George Trumbull’s recent blog entry about Middle Eastern outposts in other parts of the world rightly mentioned Marseille and the Italian islet of Lampedusa, with its now closed migrant detention camp, as two “Middle Easternized” spaces of the European Mediterranean. I want to briefly revisit the two sites and suggest other possible ways of reading them.

Marseille first. George alludes to the Marseille that forms a link in an older migration chain that brought Algerians north by the tens of thousands to establish new working lives in France. Marseille has been the destination of Algerian migrants since before the 1960s. A diaspora of commercial and cultural importance — even political importance, as George points out — has taken root there and flourished.

But that Algerian-Marseille connection began to weaken somewhat during the “black decade” of the 1990s as Algeria descended into civil war and France closed its ports to Algerian passengers. Alicante, Spain took up the slack. A shipping line between Alicante and Oran that had fallen into disuse was reenergized as the south-north traffic sought replacement destinations for Marseille.

The nature of the migrant traffic was changing as well. Michel Peraldi, an investigator based at the MMSH in Aix-en-Provence, points out that Alicante today is one of the most important entrepôts of what he calls the “suitcase trade,” which refers to the relatively short-term, circular migrant commerce that connects far-flung European and Middle Eastern cities with markets in North and sub-Saharan Africa. He draws attention to these new forms of mobility as one of the main ways migration is carried out today. The mass movement of manual laborers for life, or at least for decades, from Tunisia to Paris, Morocco to Belgium, and Algeria to Marseille that marked the 1960s-1980s has given way to much shorter trips. Migrants now head out with empty suitcases from Oran or Algiers. They land in Alicante or Marseille, immediately take waiting buses for places such as Naples, get off the bus at the international goods markets there, fill up their suitcases, hop back on the bus and return to the ports and the ships that take them home again. Moroccans may also buy tickets on buses that cross the Mediterranean to Spanish ports or take similar buses to Dusseldorf, buy things like used German cars and car parts and then drive the cars home to the German car markets in interior cities like Beni Mellal. Buses also run from Oujda to Prague and Barcelona to Fez, and connections can even be made to get easily to Poland and back on what are essentially long-distance shopping trips.

I point this out to suggest that, though Marseille has been dramatically altered by the massive influx of North African migrants and their descendants, much of the rest of Europe is also within the orbit of North Africa, thanks to the much more ambulatory forms of migration taking place today. North Africans have set up connections with all sorts of markets and are altering the landscape as they move goods, services and people around a vast network of interconnected trading locations and shuttle routes. The giant DragonMart, or mega-souk, in Dubai that is discussed by Jacqueline Armijo in the last issue of Middle East Report fits into this network. Goods from the Dubai retail centers make their way to the clothing and textile markets of Istanbul. Tunisians, Algerians and Moroccans don’t need visas to visit Turkey, so the Istanbul markets are a popular destination for the suitcase traders, especially the closer Tunisians. Many are actually paid by middlemen to make the voyage for a fee. Some of the cargo brought back makes its way down to markets in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.

A final point: Peraldi suggests that Lampedusa suffers from media overkill. This suggestion in no way is meant to take away from the appalling suffering and sacrifice of those who risk everything to get there, who have journeyed from as far away as Eritrea or Liberia and spent years doing it and paid a fortune in the process (a journey explained in detail in Hans Lucht’s 2011 study Darkness Before Daybreak). But the images of bodies floating at sea or washed up on the shore dovetail with European public opinion of southern migration to Europe as an obsession, an assault or as traffic in poor victims hustled out of their life savings by mafia thugs who run the lucrative refugee trade. Alicante and its connections to places like Naples paint another picture. As Peraldi puts it, they are the antitheses of Gibraltar and Lampedusa. They are the connection points between north and south today. Traders by the thousands pass through them on a daily basis, in the process of carrying out an international trade that connects interior cities of North Africa with China, Dubai, Istanbul, Poland, Dusseldorf, and on and on.

The human flow of southern migrants is not washing up on the shores or battering down the gates of Europe, but is working social relationships and face-to-face connections into a giant web of circulation that forms a transnational latticework of impressive dimensions. The mass labor migration that connected Algiers to Marseille yesterday has been superseded by migrant circulatory networks connecting Chinese workshops to Tamanrasset clothing souks today.

How to cite this article:

David McMurray "North Africans Go Long-Distance Shopping," Middle East Report Online, June 01, 2014.

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