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An artist in Tunisia honors migrants who died trying to cross the Mediterranean

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The coastal city of Zarzis in southeast Tunisia is where Mohsen Lihidheb makes and displays his art.

MOHSEN LIHIDHEB: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: (Non-English language spoken).

LIHIDHEB: (Non-English language spoken). OK, let's do it.

FADEL: All right. Let's do it.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: Through a blue door with two handwritten signs, one in French and one in Arabic, that say museum is a house filled with the things Lihidheb collected after the waves brought them to the shore. The rubbish from the sea is his medium.

Cigarette pack.

LIHIDHEB: Everything.

FADEL: Tennis balls.

LIHIDHEB: I've got everything.

FADEL: Oh, this is for pushpins, like the little router (ph) for pushpins.

LIHIDHEB: Sea bottles, you know?

FADEL: Sea bottles. Did you ever - oh, wait. These are people's messages.

But walk a little deeper inside, and you see what it's really about.

I mean, I see slippers and sneakers and little girls', like, pink slippers. Just tell me what these are.

LIHIDHEB: Outside is most important, you know?

FADEL: OK. Let's see. Oh, my gosh. It looks like a graveyard of shoes.

LIHIDHEB: Yes, a graveyard, really. Really, a graveyard, an effective graveyard of the memory of the shoes.

FADEL: In the backyard, piles of shoes are arranged in a huge circle. Works of literature scattered throughout by Nietzsche, Jack London. Glass bottles and buoys are placed all around the yard. A child's jacket hangs on a wall next to the words of an Egyptian poem turned song - "Why Does The Sea Laugh?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL BAHR BEYEDHAK LEIH")

SHEIKH IMAM: (Singing in non-English language).

LIHIDHEB: I began this action in 1993. I was 40 years old. And then I said enough. I would not belong anymore to smoking, drinking, tea, coffee, everything - just getting back my freedom, my total freedom. I began to gather everything, you know, what comes with the waves. With the time, they gave me some lecture. So I began to make configurations, you know?

FADEL: So they were telling you a story?

LIHIDHEB: Yeah. My story about the sea memory, about the sea memory. At the same time, I've been working at the post.

FADEL: At the post office?

LIHIDHEB: Post office, yes.

FADEL: OK.

LIHIDHEB: And in the post office, I am doing so, gathering letters, sorting them and then distributing them. And what I did at the sea, spontaneously, I gather all what brings the sea. I sort it artistically, and I distribute it as an artistic product, you know?

FADEL: If I could ask you, what's the importance of displaying what the waves brought to the shore? You know, we're looking at all these shoes that maybe - we don't know who they belong to, but it was somebody in the sea.

LIHIDHEB: Yeah. Yeah.

FADEL: What does it say about people trying to leave? You know, what is the message?

LIHIDHEB: In 1995, I began the human ecology that meant that I found, in that time, shoes and clothes from those going from Libya to Italy and that when they were drowned, I found those clothes.

FADEL: What have you seen that's changed over these many years? And I'm wondering what you're seeing in the last year that maybe is different.

LIHIDHEB: No, what changed is that in the beginning, it was only from Tripoli, but then it began to go from Tunisia, you know? And the last times, there are also families going. There are - so civil servants. There have been a chief in the post office and many of my employees who went with their family. But there, what they mean with the books, the migration of intellectuals, of doctors, of everything. So...

FADEL: That's why you have the books?

LIHIDHEB: Yeah.

FADEL: This sea of shoes that we're looking at in front of us, how many years of shoes is that?

LIHIDHEB: Since '95, 1995.

FADEL: These, all of these. What's the most recent?

LIHIDHEB: The most recent is this one, the red one. It's in the 24 of September. It was just after the drama of Zarzis.

FADEL: He's talking about what's known as the tragedy in Zarzis. A boat with 18 Tunisians sank off the coast trying to get to Italy. Most of the bodies have not been recovered.

So these are Nike red-and-black sneakers.

LIHIDHEB: Yeah. Red and black, 45, 45, so...

FADEL: That's the size?

LIHIDHEB: The size - I don't know. I am maybe 70% sure that it belongs to them. They are very important to me because they are the prints of the suffering of those people, you know? We are already world citizens, you know, and hiding himself behind identity or behind the language, of our border or our wall, it will not serve for a long time, you know?

FADEL: You believe that borders should be open so that people can go and come?

LIHIDHEB: Yes, yes. Maybe it will take some time, but the aim and the direction would be that.

FADEL: There is something very, very powerful about this configuration that when you walk out, you feel like it's a graveyard.

LIHIDHEB: Yes, a graveyard. Sometimes I found in the shoes some money.

FADEL: So money - so somebody's tucked money into their shoes to keep it safe.

LIHIDHEB: Because most of them, they put them in the shoes.

FADEL: There's so many stories in these shoes.

LIHIDHEB: There's a lot, a lot, because I tried always to be able to read what they contain. I don't know if you saw the dress of - the red dress of the young girl.

FADEL: No, let's - should we go look at it?

LIHIDHEB: Yeah.

FADEL: Oh, wow. So it's a little coat with a...

LIHIDHEB: A little coat.

FADEL: ...With a bunny design.

LIHIDHEB: So automatically, I was angry. So I put it on the car, on a big trunk of tree. And I make her procession of life that she missed, the joy of her life that she missed. So I made a big wedding for her, and I brought it here to the museum and made a memorial for her.

FADEL: So this is your guest book?

LIHIDHEB: Yeah, the guest book, yes.

FADEL: What a powerful tribute to migrants and the human will that you have assembled here - Claire, September 2020.

A tribute built over 30 years, and in the days ahead, he'll return to the shore to search for whatever else the waves bring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.