Two things immediately draw the reader to this short book. The first is the title, a child’s warning of dangers lurking for a voyager crossing the sea. It is the cry of fear by a young boy about to enter a boat in the Mediterranean, who does not believe it is safe. Although there are no crocodiles in that sea, the boy is correct. There are salt-water crocodiles, and the journey from the shores of Turkey to Lesbos in Greece is perilous.
In the Sea there are Crocodiles has a sub-title: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari. In the Author’s Note, the writer Fabio Geda recounts meeting Enaiatollah Akbari at a book presentation in Italy and how they agreed to retell his story of migration. He reveals that while it is based on a true story, the two of them had to reconstruct Enaiatollah’s journey and that what we have is a ‘recreation’. The story dates from about 2000.
The second thing that interests the reader is the set-up for the story.
One night, on the dangerous Pakistani border, Enaiatollah’s mother tells him there are three things he must never do: use drugs or weapons, cheat, or steal.
When the ten-year-old Afghan boy wakes alone the next morning he realises that she was saying goodbye – and that it is now up to him to find a place of safety. [Blurb]
His mother believed that Enai was at more risk from the Taliban if he stayed living in their village than if he lived outside Afghanistan. He is from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. But what does it mean for a ten-year-old boy to be abandoned by his mother?
In the Sea there are Crocodiles
At first, after that morning, Enai must simply learn to survive, which he does by being useful. He is polite and willing to apply himself. He adapts himself to many jobs in the course of this story, and his lack of complaints is probably one of the reasons why he survives.
Enai gradually moves away from the border town to find work in Iran. He is by no means alone in being exiled from Afghanistan. He benefits from a loose brotherhood among the exiles, and also, one imagines, from the vulnerability of his age. Nevertheless, he must work for his living. Pretty soon he is caught up in the building trade and he learns the ways of indebted labour, saving what money he can to meet the requirements of traffickers who are essential to his search for safety.
What is revealed is how the building trade, the world over, relies on an illegal work force, which keep costs low and also feeds into the trafficking economy. I was reminded of Sunjeev Sahota’s novel called The Year of the Runaways (2016) which was a raw account of the lives of migrants from the Indian sub-continent who worked illegally in the building trade on sites in the Midlands and the north of England. Enai works in Greece to complete the Olympic sites in 2004, for example.
Enai did not set out to travel to the EU. At 10 years old he hardly knew it existed. Instead, he makes decisions to improve his lot, to follow his friends or to find more work. As a result, he goes to Iran, is returned to Pakistan, moves back to Iran, and then decides to move on to Turkey. He learns about better opportunities in Greece and finally of his chances in Italy.
Life is hard for a young boy with no resources but his wits and the ability to work and learn. He faces up to being an illegal worker in Pakistan and Iran, sometimes having to work for months to pay off the traffickers who transport him. When he decides to go to Turkey he faces a long, gruelling journey over the mountains to Istanbul. After the dangers of the mountains there follows a 3-day trip in the false floor of a lorry. Many do not survive.
To get to Greece, he joins a group of even younger boys who endure a terrifying passage by boat, without encountering any sea monsters. Finally he makes it to meet a fellow refugee from his Afghani village in Turin.
The story reveals the endurance and resilience of a young boy. He also benefits from a fair bit of luck and the kindness of strangers. We also learn about the commerce of trafficking, how it is an organised trade. It is exploitative, but it also provides a service for the trafficked, the employers along the way, as well as an income for themselves.
It is a moving story, not least because we would like to think that boys of 10 do not have endure a life such as Enai’s. But it leaves us with some important questions:
- How many migrants do not have his happy ending?
- How can we understand refugee and migrant experiences without stories such as these?
- How is it that we live in a world where such conditions persist?
- While traffickers make a living off migrants, they do not cause the migrant crisis. Why does our government persist in making them the targets of action, the bad guys, rather than using resources to make the conditions of migrants’ lives more humane?
In the Sea there are Crocodiles: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari by Fabio Geda, published by Tamarind in 2011. 215pp. Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis.