Ferry Tales

The most enlightening way to cross the Mediterranean is by boat.

I once asked my wife about the trans-Mediterranean ferry system. She had taken it from Spain to Morocco before I knew her. “It is most often preferable to arrive to Africa by ship rather than by plane,” she said, then stopped talking and rededicated herself to a plate of pasta. English is not Núria’s native language. I take for granted the way her literal grammar produces accidental eloquence; but when I found myself needing to go to Tunisia this past summer, the promise of her casual phrase led me to book the ferry. Though I had told my editors how much was happening in Tunis, the trip was not, at its outset, about a reporter moving toward the events of the Arab Spring. It was about the boat that would take me there.

At Terminal 4 of the Port of Marseille, the departure monitor, identical to the screens in airports, showed a line of ships taking turns at the harbor’s mouth. I had paid nearly 180 euros for a Pullman seat on the Tunisian ferry Carthage, which hulked above the pier, straining the dock lines as cars drove into its belly. It was a white ship with a high prow that threw a wide shadow. It suggested, in size and silhouette, a cruise liner more than a cargo vessel.

Beside it at the docks were five other behemoths. The Ariadne, the Tassili II, and El-Djazair II were heading to Algeria—to Oran, Skikda, and Bejaia, respectively. The Kalliste and the Paglia Orba were bound for Bastia and Ajaccio in French Corsica. Each ship could carry between 500 and 2,200 people, and most, according to the schedules posted on travel-agency windows, sailed weekly.

Yet they comprise a stealth fleet. Prevailing impression holds that the Med is either Europe’s Caribbean, a playground for holiday liners, or its Mojave, crossed by refugees in overmatched skiffs and by political flotillas running blockades. But as the ships in Marseille attest, many hundreds of thousands of passengers cross as members of the North African and European middle class. Tunisia itself is linked to Europe by six different shipping routes, and in the Port of Marseille, the scale of the operation is on dramatic display. Vessels, each hundreds of feet high, obscure the domes of 18th-century palaces behind them, blotting out the city.

It took an hour and a half to load about 1,200 people onto the Carthage. While they waited, families took smart-phone pictures of each other, posing on their cars and vans, showing off gifts too weighty or bulky to bring by plane: wide-screen TVs, new bicycles, a table saw.

Even making just 23 knots, you watch the French shore disappear more quickly than you’d think. The sense of being in Tunisia arrives even faster. As we passed the Château d’If, the island prison that marks the edge of Marseille’s harbor, the Carthage adopted a North African flavor. Families had trudged up from the cars parked below the waterline and were settling into four-person berths, purchased for about 500 euros. In the bow, where I had my reclining seat, those not traveling with family were a minority, mostly older men with lots of luggage, in caps and sandals. Once in their seats, the men set about remedying their solitude the way one might in a Tunis coffee bar: someone tuned the TV to Al Jazeera, everyone lit cigarettes, and a debate began over the best way to bring an exiled dictator to trial.

Near the bow, a few younger couples who hadn’t booked early enough for a berth were making the best of their situation. Rather than adapt to the ship, they adapted the ship to themselves, rolling out rugs in the corridors and claiming public spaces as their own, to no complaints. Out the portholes, Europe slipped over the horizon and the Carthage hit open water. No one gave it much notice.

Upstairs, the ninth-deck bar had also become a town plaza. The TV showed tragedy in Syria, and everyone watched and worried, and then Qaddafi came onscreen, and the Carthage exploded with laughter. Nearby, a dozen small children were inventing a dance. A musician contracted by the ferry line plucked vaguely at an oud, but mostly smoked. The ship smelled of cigarettes and coffee more than of the sea, and waiters, who had seen their wages double since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime last winter, raced around in smart black vests delivering drinks.

The trip from Marseille to Tunis takes about 21 hours via a route that tracks just west of Corsica. The Carthage ran as steady as a moving sidewalk. The sun set. Everyone slept well, on a calm sea. The next morning, at sunrise, I went outside and a boy pointed off the rail toward what seemed to be an island. I thought it was Sardinia. We watched for an hour. More people came, until a dozen, then two, were looking with the boy. The island grew wider, and talk began that this was suspicious. No island so large existed.

A horn sounded. The Carthage had sighted port. Everyone rushed back inside to pack. By mid-morning, we were in Tunis.

It is most often preferable to arrive to Africa by ship rather than by plane, because it invites one to consider, if briefly, the Mediterranean as a meeting point for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East—instead of a sea separating those places. Most of the people aboard the Carthage were Tunisian by birth and European by residency but, aboard the ship, perhaps something else, if momentarily: Mediterranean.