Updated: Dec 18, 2020
From the dock I could see the crowd, a crowd so great it fell back mile upon mile to the setting Sun. The city’s suburbs were shacks, usually made from containers that were chopped apart by hand before being sold to families just arrived from the countryside. Those suburbs were now submerged by the great mass of people. I had heard that some of the shacks had collapsed under the weight of the masses. A few families sat, quite defiant, on the roofs of their shacks. They were determined not to surrender their territory to the masses.
It began with an itinerant preacher in the city centre. He developed a following online, taking about two years to generate a force of millions. His message was a simple triad: Europe is ours, the Crusaders must fall, and travel by foot is sacred. So began the march. It had generated—so my friends told me via a direct message group—quite a following in Europe. This was a hashtag event, and the charities and NGOs were very excited by the exodus; there were a wide range of adverts promoting the march, though, so far as I could tell, they avoided references to the religion in question and concentrated on sweet three-minute video clips of distressed children. These videos were good enough to compete with all the monkeys and kittens the Internet could provide.
The march had arrived at this North African port, once home to a great Christian theologian, about a month ago. For a little while there was uncertainty. Perhaps, since crossing the water by boat violated the principle of travel by foot, everyone should turn around and go home. Besides, the only boat in the harbour was an elderly cruise ship; it had just one functional engine and already listed to the side. The crowds continued to grow and food became scarce. The streets were slippery underfoot from faeces. Dogs and cats disappeared, as did the pigeons that once decorated the Victorian statue of some Portuguese soldier-adventurer in the main square. At night, I could smell the plump little city-dwellers being cooked over open fires made in empty oil barrels.
The preacher did not give up. He had secured, via donations, a small fortune. Those millions allowed him to fly in a team of engineers from China to repair the cruise ship. He also purchased three elderly passenger ferries from further south. His small flotilla assembled, it was easy enough to resolve the theological difficulty occasioned by walking on water. The march would continue to walk, but it would do so on the deck of the ships. And so the flotilla departed for Europe, the decks covered by a slowly rotating mass of people. The scene would not look out of place in Mecca: this was a nautical rotation around a floating Kaaba.
I long ago stopped counting how many times the flotilla has traversed the sea. Its peregrinations sometimes outdo Odysseus, as navigation is not the crew’s strength; sometimes it seems there is no crew at all, the march itself steers the ship by sheer faith and force of will. Whether the European navies intercept them I cannot tell. I have stopped watching the news from home. I presume not; the Europeans have such beautiful weapons, but they have lost their taste for blood. After 1945, they just wanted to have a good time and go to sleep. Who can blame them? Had they not bled enough last century?
There are a certain number of casualties each day. People fall into the sea, trying to force their way onto the boat. Others must be crushed to death during the daily rotation on the deck. It is a slow march, but it carries on like a river through a valley. When I grow tired of watching the people boarding the boats, I go up the old mobile phone mast that the Africans superstitiously avoid and look at the stars, so much harder and purer than man.