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‘I Was So Touched By His Gentle Character’: Maltese Author’s Impassioned Poem About Ħal Far’s Togolese Technician

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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

mill-ajruport

Yakubu

qed isewwi t-televixin

biex flok ċorma linji w ross

ifiġġu

il-kuluri u l-istampi mxandra

mill-irkejjen kollha

w forsi anki

mill-irħula minn fejn ġew

Yakubu w sħabu.

Minn ġot-tieqa

jidher ajruplan mimdud go ħangar

qed jissewwa.

L-inġiniera bravi daqs Yakubu

iżjed bjondi

iżjed imlibbsin sabiħ

iżjed fortunati.

It-turisti bl-ajruplan

mhux bhal tad-dgħajjes;

jagħtuhom l-ikla waqt il-vjaġġ

u il-biljett

ma jitħallasx b’ħajjithom,

ma jfittxulhomx għall-mard,

jeħdulhom biss il-likwidi,

xi mus li jkunu nsew

f’hand luggage,

u forsi xi bott gass

li jimla’ l-lighter.

Yakubu le,

Yakubu ħarab

Yakubu ma kellux biljett

anki jekk ħallas

elf dollaru biex jitla’

fuq id-dgħajsa

ma’ sitta w għoxrin oħra

moħbijin bil-lejl

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

mixruba, mqarqċa

miġburin f’tal-linja s-sewda

jħarsu ċassi minn ġot-twieqi

lejn id-dgħajsa sewda, tinten,

li minn fuqha raw il-ħolm qed jaqa’

waħda, waħda,

jegħrqu fgati

f’qiegħ il-baħar.

Yakubu / Detention centre, Hal Safi

Not far from the airport

Yakubu

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

being repaired.

The engineers, as clever as Yakubu

seem fairer

better dressed

more fortunate.

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 fled.

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

of Tripoli.

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

sun-blistered, drenched

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

to drown

at the bottom of the sea.

Tag someone who needs to read this 

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