A Tunisian Commemorates the Drowned Immigrants in a Museum Exhibition
By Hayat Ben Hilal — Zarzis
A strange feeling mixed with wonder, curiosity, compassion, and an eagerness to know more, takes over you the moment you enter the museum. Used children’s shoes, clothes, bottles, old letters and a collection of umbrellas were all stacked in neat lines to spark an artistic feeling in the visitor. These objects once belonged to drowned victims that were crossing the border in search for a new life.
Memories of the of Man and the Sea, was the name that Mohsen Lihidheb, a retired postman from Zarzis, Tunisia, gave to his unique artistic space, as he calls it, that commemorates the lives of the drowned migrants by displaying objects they left behind in this world.
20 years ago, Lihidheb started collecting cast away objects off the shore of the sea. Cleaning up the beach was initially a normal habit of his, but it soon transformed into an advocacy issue about illegal migration, which has become a major concern for many organizations and countries around the world.
The coastal city of Zarzis is considered one of the most popular cities for migrants who are crossing the Mediterranean Sea. And boats which once sailed from Libya, are now sailing from Zarzis as a safe alternative to the volatile situation in the neighboring country.
The number of illegal migrants from Zarzis has reached nearly 5,000 since 2011. This led to a rising number of bodies found dead off the coast of the city along with their belongings all year. For many years, Mohsen Lihidheb has been collecting the objects left behind by these drowned victims..
Shoes, clothes, and letters, were some of the thousands of objects that are now part of the museum and that once belonged to those drowned migrants. Mohsen’s project takes up about 1000 square meters of land, where he skillfully organizes the items for the purpose of creating art pieces, despite receiving negative comments from the community on this art project.
“I was put under so much scrutiny from my relatives and the community. I have been mocked and provoked by people, but that did not stop me,” Lihidheb told Al Jazeera Net. The most striking and heart wrenching part is seeing the belongings of the drowned children laying around. Their only fault is that they were born in developing countries and have been taken along by their parents’ greedy will to migrate illegally to Europe in search for a better life.
Letters from the Sea
Lihidheb created a “memory” to store all the letters that once belonged to those migrants who died at sea after their arduous journeys.
Before starting their journey, migrants would write letters about everything that came to their mind. Some of the letters that he found, were written in different languages, while others contained hopes and aspirations, only to be lost in the sea.
“Some letters were imploring God to save them during their journey while others contained thoughts about their personal lives. I also found letters of people’s wills written before they committed suicide,” Lihidheb said.
Lihidheb seems to be moved by every message he reads, especially since he knows that the sender is now in another world, a sentiment that made him more keen to store their messages in honor of their memory.
Among the messages that the waves tossed out in his hands, was a greeting letter that sparked curiosity in Lihidheb and made him want to find the sender. After following all the hints, he was able to find the sender, who lives in the coastal region about 400 km from Zarzis. “I made a good friend thanks to these letters and I recently attended his wedding,” Lihidheb said.
A Free and Educational Museum
You will not have to pay a penny when you visit Memories of the of Man and the Sea museum. The owner assured Al Jazeera Net: “My museum is a symbolic space and has a human element that it would lose if I received money from visitors”. The museum is open to everyone and at any time of the day. For many years now, this museum has become an attraction for intellectuals from all over the world.
To pass on this message to younger generations, Lihidheb often invites schoolchildren to instill in them a human value and to raise awareness on the dangers of illegal migration and on the importance of keeping the environment clean.
Lihidheb’s new post office is the ocean. Although he used to receive letters from “ the living” through the post offices, he now receives letters from the ocean and stores them in his museum as a way to commemorate the dead. He also sends valuable messages in bottles along with snacks to the sea, hoping that perhaps they will end up in the hands of a hungry migrant sailing in the ocean.
Lihidheb’s goal was not only to commemorate the drowned migrants and advocate their issues, but also to make use of the recycled plastic waste on the beach and turn them to art. An effort that he continuously makes in order to preserve the environment and make the beaches of Zarzis beautiful.
People’s opinions did not discourage Lihidheb from continuing this environmental and humanitarian project. In fact, he still wanders the shores of the city in search for more objects that migrants left behind to make their drowned voices heard and honor their memories.
Source: Al Jazeera(Original Content -Arabic)