I have always been interested in reading the stories of immigrants. Not necessarily the ones that concern unemployment woes or social stigma, those which we encounter by and large on a daily basis.
But I am more fascinated by the stories of people who risked life and limb to come to a new country, where they try hard to lose themselves and become part of the fabric of their new society.
And Fabio Geda’s In the Sea There are Crocodiles tells one such story.
Enaiatollah Akbari is from Afghanistan, and he meets Italian novelist Fabio at a book presentation in Italy. They get talking, and Fabio is captivated by Enaiatollah’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy.
The book begins with Enaiatollah (or Ena, as his friends call him) receiving some sound advice from his mother. She makes him promise never to do three things in life – cheat, take drugs or steal. At the time, it doesn’t strike ten-year-old Ena as unusual advice. But the very next day, his mother disappears.
From there, Ena’s life is a series of misadventures that involve evading the police, rowing across the ocean in a rubber dinghy, and crossing a mountain with a group of refugees enduring icy cold winds. His journey begins when he and his mother leave Nava, their village in Afghanistan and come to Quetta in Pakistan. He is separated from his mother here, and after working for a while, Ena finds a way to go to Iran where he hears the opportunities are slightly better.
Paying money to an undercover travel agent, Ena and his friend Sufi join a group of other refugees. His dreams of a better life take him from Iran to Turkey to Greece and finally to Italy, where he tries to settle into a normal life.
Told in Ena’s matter-of-fact voice, In the Sea There are Crocodiles is a story with humanity at its heart. Ena faces corruption, danger, and exploitation everywhere he goes. But, like diamonds in the dust, there is also kindness and friendship that he finds in unexpected places.
When he is running away from the police in Greece he hides in the corner of a garden attached to a house and falls asleep. He is awoken by a lady who clothes and feeds him, and even gives him 50 euros. It’s this serendipitous largesse, coupled with incredible luck, that keeps him going.
Like the time when Ena and his two friends stop at a petrol pump and annoyed with their whining, he enters a public telephone booth and pretends to make a call. The next minute, a police car arrives and his friends are caught. Or like the time when he manages to trace and locate Payam, a boy from Nava who was in Italy when all he knew was that “Payam was in Italy, but not exactly where.” Payam turns out to be a huge support and one of the factors that influences Ena to continue staying in Italy.
Interspersed seamlessly with Ena’s retelling are conversations between him and Fabio, which form very interesting asides. Fabio, as the author, is curious and seeks answers while Ena the raconteur is focused on facts and experiences.
“Why don’t you tell me a bit more about Afghanistan before we go on?
… I don’t want to talk about people, I don’t want to talk about places. 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.”
These brief tangents add extra flavour through bringing out little nuggets of thought in the middle of this fast paced thriller. For Ena’s story is really the stuff of adventurous picaresque fiction. Except that it’s very real, and Ena’s temerarious decisions are often what keep him alive.
His story belongs right there with movies like The Good Lie, or books like What is the What, in portraying the determination, grit, and harrowing experiences of its characters. After what they have been through, small comforts that we take for granted are a matter of joy for them, or even an alien concept;
“After dinner they showed me a room. There was a bed in the room, just one, and it was all mine. Danila came up, bringing me pyjamas… But I didn’t know what pyjamas were. I was used to sleeping in my clothes.”
Despite reading about all the horrid things that Ena had to go through, in the end, I felt uplifted. Maybe it was that Ena emerged a survivor. Maybe because reading about the kindness of strangers fortifies my soul like good wine.
As Fabio says “the decision to emigrate comes from a need to breathe.”
And I was happy that Ena was finally able to breathe.
Written by Swati Nair