Long before it was named, Take to the Sea was conceived in an attempt for someone with the wrong passport to have the right reason to get the official letter that would then enable a visa to stay on in Cairo. More formally, as an open-ended research project on ‘irregular’ migration from Egypt to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea, it was initiated in 2008. Since then, it has mutated many times, and different minds and motivations have migrated through it to produce sound, moving-image, and text-based work.
The world is hearing more and more about boatloads of people—men, women and children, setting sail in overcrowded ‘zodiacs’ ill-equipped for high-seas. They reach land clandestinely in the dark of the night, after splashing in the water, for they are often thrown overboard by the smugglers that they paid for the passage and left to their own devices to swim the last leg of the journey. Having sought the safety, or the dream, of a foreign shore, they arrive: their bodies bearing the markers of a long and treacherous trip—unshaven faces, matted hair, torn and tattered clothes, drenched, fatigued, and sea-sick. Encoded in this drastic image of arrival is the sense of desperation and desire that propelled them to the extent of such determination. As a manifestation of bodily risk, the moment is rather dramatic. The media grabs it.
In the face of increased restrictions placed on human mobility across the globe in the past decade, territorial waters present the possibility of permeable borders. Thus clandestine movements of unfathomable lengths are occurring via the water: Senegalese have sailed for 47 days across the Atlantic in a fishing vessel with the help of tiny GPS devices; Afghanis have made their passage all the way to Australia through the waters of Indonesia.
When it comes to accessing Europe via the Mediterranean, people—both asylum seekers and economic migrants—are embarking from along the north coast of Africa. At one point in time, these Mediterranean journeys of ‘irregular’ migration were relatively short—from the north coast of Morocco, across the Straits of Gibraltar, to the southern most tip of Spain. But border-control measures have meant sea-surveillance as well, and much money is being pumped into making these manageable distances harder to navigate. As a result, routes are getting longer, riskier, and more expensive. People, however, are still determined enough to take them. In vogue are the journey from cities off the coast of Libya to the Italian islands of Sicily and Lampedusa. Men, women and children crossing the Mediterranean waters are coming largely from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan regions, but also from as far as Central and South Asia. Some of them are coming from Egypt.
Until recently, most Egyptian men who might have been migrating to Italy were more likely to first pass through to Libya by land, before being packed into small 7-metre-long boats called zodiacs, and taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa on relatively short, yet risk-ridden rides by sea. But with new restrictions placed on this land access to Libya, recent journeys embark from a town near Alexandria, called Rashid. Such departures from the north of Egypt are not in any sense novel, but speculation has it that earlier, this Mediterranean coastline was primarily used as an exit for smuggling operations transferring economic migrants vying for Greece, or for other parts of the European Union, but via Crete, Cyprus and Turkey. It was not so much used to directly set out by sea all the way to Italy.
Italy's popularity amongst Egyptians as a destination with high economic returns has long since translated into an exodus of young men in certain villages along the Nile Valley. Relatives have often encouraged each other, uncles having paved the way for nephews, as well as siblings, and a transnational migratory network of information and communication has facilitated the movement of these men across the Mediterranean.
In probing before and beyond that moment of arrival at a European shore, our research-based project, funded in its first phase by the Migration and Refugee Studies Department at American University in Cairo, began by wandering into specific Egyptian villages from which migrants are known to leave. Through 2008 we have been speaking to aspiring migrants, successful returnees, agents, smugglers, families who lost their sons at sea, and then also to those young men who made repeated attempts, were duped by smugglers, caught by sea patrol, detained and deported, raised money to pay for another trip, tried again, and yet failed to go. The impact of this cyclical economic migration has transposed itself onto the semiotics of the landscape of these otherwise under developed villages, which now sport huge Italian style villas and pizzerias, imported cars and coffee machines. It has also impacted the collective psychology of the place, who people seem consistently connected to the idea of Europe. The strong and persistent desire for Europe embraces the idea of risk and discards the idea of drowning. Fear of death is deemed as failure. Jealousy from seeing others succeed often fuels ambition and perpetuates this form of migration to Italy, that appears as the only worthwhile marker of status for the young men of from these villages. Beside this, migration has affected the local economy as well as the marriage market in many ways.
Up until now, we have tracking local and international media coverage, considering theoretical and policy frameworks, analysing state-level and bi-lateral government responses, beside conducting in-dept narrative work. We have been producing sound, image and text-based work, but in feeling that these forms on academic and artistic practices are exhausted as a means of cultural production, we are interested, in the context of Manifesta Coffee Breaks, to explore innovative formats for imaging, imagining and presenting our engagement with this phenomenon of irregular migration from Egypt to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea.
In a more recent configuration, Take to the Sea turned the tide in on itself to perform how its members inhabit some of the very conditions they seek to consider. Letters as a performative space for speech acts where selves are put forth on display across time/space dimensions are one face of such recent configuration. Sound, voice and orality have been central to our practice. Voice is used as an image for the consciousness of an invisibility. Sound presents an "alternative configuration of time and space." Through the world of possibility that art can create, we venture to tell a story, a non-linear narrative, with a thrust to present more than mere information/documentation.
Take to the Sea was founded by:
Lina Attalah is a print journalist and audio producer based in Cairo and working in the fields of media, culture and technology.
Nida Ghouse was born to Bombay, and has lived with Cairo. To both these cities, she tends to return.
Shaimaa Yehia has been working in development with some focus on children and self-expressive endeavors through different forms of arts. She has been experimenting with photography and filmmaking as tools of expression.
Mohamed Abdel Gawad
Mohamed Abdel Gawad studied medicine and is now working as a film-maker.
Laura Cugusi is a researcher living between Cairo and Sardinia. She works as a freelance photographer and journalist as well as in the field of cultural management and artistic production.
Center for Migration and Refugee Studies - The American University in Cairo
Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum