author managed to paint a picture of the life of those immigrants with its misery, suffering and the tricks they pull to survive, including getting infected on purpose with scabies to get medical care and a bed, burning their fingers to erase their finger prints to reapply for immigration in a different country in the European Union after being rejected in another, and pretending to be Eritreans to get an easier and faster treatment in the immigration process – Eritrea has a special case, the international community admits the cruelty of the political regime against its people and the number of the Eritreans who make it to France is relatively small. So many Sudanese impersonate Eritrean nationals to present their papers, even Dr Tarek wrote a book “How to become Eritrean in 10 days” to help his fellow Sudanese and sold it for three euros.
Even though it is only a marginal point in the novel, but no one can discuss immigration in France without mentioning the Algerians. The writer noticed shrewdly that they consider France their land, which is ironic because in the 1950s the majority of the French population considered Algeria as French soil; they even drew the Algerian borders like the French hexagon to be symmetric to France on the African continent. Positions have changed 180 degrees on that issue.
The writer managed to put all arguments about the immigration case in the novel. The immigration policies protecting the refugees and the paperless (that’s their legal description), are long and frustrating for the new arrivals, the main aim is to discourage the immigrants from seeking a long stay in France.
Cultivating in their mind that their stay is temporary, giving them the bare minimum of the basic needs of life such as food and shelter, letting them live in the cold is a long term plan, they might decide just to return to their homeland; in that case help is provided in a speedy efficient way. Erasing the idea that France is a country that respects refugees helps them have the rationale of discouraging the legal immigrants from inviting their relatives to come and stay in France and maybe stop newcomers from targeting France as a final destination. The psychological effect on the immigrants formed different persons, people who come to believe that no relations are permanent.
Dr Tarek has a very special personal trend, he does have his own dreams yet he sees the dreams of those who dream of him. He realised that faculty at an early age. He used to tell the dreams to his colleagues at primary school, and then he stopped sharing the knowledge when he got the reputation of being possessed. His wife, Ann Sophie, the French woman who fell in love and married Tarek, saw him only once in her dreams in the few years they were together; it was a reason of discomfort for him, he wanted her to see him in her dreams.
In her dream, she was giving birth to a child and decided to give him to humanity, in real life when she gave birth it was a stillborn; a clear message from the writer that the merger between the North and South is doomed to fail. This message was echoed in various places in the novel, whether through the villagers who went out in demonstrations refusing to have a refugee camp in their town, or through the French woman who used Assef for her pleasure when she angrily explained to him that it would have been much better to struggle for a better life in his own country rather than look for an easy life in Europe, especially that such a life will never be “given” to him and he is not equipped to work for it and succeed; the barriers to that dream life were invisible in the past but now they are clear to anyone with intelligence.
Ann Sophie was kind to the immigrants, and she helped them, shared the streets with them and adopted their lifestyle (for instance, eating in common plates with her hands, spending a night in a plastic tent) then Tarek discovered that she was writing a thesis about the “Psychological disorders associated with illegal immigration” taking the Sudanese immigrants as a case study. The fact that she hid her study from her husband broke their relation. She claimed it was a personal matter and he had no right of knowing what she does not want to share with him; a harsh concept to accept for a man, especially because it was his countymen that were used as lab rats for her scientific research.
The reader might question her real feelings and motives, whether she loved and trusted him or not, would that be considered malice? He did not help her in her work but is it logical for a husband to know by chance that his wife is preparing a PhD?
The novel is open-ended. It is one of the books that push the reader to try to think more about a global problem. What is the solution for immigration, legal or otherwise?