Before Malta fell in love with Jacob Yakubu; the Togolese asylum seeker with a thriving Ħamrun store, Maltese author Karl Schembri met him when he was still known as the Ħal Far technician. He was so moved by his character, he even penned an impassioned poem about him.
“I had met Yakubu in 2007 shortly after arriving to Malta by boat. I was so touched by his gentle character and resourcefulness that besides writing about him in a local newspaper I ended up also writing a poem,” Schembri, the man behind cult-status novel Il-Manifest Tal-Killer told Lovin Malta.
Schembri, now working as a media advisor in Jordan, had met Yakubu shortly after he landed by boat in Malta when he was working as a journalist. He recalls meeting him at the Ħal Safi detention centre where he found him repairing a TV set.
He decided to capture Yakubu’s spirit in lines of poetry. And while the two lost contact more than a decade after their meeting, Schembri was delighted to see Yakubu’s success with his electronics store.
“I was happy to read his story as we had lost contact, and it’s so great to see him doing so well for himself,” the author said.
His poem Yakubu / Detention Centre speaks of starkly different realities of those coming to Malta, the tempestuous journeys of migrants, risking their lives to seek refuge in Malta and the lighter affairs of tourists coming in by plane.
It paints an impassioned picture of how your place of birth could define your entire life.
“Tourists on planes are different; from those who land in boats; they get an in-flight meal, tickets don’t cost a life…it’s different for Yakubu.”
Schembri’s poem is published in his book called Passju Taħt ix-Xita. Read the full version in Maltese and the translation by Albert Gatt below.
Yakubu / Detention centre Ħal Safi
Ġiex passi bogħod
qed isewwi t-televixin
biex flok ċorma linji w ross
il-kuluri u l-istampi mxandra
w forsi anki
mill-irħula minn fejn ġew
Yakubu w sħabu.
jidher ajruplan mimdud go ħangar
L-inġiniera bravi daqs Yakubu
iżjed imlibbsin sabiħ
mhux bhal tad-dgħajjes;
jagħtuhom l-ikla waqt il-vjaġġ
ma jitħallasx b’ħajjithom,
ma jfittxulhomx għall-mard,
jeħdulhom biss il-likwidi,
xi mus li jkunu nsew
u forsi xi bott gass
li jimla’ l-lighter.
Yakubu ma kellux biljett
anki jekk ħallas
elf dollaru biex jitla’
ma’ sitta w għoxrin oħra
fit-trab ta’ Tripli.
Għal sitt ijiem il-mewġ
is-snien ta’ ħalq il-baħar
ipprova jaħtaf żaqq id-dgħajsa
taħt ix-xemx indifferenti.
Il-pulizija ma ħlewx ħinhom
jistaqsu x’għandu x’jiddikjara
id-dazju diġà tħallas,
Yakubu w sħabu l-irċevuti
ħajjin u mitlufin
miġburin f’tal-linja s-sewda
jħarsu ċassi minn ġot-twieqi
lejn id-dgħajsa sewda, tinten,
li minn fuqha raw il-ħolm qed jaqa’
Yakubu / Detention centre, Hal Safi
Not far from the airport
repairs his television to replace
the lines and static
with the colours, pictures beamed
from every corner
his village too, perhaps,
where they grew up,
Yakubu and his mates.
Through the window he can see
a plane lies in a hangar
The engineers, as clever as Yakubu
Tourists on planes are different
from those who land in boats;
they get an in-flight meal,
tickets don’t cost a life;
they won’t be screened for illness, though
some liquids might be confiscated
a pen-knife or some lighter fluid
forgotten in their carry-on baggage.
It’s different for Yakubu.
Yakubu had no ticket, though
he paid a thousand dollars for a place
among another twenty-six inside a boat
huddled in the dust-strewn night
Six days amid the waves
the sea trying to snatch
the hull between its teeth
beneath a heedless sun.
The police lost no time asking whether
there were goods to declare
the duty’s paid, here’s the receipt:
Yakubu and his mates
alive and lost
huddled in the black bus
and staring blankly through its windows
at the stinking black boat
from which their dreams had fallen
one by one
at the bottom of the sea.
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