The first refugee story I covered was a famine in southern Sudan. An editor on the paper (now departed) implored me not to go. Sending a food critic to report on a famine was just bad taste. But who would you trust with bad taste if not a food critic?
In the Calais Jungle a few weeks ago, I was reminded of this by a trio of doers-of-good, who were walking up the muddy main drag when one of them saw me and did a theatrical double take.
“My God, I was just saying AA Gill should come here and do a review. And here you are.”
“And here it is,” I said.
They were working in the tented theatre, run by a pair of playwriting Joes, called the Good Chance because the refugees say: “Tonight, there’s a good chance I shall get to England.”
Of all the things I have told people back home, the stuff about the theatre has caused the most eye-rolling, brow-furrowing, exasperated exhaling. What a monument to bleeding-heart liberal pretension, a theatre in a refugee camp, I was told. Well, yes, but if I ever find myself lost and penniless, I hope it’s the liberals with leaky valves and a penchant for quoting Shakespeare that find me, and not the sanguine, pity-tight realists.
But I do want them to tell me where they imagine the Plimsoll line of culture runs. When are you too poor, too bereft, too unappreciative to need or deserve art? Is this culture stuff really only the property of those who can pay for it — only ever bourgeois decoration?
The camp also has a touchingly divine Ethiopian Coptic church, built from tarpaulin and bits of lost wood, painted with the clear, strong and bright fresco saints of Africa. There was a boy, pressed tight against a bold St George. I think the church has just been bulldozed. There is a street of small tented cafes, most of them run by Afghans or Pakistanis from the Northwest Frontier. There’s one called 3 Idiots. A man stood grinning in the door. “I’m one of the idiots. We’re all called Khan.”
Next door, a Peshawari man makes rotis in a small bread oven, taking the tennis-ball-sized white dough, patting it and flipping it onto a cushion and then sticking it to the inside wall of the stove. Some of the best unleavened bread I’ve ever eaten was in Peshawar, and this was as good as I remember. I bought two for €1. The baker made the long and difficult journey across to Libya, got on a boat over the Mediterranean and ended up in Bari in Italy.
I asked where he wanted to get to.
“Oh, I live in Bari,” he said. “It’s lovely there, nice people, wonderful weather, good food.”
“Well, what are you doing in a freezing wet refugee camp in Calais, then?”
“Well, the only problem with Bari is that there’s no work, so I come up here for a couple of weeks at a time to make bread.”
He makes about 400 roti a day.
“Where is your oven from?”
“Ah,” he laughs, “that came from England.”
Next door is a caff without a sign. I ask the owner what it is called. It has no name. Everyone knows it’s here. A name would imply permanence.
“My name is Mohammed Ali. But I am not Cassius Clay. Don’t be mistaking me for him,” he laughs.
Mohammed is also from Peshawar. Today, for lunch, he is offering red bean curry, reheated fried chicken and a stew of chicken livers. I’m here with Natalie, an absurdly and insouciantly brave doctor from Médecins Sans Frontières; Jon, my photographer; and Bana, an optometrist, translator, Kurd and child of refugees. The room is a tent, with a make-do kitchen in one corner, a couple of gas rings, a banged-together counter, a kettle, some pots and pans. There’s a television and a deep bench around the sides where a handful of young men recharge their phones, text and scroll, the unchecked great diaspora of displaced information. The phone is everything for refugees, and anywhere that wants to attract their business must have charging points.
The dishes come hot and generous, with fluffy, nutty white rice. Bana is a rice stickler — she’s particularly appreciative. The red beans are a great, solid, aromatic dose of slow-release carbohydrate, as warm and uncomplicated as a hug. The surprise, the great surprise, is the chicken livers. They are perfect. Soft, with that mysterious, renal flavour that is medicinal and industrial, but also like earth and grass and licked copper. The sauce is pungently hot, but still a negligée, not a shroud, for the meat. This was a properly, cleverly crafted and wholly unexpected dish, made with finesse and an elan that defied the surroundings, but at the same time elevated them. Ali smiled with a rare pride.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked.
He shrugged and the smile became sad.
“You know, you know.” As if to say the name out loud would be inauspicious.
A cup of coffee — Nescafé, with a lot of milk and even more sugar. After years of po-faced hipster coffee, the sweet, thick Nescafé comes like a mouthful of remembrance. It is the taste of the south, of the Third, left-behind World. I have sat in the make-do shade on the red earth in so many refugee camps and roadside temporary halts and sipped this bittersweet, mothering coffee.
So many slow, hopeful journeys. So if you find yourself in the Jungle, ask for Mohammed Ali. The blue tent. He gets his bread from the chap from Bari next door.
The desperate desire of everyone is that this is a temporary stop. A brief, cold and trying moment. But despite the best intentions, the Jungle is beginning to become a place, with churches and theatres and art and restaurants. It is germinating into that collective home.
But then, isn’t this how all places once began? With refugees stopping at a river, a beach, a crossroads and saying, we’ll just pause here for a bit. Put on the kettle, kill a chicken.
Originally printed in The Times on the 28th February 2016. Reproduced by kind permission.