In an author’s note at the beginning of In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, Fabio Geda states that at an event when he was talking about his first novel, he met Enaiatollah Akbari. The younger man said that he had had an experience similar to the one Geda had described: fleeing his homeland and seeking refuge in Italy. At the time, Enaiat was fifteen; several years earlier, he had been secreted out of Afghanistan by his mother after the Taliban took over their village. His mother left him in Pakistan, and from there he fled through Iran, Turkey, and Greece, until he finally reached Italy.
Geda, an Italian novelist, works with distressed children, often immigrants, employing storytelling to get to the root of deep-seated emotional problems. On the cover of In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, below the title, is the following line: “Based on the true story of Enaiatollah Akbari,” which would seem to imply a memoir of the young man, but the title page refers to the book as a novel. Geda explains the categorization by calling it a “re-creation” of Enaiat’s experience; hence, a novel that has allowed the Afghani “to take possession of his own story.” If this explanation is fairly convoluted, it is within the context of several recent memoirs that have been questioned for their authenticity and, in fact, called hoaxes. Whatever the fusion of Geda and Akbari’s voices, the result is a horrific account of an ordeal too common in our contemporary world: people traffickers aiding young men (and sometimes women) in their quest for asylum in the West.
The core of the story is Enaiat’s indomitable will to succeed, once he
understands that it is his own mother who made the first move to save her son’s life. In an early flashback, the boy describes the closing down of his school by the Taliban, the in cold blooded murder of the school’s teacher, shot in front of the students. As terrifying as that incident is, it is nothing to what Enaiat will undergo in situation after situation during his long flight to Italy.
Pakistan is easy, after the initial experience of staying in a windowless warehouse with other illegals. He works at several brief jobs in Quetta, including selling cheap goods on the streets. Many of us have observed young children selling chewing gum, shoe laces, socks, or other objects on the streets of Third World countries. Probably, we never considered that they may have been illegals—even at that age—moving from one country to the next.
The details that take him into Iran are much more revealing. The trafficker will smuggle Enaiat into the country for no up front money; but once in Iran, he has to give his first three months’ income at a construction site to the trafficker. Barely has he paid off the debt when the police apprehend him and send him back to Afghanistan, but Enaiat (and we are led to believe hundreds of other young men) simply begins the process all over again. Eventually he ends up stonecutting in Qom, after being repatriated twice, each time paying off the traffickers.
Getting into Turkey—crossing the mountains between Iran and Turkey—is a much more dangerous and hair-raising experience. But the traffickers are there at every stage of his journey, willing to take illegals to their next destination. Enaiat becomes part of a group of seventy-two people from several Asian countries who are told by the traffickers that the crossing over the mountains will take three days. They’re provided with food for a few days and told they need a sturdy pair of shoes, which Enaiat purchases with some of the money he’s earned from stone cutting after working three years in Iran. But the trek takes twenty-six days to the top of the mountain pass. Twelve people do not survive. Rounding a corner high up in the mountains, they encounter a “group of people sitting on the ground. They’d be sitting there forever. They were frozen.” Enaiat takes the shoes from one of them, since his own have worn out.
It’s not any easier getting from Eastern Turkey to Istanbul. First, there’s the wait for the next method of conveyance: three days in the false bottom of a transport lorry, where he’s packed like a sardine with dozens of others, trying to control his kidneys because there’s with almost no possibility of movement for three days. Then, finally, in Istanbul, in “an underground garage, filled with hundreds and hundreds of people. A kind of marshaling yard for immigrants, or something like that, a cave in the belly of Istanbul.” For several weeks in Istanbul, his urine is red with blood.
There’s still more—the most harrowing part of the journey—but I’ve related enough, I hope, to whet your interest in this unforgettable narrative. From Istanbul, Enaiat has to get to Greece and that has its own complications because the trail is no longer over land. Then from Greece to Italy, working in all of these countries in the underground economy to pay off the traffickers and earn a little more for incidentals for the next phase of the impossible journey.
In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is an eye-opening account of human endurance, of overcoming the most difficult obstacles—all for freedom and a better life. The loss of human lives at every stage is horrendous. And, yes, without the help of numerous sympathetic strangers, Enaiat’s ordeal would have been even worse—much worse.
In the Sea There Are Crocodiles
By Fabio Geda
Trans. by Howard Curtis
Doubleday, 213 pp., $22.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.