The Trans-Mediterranean Overload

Transport, Frontiers, Going to the Market

When my father left France for the last time, his brother and my mother were left to pack up the remnants of his apartment- objects that had followed him from his youth in Tunisia, his student years in Paris, things that couldn’t come to America. My mother and uncle filled his light blue Citroen 2CV, another casualty of leaving, with boxes and bags. Everything else was secured to the roof with a jangled mess of rope. The car puffed through Paris, chassis barely lifted off the ground, before it came to a groaning, sputtering refusal on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, right in front of the Cafe Deux Magots, where a single cafe costs 30 francs. “Voici les immigrés,” my uncle deadpanned before doubling over with laughter.

It’s a cliched image in European comedy, the overloaded immigrant car breaking down in front of a bourgeoisie establishment. But in the Italian port of Palermo, the flow of migrants ferrying stuffed suitcases across borders is an ancient tradition steeped in livelihood, not humor. About 167 nautical miles separate Palermo from Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, and bi-weekly ferries connect them. Since the founding of Carthage in the 1st millennium BC (now modern-day Tunis), the two communities have been moving goods, weapons, and people through war and empire. Today, there are over a million Arabs living across Italy, with tens of thousands settled in Sicily.

The majority of immigrant Tunisians living in Palermo have left their families behind in search of better-paying labour; over 65% of Tunisians residing in Palermo send financial remittances back home. The most recent figures put global Tunisian remittances at nearly US $2bn, or 4.5% of the country’s GDP. Hundreds of Tunisians have returned to an ancient way of making money: buying and selling across the two countries. Overflowing with modern goods (few are trading salt and frankincense these days), cars are parked on the ferry and shepherded across the Mediterranean to the port of Tunis. “The majority of those making the journey are professional,” photographer Eugenio Grosso tells me. Tunisians can buy certain items on the cheap in Italy, and sell them for a mark-up back in their home country, “mostly [at] flea markets,” Grosso elaborates.

Scooters, furniture, and toys are the most profitable, as none of these products are produced in country.  At current rates, 47 euro cents will get you 1 Tunisian dinar, a sizable profit margin for those who know where to buy in Sicily, and where to sell in Tunis. Traders can also make a few extra bucks by selling seats in their vehicle to fellow Tunisians. Still others will sell the car entirely once back in Tunis, though this requires a certain amount of entrepreneurial finesse. Officially, it’s illegal for individual Tunisians to import foreign cars, due to strict foreign exchange controls.

But Palermo's Tunisians aren’t just looking to buy and sell. Some people pack their cars with presents, ready to lavish gifts on the whole family, a common trend with migrants looking to impress those back home. Sweets and chocolates are popular presents, as are toys, especially during the month-long Ramadan holiday, when it’s customary to hand out gifts. “What a headache,” recalls my father, rolling his eyes. “You run around all these stores trying to find something this one will like, that will fit that one, that’s Nike this or Adidas that. Then you pay extra luggage at the airport, then you arrive and give out these gifts and everyone’s like ‘What? That’s it?” He shakes his head. “Now I don’t bring anything.”

All photos taken in 2014 in Palermo's port, Italy. Photos by Eugenio Grosso.