Every now and then, a quiet, little book comes along that really grabs the attention of readers. The voice and tone of a book like this requires your full concentration - as though an old storyteller were sitting in the room with you... you lean in, just a little closer, listening carefully so as to not miss a single word of his tale. In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, the first work of Italian author Fabio Geda to be translated into English, is just such a tale. Our narrator, Enaiatollah Akbari, is quiet and calm, but his words, his story, are anything but serene.
Geda met Enaiatollah several years ago and knew he wanted to help the young man tell his story. The prologue tells us right away that this book is a little bit different. While being marketed by the publisher as a work of fiction, the 'novel' is based on a true story. Geda states, "...this book must be considered to be a work of fiction, since it is the recreation of Enaiatollah's experience - a re-creation that has allowed him to take possession of his own story."
The saga - and it is a saga - opens early in the year 2000, with 10-year-old Enaiatollah being advised by his mother about the "three things you must never do in life." It is a very simple list: a) never use drugs b) never use weapons and c) never cheat or steal. Very likely, this is advice mothers the world over have offered their children for generations, but in this instance, it is the last thing Enaiatollah will hear from his mother for many, many years. As she tucks him in, he listens to her voice and promises he will never do any of those things, but "it [did] not occur to [him] that what she was really saying [was] Khoda negahdar, goodbye." The next morning, Enaiatollah's mother is gone and he is alone, abandoned in a new city and a new country. His mother, fearing the brutal killings of the Hazara people within the Ghazni province of Afghanistan, made the decision that her son would be better off fending for himself in Pakistan - that there could be hope for an improved life for Enaiatollah outside of his home country.
Hazaras, as a largely Shiite Muslim people in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country under Taliban rule, were viewed as the lowest caste; living and existing were constant challenges. Thriving was almost impossible. When Enaiatollah's teacher refused to listen to Taliban orders and close the school, he was taken out into the village and executed in front of everyone. This act pushed Enaiatollah's mother into action and propelled him into the first of many very dangerous journeys.
Throughout reading this story, I found myself constantly awed. From a country of privilege, safety and security, I could not begin to imagine having to negotiate the streets as a ten, eleven, twelve-year-old child. Never mind the harrowing travels with the human smugglers Enaiatollah undertook time and time again. From his first day alone, he was proactive, productive, and planning for his future. Every job was a step to a better life. Every occupation was another rung up the ladder on his way West - where life would be better and opportunity, money, safety, and security were not crazy, unattainable dreams.
Enaiatollah's quest for more takes him from Pakistan to Iran then Turkey and Greece. He finally lands in Italy, at the age of fifteen. Along the way, he finds Afghan companions - other boys who are also struggling to survive. It is an unusual situation - both having a surrogate family and the reason for its existence - but without the support these children offered one another, this story could have been very different. There is, as they say, safety in numbers. Even still, there is suffering and tragedy. It is inescapable. Harsh weather, punishing physical labour, dangerous border crossings all take a toll. It is a compounded set of circumstances when Enaiatollah's age is remembered.
At one point, while Geda is listening and transcribing Enaiatollah's story, he interrupts the telling to ask for more details about a woman in Greece who showed Enaiatollah great kindness. "I'm only interested in what happened. The lady is important for what she did. Her name doesn't matter. What her house was like doesn't matter. She could have been anybody," replies Enaiatollah. Earlier, while the story is in Pakistan, he makes mention of a similar sentiment: "I don't want to talk about people, I don't want to talk about place." Enaiatollah states, "They aren't important. Facts are important. The story is important. It's what happens to you that changes your life, not where or who with." I feel these observations, this philosophy, speaks volumes about our hero. What happens in life can be trusted as truth - people and possessions cannot. It is fortunate, though, that Enaiatollah did meet with several honorable and kind people along his way. He too, could have been anybody. But he is strength. He is determination. He is hope. His story is worth knowing.
This review was originally published in October 2011, and has been updated for the June 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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