Sunday, 23 December 2018

Refugee drama

A central theme in my book The Batavian is the refugee drama that still takes place around the Greek islands.

For a long time there has been migration from the war-torn Middle East to Europe. At first this mainly concerned Afghans and Iraqis. From the beginning of the civil war in Syria in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, people in Syria also fled the violence, first in their own country and to the surrounding countries, later also to Europe. The escape route originally ran via the Turkish mainland to the border in the north of Greece, until a fence was placed there in 2012 and the refugees had no choice but the dangerous sea route from Turkey to the Greek islands.

Photo above: it looks so peaceful, the stretch of sea a few kilometres wide between Kastellorizo and Kaş, but in strong winds it can get quite rough and in winter it is cold and inhospitable. At the time of my sailing holiday in the Turkish coastal area in 2013, there was still no sign of a refugee crisis here. In the following years, however, a real migration would arise. Especially in 2014 and 2015, large numbers of Syrians migrated to the west. This resulted in a peak in the refugee flow overseas from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands and many deaths during the dangerous crossing. In that period Western European rescue services established rescue stations on the islands, which until then had few rescue facilities. The Dutch KNRM, a similar organisation to the RNLI, was active on Chios.

The Batavian is largely set against the backdrop of the chaos surrounding the Syrian war and the refugee flow in the period 2013-2016: the bombing by Assad of civilian targets in Aleppo, the Turkish camps, the dramatic events in the Turkish coastal waters and the inhumane situation in the Greek refugee camps, which continues to this day. The story is fiction, but based on eyewitness reports, press releases and reports from humanitarian organizations.

The sea at night

At night the sea is a very different lady from the daytime. She is a hard mistress and even by day doesn't like to be taken lightly, let alone at night, when we humans lack most of our most important sense, vision. That is when we have to be extra careful.

Lying at anchor or sailing at night is a wonderful experience. I became addicted during my seafaring career. The most beautiful moment ever was in the Indian Ocean in 1976, with sultry tropical weather, the sea sparkling through a tiny organism called Noctiluca Scintillans, stars above me and dolphins that drew luminous traces alongside the ship. A dolphin can, for some time, keep up with  a cargo ship that runs at 16 knots, almost 30 kilometers an hour. They like nothing better than frolic with the bow wave and apparently it doesn't matter whether it is dark either. In addition to their eyes, they have a much better sense for underwater use: their hearing and a refined form of echolocation.

At sea, stars are usually a bit blurry, because the air above sea areas is often damp. But occasionally you are lucky and there is a beautiful clear starry sky, although never as beautiful as I once saw it in a small village in the interior of Ghana. That was a real 'African Sky', with stars that you could almost touch and the broad illuminated band of the Milky Way diagonally across the sky.

While sailing at night you develop a sixth sense for your position and use all your navigation aids. There is no magic involved: above all it is a continuous alertness to everything you see or feel. Illuminated buoys, lighthouses, light spots on the horizon, other ships, the water depth and also the behaviour of your boat.

Photo above: in August 2018 I came solo from the sea into the port of Harlingen, the final miles in the dark, which is not allowed because in this area, after dark you should use radar, a gadget that my boat does not have. Just before arriving in Harlingen a line squall came over, and a little later I came into harbour. For a moment I drifted around in the outer harbour, slightly disoriented, until the port service saw me and opened the outer bridge. I moored alongside a charter barge and was able to sleep quietly that night.

Anchoring at night on the Wadden Sea, inside the Frisian island chain, is always a gamble. When the tide comes up and the wind comes from the wrong angle for a while, you'll be tossed about the rest of the night without being able to close your eyes, with your ears set at the anchor alarm on your GPS. The photo above shows such a place just below Vlieland. Nice spot, you might think, but the previous night it blew a bit against the tide, making life uncomfortable. Sometimes I have to beat it at first light to a more sheltered spot. Nevertheless, I often let myself be seduced to such an adventure. It remains tricky, but also very nice ...

An author's doubts

When I start a new book, full of enthusiasm and energy, the first chapters almost write themselves. I have a theme in my head that cries out to be written, and the book is still completely open to me. These are the most carefree days of my authorship.

