Monday, 5 January 2015

Sacred Spaces in the Jungle

For posterity, some writing on the awesome structures of the jungle, before they get razed by the cops*.

I've just got back from Christmas and New Year in Calais, which for anyone searching for the ultimate multi-cultural party, is perhaps the best place on Earth (picture 500 or so people and one sound-system, everyone sharing their musical traditions and dancing styles, with a huge dose of Euro-pop thrown in for good measure: hands in the air and wave it like ya just don't care yo).

During my stay I ended up spending a surprising amount of time in church. As an atheist and an anarchist this was somewhat surprising and not too little disconcerting. But this church was special, largely because of its location: the jungle.

The biggest jungle currently in Calais is known as Tioxide, after the factory that it has built up alongside. Tioxide is currently home to something like 800 people (my estimate), roughly organised into four camps along nationality lines. There is an Eritrean, Sudanese, Afghan and Ethiopian part. In the 9 or so months since this jungle started it has grown from a small collection of dwellings largely hidden in the trees to a sprawling tent city. It's been there long enough that people have started to build less temporary spaces, to diversify spacial use beyond just accommodation, and to find better ways of organising resources.

There are spaces of trade: a barbershop, a tobacconist, and a sheesha lounge, 2 restaurants / caf├ęs and a few general stores. There are spaces of religious worship: numerous mosques and recently, a church. I come from the west and perhaps there seems like some reason why I would be drawn to the church and not the mosque (there are many mosques, but one is huge and as impressive as the church for sure), but it kinda felt like an accident. The congregation requested a microphone for their Sunday service and no borders provided it. Delivering it was my access to the space.

The church has been in Tioxide around 3 months. It was built and is used, mainly by the Eritrean Catholic community. On the outside it is nothing more than a large tent with a cross on top. Step inside and you enter another world. The space is doused in candlelight and incense. It is kept warm and intimate-feeling with rugs and wall hangings. It is made beautiful with religious icons. It is a gentle, peaceful and deeply sacred-feeling space. It is made that way by the effort of making it, using it and caring for it under such adverse conditions. Being there takes you away from the jungle completely, and yet it is so of that space (the artificial factory sounds, and smells of burning rubbish and wood smoke remind you where you are). To be inside is to feel humbled.

It makes me feel that the role religion plays and the meaning it carries can vary dramatically depending on the space you are in. Back in the UK, religion plays no role in my life (Jewish family gatherings an exception). I see religion as a domination: something that stifles freedom and creativity and leaves us scared of the world. But that doesn't really translate to Calais where there is a much more obvious, pervasive and powerful structure of domination in the form of sovereignty and its border control.

To have faith in Calais is a weapon when one is forced to live so precariously. In such a place, religion and the ability to worship together feels like a subversive force as well as a way that individuals stay strong. It is subversive because it represents making your life regardless of how forbidden you are from doing so. That church is a centre for a community, and it is – unintentionally, but that doesn't really matter – a big FUCK YOU to the authorities. It is that which is subversive by being normal in the wrong place.

It is a minor miracle because it represents thirst for life and humanity and community and care and all the things that people forced to live in the jungles are denied or presented as incapable of being or having. The church (and the mosques and all the other sacred spaces in the jungle) scream of humanity. To be a witness to the faith of others in a place like this feels like such a privilege. To be a witness is also to be a participant, and that feels amazing too, because you are a part of creating something deeply meaningful there: a collective strength.

* All the jungles and the big squat "Galloo" have now been served with eviction notices, but no fixed date has been given for this.