Ibiza: The contradictions of consumption

My friend Dan sips a Fanta on the beach. ‘This is a holiday in the mouth’, he says. It reminds him of drinking Fanta on previous holidays.

There’s substance to his throwaway comment. Especially for someone (yours truly) who actively enjoys overthinking situations and seeking out connections and linkages. For Ibiza is a contradictory nexus of consumption where the production of fun is extremely serious.

I have a vested interest in such a viewpoint: we are separated from Algeria only by the Mediterranean and the proximal pebble of Formantera, another Balearic island. For me, the African continent is tantalisingly close and its culture and people very much present at this geographic frontier of Europe and Africa.

I have seen more Senegalese and Gambians in Ibiza than I have seen in the period since 2012, when I last visited Senegal. The few Spanish people who live here are largely an irrelevant minority – at least to my postcolonial focus – when sampling the nightlife of British tourists and Senegambian street salesmen.

For the Senegalese and Gambian populations, offering the most palatable ‘holiday in the mouth’ is super-crucial if they are to feed themselves and send remittances home. This ranges from selling Fanta and beer to small metal spoon necklaces used to snort cocaine or ketamine. As possibly illegal migrants, these wares pass from their paperless, statusless selves to the passport-holding British. 

I speak Wolof to them. Some are pleasantly surprised. Most are simply uninterested and walk on. How is a British guy with a few words of Senegal’s main language any use to them here? The younger lad keen to buy the spoon perhaps offers their lives more meaning and impact by bringing the promise of money for food than my interest in their home nation. 

How should I even begin to make sense of these likely Islamic migrants facilitating illicit drug consumption to feed their children? This is in no way a judgment of their lives, but a series of questions: What might this contradiction mean for them? How might it feel? Is law and order a strange and baffling presence on an island where illegal migration and overt substance use co-exist, both illegal, yet the former likely more punished than the latter? Or is this itself a luxury consideration – as one of my mates said, the Senegambian migrants may see their work simply as survival, rather than an ethical or moral dilemma?

Some of the Senegambian workers wear full-length traditional clothes. These stand out against the perfect abs, tans and faultless hair styles of the topless British tourists. The contradiction of consumption therefore intersects with the contradiction of sexuality here. Branded clothing and paid-for looks are a British currency promising fulfilment from meeting and impressing other tourists. By our hotel pool, groups of heterosexual men ask each other to take pictures to send to girls back home, and parade their bodies and abs in front of each other. Again, as I do not pass judgment on the Senegambian migrants, neither is this a judgment of the British holidaymakers: we’ve all been sold the myth through unavoidable advertising that perfect bodies, clothes, and looks lead to happy lives. Much as migration is an equally mythic promise of success and happiness for many Africans. 

I think of literary theorist Eve Sedwick’s argument that male Shakespearean characters are homosocial: they use their own abilities to attract or control women not as ends in themselves but as ways of competing for power and status with other men. In other words, women are pleasing and transacted objects that offer the promise of wealth and increased status. I think of a line from Titus Andronics: ‘Revel in Lavinia’s treasury’. In the bard’s most gory play, Lavinia is not a woman in herself but an object for men to compete over, whether by chopping and hewing her limbs or through acts of rape. I’m not suggesting that any of the guys here are pathologically dangerous rapists, but instead that dissonance between wealthy holidaying and impoverished migration, and the different clothing worn by some of those who embody such experiences, are not unconnected to analyses of sexuality and power.

What, then, might the migrant population symbolise for some of us (not that they need symbolise anything at all)? Proof that the pleasure of the island is neither without ethical consequence nor meaningfully sustainable for the people who depend on it most? Proof that the glitz, music, new clothes, and perfect bodies and haircuts are ‘special efforts’ of aesthetic for a holiday, rather than permanent states of being for people who work or study in the UK for the rest of the year? It is difficult not to question ones own attractiveness, if only briefly, in such an image-conscious place. Is it possible, then, to interpret the abject African presence in a positive light? Do they stand as a quiet form of unintended resistance? Or is that a privileged and narcissistic academic fetishisation of poverty and suffering? 

I honestly don’t know. And I am aware I’ve made several decisive oversimplifications, based on various unsubstantiated assumptions. These observations are not intended to present an accurate or comprehensive picture of Ibiza, but rather to offer a potential snapshot of issues only partly hidden under its glitzy surface. To quote a Glaswegian tourist who arrived yesterday, ‘everything is backwards: you can get drugs but not a taxi’. The final contradiction of the Island is that it has inspired me to make contact once more with some very special Senegalese friends I lost touch with five years ago, having found Senegalese nationals on a European island that in many ways is the antithesis of the West African nation.

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