As soon as the first chapters have been written and I read back the text, doubt forms in my mind. Why not write this passage just that bit differently? Does this fit the theme or am I in a dead end? Will it still be fascinating to read? I may read my manuscripts hundreds of times to preserve the initial good feeling, or to regain it when uncertainty has struck.

My writing behaviour could best be described as 'organic' - there is a rough plan, but the second half of the book is usually still shrouded in mystery. That gives me freedom, but also doubts. Halfway comes what in cycling is called the 'man with the hammer'. Progress bogs down and sometimes the work lies dormant for weeks. Then I often find something enabling me to continue.

After writing the first half of The Batavian I felt that my theme was exhausted. I absolutely didn't know how to proceed and in the end the trick I used was to insert a three-year break in the storyline. The protagonist then looks back at what happened and gradually we end up in the present and how it goes with him. From there, the events develop automatically.

Currently I am working on a third book, where I also ran into trouble. So I am in the middle of doubts, try a chapter this way or that, and then put most of it aside again. Sometimes I get an idea and I can reuse a small part. But sooner or later the breakthrough must come and I know how to proceed.

I wonder if other authors are going through this. If you are reading this, you are cordially invited to answer it ...

Photo: an alley on Kastellorizo.

Research is everything

In a book such as The Batavian, the plot of which which largely takes place in a remote sea area, good research can make or break the story. Five years ago I sailed with my wife and friends in the Turkish coastal area between Fethiye and the bay of Kekova. We also visited the island of Kastellorizo ​​(Meis in Turkish, Megisti in Greek).

Kastellorizo ​​takes its name from Castello Rosso, from the time that Venice was in power here. The island has a turbulent history, even in 1939-1945, when it was a coveted military base because of its harbour. The village around the harbor was badly hit during those years. All residents were evacuated and only years later the island was inhabited again.

The Greek islands off the Turkish coast are still subject to conflict between the two countries. Although this originated in the centuries-long occupation of present-day Greece by the Ottoman Empire, a more recent cause is the aftermath of the First World War. The Turks had chosen the side of Germany and were made to pay heavily for it. Then in 1919 the Greeks invaded the weakened country until Kemal Pasha (later known as Atatürk) drove them out of the country and founded the modern Turkish republic.

During the Greco-Turkish war from 1919 to 1922 many cruelties were committed by both sides. In the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 a population exchange was agreed, the Greek population of the Turkish west coast being exchanged against Muslim residents of Greece. Nowadays we'd speak of ethnic cleansing. In addition, the islands were given as protectorate to ... Italy, which she had to relinquish in 1946 to ... Greece!

No wonder the Turks feel that the islands have been stolen from them and the Greeks living there still think it is their own territory. If you ask me it's an insoluble problem. It plays a central role in the book, although I have made up a lot that is absolute fiction.

Kastellorizo ​​is a small, rocky island with a few hundred inhabitants. It looks like a little paradise, although the Greek navy is constantly present because of concerns about Turkish military action. In early 2018, the Greeks fired at a Turkish helicopter that ventured too close...

New book to be published in Dutch

My first book De Batavier will be published in Dutch, in March 2019, by Palmslag publishers. The title translates as The Batavian. There is an English translation available for prospective publishers in English.

An impression of The Batavian:

Thirty-one-year-old sailor Mark Schouten loses his job as a Second Mate due to ill-health. As he is convalescing from an operation he receives an inheritance and buys an old wooden schooner named De Batavier, which he restores and sails to the Mediterranean. At the end of his journey near the Turkish coast he rescues a group of Syrian refugees from the sea, who have been drifting in a leaking inflatable.

The rescue and the ensuing events change his life once again. Back home following his voyage he rebuilds his life, but the memory of a Syrian woman in the group he rescued from the sea keeps haunting him. He goes on a quest to find her in the chaos of the refugee crisis in Greece.

cover design by Palmslag publishers

About myself

A few years ago, not very long after taking an early pension, I sat at the keyboard of my laptop, starting to write without realising the implications. Writing fiction is something I learned by trial and error, which in due course led to my first manuscripts. In my work up to now, apart from my seafaring background, my interest in the complexities of present-day society plays a part.

I write in Dutch, but I translate all my work into English to make it accessible to my English speaking friends, and eventually, aiming for publication and reaching a wider audience in the English language domain. On March 16, 2019, my first book The Batavian was published in Dutch as De Batavier. More about my life and my authorship on my website: