Saturday, 27 November 2010

Avignon, the second day

This neighbourhood of Avignon is compact, buildings back to back. They look the same. The taxi driver who brought me here from the train station had to look at a map to find the exact location of building 28. I ask the teenager standing by the front of the building if he knows Salah, and he leads me to his door.

Salah's flat is compact - a one person flat, now with his brother and cousin living here. Now we are four in this space, a living room/kitchen and a bedroom. There's no privacy for any of them, no chance to be alone. Now I understand what Salah meant when he told me, in the refugee camps in Algeria, "I feel free here." I didn't understand it at the time. I thought it was rhetorical, a conceptual freedom. But it was real. There are no walls there. No clocks. No identical high-rise council blocks. No paperwork for refugee status and unemployment benefits to take care of.

The three - Salah, his brother Mustafa and his cousin Hossam - are in the flat most of the day. Salah leaves only to run, or to buy food for the family. Otherwise, they are permanent residents of this space. Cuban, Algerian, Sahrawi and Basque flags are spread out across the walls. Shelves lined with Salah's trophies. In the next room, watching television, Mustafa yells to his brother to come quickly whenever Western Sahara is mentioned in the news. Salah is in front of his computer, connected to forums, online news and radio stations with news of Western Sahara, the protest camp and international condemnation of Morocco towards the demonstrators. He is immersed in that world.

"I need to rest," he tells me. "I've been travelling so much lately, and now thinking about 'the case' all the time." 'The case', they call it. It means everything. The occupation, the camps, the violence, decisions of the European Parliament, family, everything.

But he runs, outside, in the cold, in the rain. He runs with his friends, on the track and on trails along the river. 20 minutes later he's back in the car, driving to building 28 again.

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