In the Sea There Are Crocodiles: Based on the True Story of Enaiatollah Akbari

  • Fabio Geda, trans. from the Italian by Howard Curtis
  • Doubleday
  • 224 pp.

In a novel based on real-life events, a young Afghan boy takes an amazing journey from his homeland to his ultimate destination, Italy.

Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell

More than a century after the appearance of Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s great road novel of the Indian subcontinent, comes another road novel about a young boy who makes his way alone from his tiny Afghan mountain village to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy. Enaiatollah Akbari (Enaiat) is not, strictly speaking, an orphan like Kim. Only his father is dead, murdered by the Pashtun, a large ethnic group in Afghanistan that rivals the Taliban for brutality, in the late 1990s, when Enaiat’s story begins. The Pashtun have sworn to kill Enaiat as well, so, under cover of darkness, he and his mother walk three nights until they reach the Afghan city of Kandahar, where they hitch a ride to Quetta in Pakistan. Once there, without saying goodbye, Enaiat’s mother disappears, returning home to her two younger children, his final memory a list of “three things [he] must never do in life…for any reason.”

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is called a novel by its author Fabio Geda, an Italian who first met Enaiat at an author’s event celebrating the publication of Geda’s first novel, which dealt with a Romanian boy who immigrated to Italy. Geda and Enaiat spent hours exploring Enaiat’s experiences, but, as Geda says in an introductory note, Enaiat “didn’t remember it all perfectly. Together we painstakingly reconstructed his journey, looking at maps, consulting Google, trying to create a chronology for his fragmented memories.”

The narrative is made up of a fictive Enaiat telling his story to an equally fictive Geda, a credible strategy. But, throughout the book, Geda intersperses, in italics, real dialogue between the real Enaiat and the real Geda. These intercalary passages interrupt the narrative. Readers should hurry past them and read this book as memoir, which permits readers to ignore happenings that might be acceptable in a true story but not in a novel, such as the exceptional kindness of strangers or strokes of good luck. Engage in that “willing suspension of disbelief” recommended by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and follow the helpful map at the start of the book that traces Enaiat’s amazing road trip.

Enaiat thinks he is ten when he leaves Nava and is abandoned by his mother in a hotel in Pakistan, a place of flaking walls, dust and lice, “not so much a hotel as a warehouse for bodies and souls, a kind of left-luggage office.” With no instructions from his mother except to avoid both drugs and weapons and never cheat or steal but always work hard, Enaiat asks the hotel owner for work in exchange for food and lodging. Beginning with the most menial tasks, such as preventing raw sewage from entering the hotel after a rain storm, Enaiat proves to be hard-working and trustworthy. Soon he is delivering chay to local shopkeepers, one of whom spies Enaiat’s potential and engages him to resell products in an open market. Enaiat sleeps in the merchant’s shop at night and lives on bread and yogurt. But Enaiat needs always to be on the lookout for bullies and policemen, terrified he might be caught and sent to the dread prisons of Telisia and Sang Safid. After 18 months, he decides to migrate to Iran.

For a pledge of four months’ slave labor, a human trafficker gets Enaiat safely into Iran where he works first at a construction site, later at a stone cutting factory. After the four months, Enaiat is paid for his labor, money he needs twice to hire new traffickers to get him back into Iran, after he is “repatriated” by the Iranian police to Afghanistan.

Always fearful of being deported, Enaiat leaves Iran after three years. Now 14 years old, he finds traffickers to take him and three friends by foot over the mountains from Iran to Turkey. Soon, the four are joined by other illegals, first 20, then 60, and finally an amazing 77 people, which the traffickers divide into ethnic groups to reduce hostility. Before setting out, Enaiat was told to buy sturdy shoes for a trek that would last three days. The three days quickly stretch into six, then 10. “Ahga, please, how long is it before we get to the top of the mountain,” Enaiat pleads, having been chosen by the others to make this request day after day. Three days, he is told, or soon, or tomorrow. On the 18th day, they spy a group of people who had been frozen to death sitting on the ground. While most of the group sidles silently past the bodies, Enaiat steals shoes from one because his “were ruined and his toes had turned purple.” On day 26, they reach the top but need two more days to descend and three more days to complete the journey, packed like sardines in the false bottom of a truck that carries gravel and stone. Each person is given two bottles, one filled with water, one for urine. Twelve people do not survive the trek.

Enaiat’s trip from Turkey to Greece is shorter but no less harrowing. He and four others (one would not survive) are taken to the shores at Ayvalik by another trafficker who provides them with an inflatable dinghy, life jackets, paddles, a pump and adhesive tape. The trafficker then points at the Aegean, where the boys, who had never before seen the sea, speculate that there may or may not be crocodiles. “Greece,” the trafficker says, “is that way, good luck.”

That Enaiat eventually arrives in Italy and is granted political asylum is a miracle. His life could provide a manual of survival skills for therapists working with downtrodden children. Enaiat is hardworking, polite, curious, outgoing, patient and resourceful. He learns Farsi and a smattering of English so he can negotiate his way in the world. Without any self-help manuals, he knows to mirror the gestures and facial expressions of others as a way to be accepted. He has no self-pity.

Fabio Geda has done a fine job bringing Enaiat alive without resorting to novelists’ tricks. Enaiat seems real because readers see him in action and see other people reacting to him. The only physical description is partial when Enaiat comments that he looks like most of his ethnic group, the Hazara, who have “almond-shaped eyes and squashed noses.” Yet, that same authorial reticence prevents readers from sensing Enaiat as a flesh-and-blood human being. Surely, in the six-year journey, his voice dropped an octave and he transitioned from child to adolescent.

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is a short book and fast read. It presents a contemporary look at a world that Americans have become increasingly a part of and from the point of view of persons who usually have no voice. That world is presented so convincingly that it begins to seem normal for young people to be homeless and sleep night after night in public parks. Human traffickers, often seen as a scourge, take on a new face: they are people just doing a job, capable of kindness, assisting others in seeking out a better world. Readers who enjoy In the Sea There are Crocodiles might want to read (or reread) Kipling’s Kim, which covers some of the same territory and delves with brilliance into the political rivalries of 19th-century South and Central Asia, rivalries which seem not so different from those of today.

Harriet Douty Dwinell is a Washington writer and director of the Washington Independent Review of Books editorial board.

comments powered by Disqus