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Calais Jungle_First Pages

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July 1, 2016

     Stolen Soap    


Far from the tents and stalls of Calais Jungle, a water spigot stands in a field of flowers. Freydun makes his way past refugees from hot troubled lands toward a language school near the faucet. He is eager to learn the French words he’ll need to make a life in this country with its damp air and people with pale hairless arms. 

Freydun lopes and slows, afraid to misread what’s before him. He thought he knew his motherland until it turned on him; now he is in France, ceding one fate for another, straddling East and West, swapping privilege for privation. He had no choice.

Next to him is his friend Abdo. Freydun thinks Abdo is also headed to language class. But Abdo is walking with more determination than the slow strides of his usual slog when Freydun persuades him to come. Like other Sudanese in the camp, Abdo keeps a curious proximity. Freydun’s people, Persians, set a small distance between their bodies and those of their friends. To Freydun, everything in the camp seems to encroach––the tents next to his, the men queuing for meals, the ramshackle chairs at the school. 

Near École’s wire and wood gate, Abdo touches Freydun’s arm and steers him away from the school into the field of yellow flowers.

‘Where are we going?’ Freydun asks.

‘You will see.’

Abdo threads among the mustard stalks that wave in the wind blowing hard off the English Channel. He starts singing ‘Al Ketar’, softly crimping his voice into the fiery quavers that make him the best singer in Calais Jungle. His narrow nose scrunches in longing for Sudan and the mama he left behind. 

Freydun frowns. He knows that when Abdo sings, time loses hold of him. The day will be half over before it begins.

Freydun follows Abdo to the spigot. 

Abdo stops singing and screws up his face with a look that means mischief. From his pocket, he pulls a bar of soap. A stolen bar of soap. 

The men undress to their boxer shorts. Abdo twists the handle and water sprays from a hose. They laugh and lather and pass the soap, taking their time, a luxury missing at the government-run showers where they queue for an hour to be shunted into a stall for six minutes flat, all the while feeling the crush of the queue closing in from behind. Yesterday the bar of soap was so small that Abdo felt no guilt when he slipped it into his sweats.

Abdo scrubs Freydun’s back, then lifts the hose and aims it at his friend, wanting the jet to blast off the pressing constancy of life in Calais Jungle. It is too much sometimes, this shantytown of 7,129 people who don’t know what to call themselves. Refugees. Migrants. Citizens of nowhere with no country that will call them its own. Freydun, Abdo and the 7,127 others are tent-dwellers in purple, blue, or orange homes of nylon, five or six feet apart and low to the ground.
Now a moment of bliss. In the flowers. No sight of other thin men with extravagant hopes trudging every which way through the dunes. 

Freydun watches the water refract sunlight into colored bands. He inhales the smell of the earth, tosses wet coils of hair off his face. He turns the hose on Abdo and wonders if the caress of water on his friend’s chest reminds the singer of savannah rains. Here, as there, Abdo lacks the means to warm or cool his body, a lean form that brought him from Sudan all the way to the north of Europe. 

Freydun is lost in the wet sunlight when he sees them. Three French policemen from the riot unit, Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, pick up their pace. The officers are tall and well-fed, their uniforms black from their boots to the shark-finned caps on their heads. The emblem on their sleeves sports a torch and a pair of olive branches. They trample weeds as they bound toward Freydun and Abdo, gripping their batons, more torch than olive branch.
The friends stand in dripping briefs, mud between their toes. Their laughter gutters. Freydun aims the hose at the mud and turns to shut off the water. 

The way the officers’ boots claim the ground reminds Freydun that he’s an outcast squatting on polluted landfill outside their city of Calais. This nation is theirs, and no way will they let him forget it. Of all the dark-eyed, hopeful exiles in Calais Jungle, Freydun stands out for his steady discerning gaze. Now he doesn’t know where to look. 

He calls, ‘Bonjour, messieurs’ and braces for the blow of a nightstick.


Across the path at École, a choral director named Betsy is packing up from a music class she has taught in the courtyard. Betsy is quick to smile, curly-headed, olive-skinned, and older than other volunteers. She has arrived ahead of her team to start a music program in the camp. The American’s eyebrows lift in excitement at the chance to learn songs from lands far from North America. One of her reasons for coming to Calais Jungle is to gather songs to teach her chorus in California. How much of her background in psychology she’ll use remains to be seen. At other refugee camps, she found some of it useful and some not. She’ll puzzle out cultural differences, one mistake at a time.

One of her students, a Syrian called Sami, limps on the gravel, gesturing with an arm shaped like an upside-down L. Smooth camel-colored skin, glossy black hair, and cheekbones that set off glinting eyes hint at the handsome boy who left Syria on the verge of manhood. 

‘I carry your bag,’ he offers. 

Betsy gives the boy her purple tote containing passport, euros, dry-erase markers, song sheets, and a small whiteboard sticking out the top. 

As they fling open the school’s gate, they make out Freydun and Abdo, half-hidden in the weeds, laughing a harmless private laughter that releases tension. Then the pumped-up chests of the riot police as they move in on Abdo and Freydun.

Betsy wonders whether Abdo or Freydun said something offensive to the CRS officers, perhaps unintentionally. She remembers singing with them in Abdo’s tent last night and can’t imagine the shy Sudanese singer or the studious Persian provoking the police. What seems to have incensed the officers is the capacity of the men to refresh themselves at a hose. Penniless intruders. Non-contributors to the economy. Laughing while stretching the resources of France, stealing French girls from real Frenchmen like themselves.

Sami limp-lops into the field, Betsy’s bag swinging against his leg. He slows to pull himself upright like a gazelle, chest high, shoulders square, disguising his limp by locking his knee and blurring his cane in the weeds.

Betsy grabs her purple bag from the boy and plunges through the field, the single gray streak in her hair springing against her forehead. 

‘What are the police yelling?’ she calls over her shoulder.

‘Bad words. Insults.’ 

The officers are less than twenty feet from the spigot when they spot Betsy and Sami. 

Sami freezes. 

Without slowing, Betsy rummages through the bag for her iPhone, weighing the benefit of shaming the officers into civility against the humiliation of capturing Freydun and Abdo half-naked, jeered by police. 

She taps the camera and calls, ‘Bonjour! Hi!’ 

The officers glance at the iPhone aimed at them. 

She adds, ‘Freydun, I’d like you to translate something for me.’

The officers back away. 

She has used her small allotment of power.

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