Country Focus: Afghanistan (Afghanestan in Dari)
In the Sea There Are Crocodiles: A Novel: Based on the True Story of Enaiatollah Akbari
By Fabio Geda
Translated by Howard Curtis
Originally published in Italy as Nel mare ci sono i coccodrilli by B.C Dalai Editore, 2010.
My edition: Anchor Books, 2012.
Genre: Fictionalized memoir
Time period: 2002-2007
Enaiatollah Akbari and Fabio Geda met at one of the author’s book signings. Akbari approached Geda and told him that his featured book – about a Romanian boy’s emigration to Italy – followed a similar trajectory to his own life, albeit he had emigrated from Afghanistan. Intrigued, Geda listened as the young man spun out the highlights of his five-year-long journey from Nava, Afghanistan to Turin, Italy. The two developed a rapport, and Akbari eventually enlisted Geda to help him share his story. This collaboration led to the writing of In the Sea There Are Crocodiles. Akbari’s difficulty with remembering some of his experiences garnered the book the “based on a true story” designation rather than memoir status.
Geda has given Akbari a first person voice that rolls out smoothly and unadorned. The prose flows so naturally that I felt like I was eavesdropping on the two men’s conversation (he includes his own occasional interjections to clarify or remark upon various points). I whipped through this compelling novel in a day.
Born a Hazara in Nava, Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Enaiatollah Akbari faces a life of relentless persecution by the Taliban. The Hazara people have a long history of being ill-treated by other Afghan peoples, but the Taliban took this ethnic hatred to another level by routinely killing them.
Akbari’s mother decides to hit the reset button on her son’s fate and smuggles him across the Pakistani border. She gives him some words of advice in their hotel bedroom and when he wakes in the morning, she is gone.
Akbari is ten years old and utterly alone in a strange country, but he is also astute, industrious and practical and asks the hotelier for a job. The man takes pity on him – the first of many lucky breaks for Akbari - and gives him food and place to sleep in exchange for a neverending series of confusing and difficult tasks. Akbari’s fortitude sees him through this tough introduction to life as an illegal and many (far worse) travails, including: two repatriations; a month-long mountain trek; a deadly row across the Aegean; and long, dark claustrophobic rides in shipping containers and false truck bottoms.
The need for both stable work and safe living conditions drives Akbari further and further west – to Iran, Turkey, Greece, and finally Italy, where an old acquaintance helps him find a home and political asylum.
Akbari’s successful emigration would be an epic accomplishment for any human being, but is particularly jaw-dropping considering that he completed his journey before he turned sixteen – the age when most American kids have barely earned their parents’ trust to drive unsupervised to the mall.
[Geda:] How can you just change your life like that, Enaiat? Just say goodbye one morning?
[Akbari:] You do it, Fabio, and that’s it.
[Geda:] I read somewhere that the decision to emigrate comes from a need to breathe.
[Akbari:] Yes, it’s like that. And the hope of a better life is stronger than any other feeling. My mother, for example, decided it was better to know I was in danger far from her, but on the way to a different future, than to know I was in danger near her, but stuck in the same old fear.
Thanks to Barbara Theroux at Fact & Fiction Bookstore in Missoula, Montana for supporting World Lit Up!