July 14, 2011

An Afghan odyssey, told in an unforgettable voice

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In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is a small book with a big story to tell. Billed as a novel, it is the largely true story of a young Afghan refugee’s rootless five-year journey across two continents. Enaiatollah Akbari shared his experience with Italian novelist Fabio Geda, who has reconstructed the events into a compelling narrative that maintains the youthful voice of this remarkable boy. Already a bestseller in Italy and France, the book has now been deftly translated into English by Howard Curtis.

This searing story of a boy’s struggle to survive has become an international sensation.

When Enaiat is about 10 years old (an exact record of his birth date does not exist), his father is killed by bandits while driving a truck to Iran. The Pashtun owners of the truck’s merchandise threaten to exact repayment for the goods by taking away Enaiat and his younger brother, so his mother smuggles him across the border into Pakistan, leaving him behind and returning alone to their isolated Afghan village. On his own in a strange land, the boy is forced to find menial work. Hearing that things are better for Shia Muslims in Iran, Enaiat pays a trafficker to smuggle him across the border, the first of many arduous journeys on which he will embark. Working on construction sites in Isfahan, in perpetual fear of being rounded up as an illegal and sent back to Afghanistan, he dreams of making his way to Europe.

The first leg of that trip to the West involves a month-long trek over the frozen mountains between Iran and Turkey, followed by three claustrophobic days packed with some 50 others in a hidden compartment beneath the bed of a truck. His travels from Turkey to Greece and then Venice are equally harrowing. Ultimately, he lands in Turin, and, with the help of some benevolent Italians, is educated and granted political asylum.

The details of Enaiat’s five-year ordeal, undeniably eye-opening and disturbing for Western readers, are perhaps no more or less astonishing than those that countless refugees could tell. What makes In the Sea There Are Crocodiles so persuasive is the boy’s voice, beautifully captured by Geda. Enaiat is resilient and resourceful, to be sure, but also sanguine and wise. He encounters adversity and altruism with equal equanimity, accepting his fate without self-pity. Forced to live independently and by his wits, the boy quickly sheds any vestiges of childhood, and readers must remind themselves that while he is struggling to survive, his counterparts in America and Europe are still cocooned in middle school. In the end, when Enaiat is finally able to track down his mother, telephone her and speak to her for the first time in years, their inarticulate conversation underscores not only the miles between them, but the lifetime that has passed in less than a decade. It is a heartbreaking moment that subtly underscores the plight of the displaced persons of the world, far too numerous to count.

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