Tag Archives: Pakistan

In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

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’s journey

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. 

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In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs

There is a poetic quality to this book. It can be found in its sparseness and the observations of the flight of the swallows, the orchard of pomegranates. The title indicates a certain fragility, a carefulness, consideredness, by the inversion of the usual word order. The narrator is speaking quietly. He is considering extreme pain and suffering and we want to know what has sustained him.

148 Orchard cover

The narrator is unnamed, perhaps indicating he could be any human being. He tells the reader that he is now 29. He has returned to his family farm and the pomegranate orchard, which he loved as a child. The culture of the fruit, how it ripens, how it should be cared for runs through the novel.

He is not addressing us but Saba, the daughter of the local political leader. Everything has changed for he has been in prison for 15 years, since he was 14. He had made the mistake of falling for Saba. Her father had him beaten and imprisoned, without trial. His release was as arbitrary as his imprisonment and he has to learn all over again how to survive in his new environment. Although he has returned to the orchard of his childhood everything has changed. This is north Pakistan.

148 pomegranate treeHe is helped by the kindly Abbas, who takes him into his house. He also has a daughter, Alifa, whose future education is threatened by the Taliban’s campaign against schools.

The narrator is an innocent, who learned to survive in his prison through the use of his imagination: recalling Saba and the night they spent in the orchard, the swallows that fly there. His recovery is helped by the kindness of Abbas and by writing to Saba, who will never know of him. He must first face the physical difficulties.

I have had to learn again how to write. I had almost forgotten, and it was painful to grip the pen in my hand for any length of time. My thumb tingled with numbness, and my palm would freeze in agonising contortions so that I had to massage my grip free. But my two teachers, one old and one young, have been patient with me, and my long ago lessons have not left me entirely. I was soon able to sit and write with Alifa. It is true that my hand still aches as I work, that I must pause often and stretch my fingers before I take up the pen again, to allow the cramps to fade, but the process of adding words to the page brings so much pleasure that I do not mind the discomfort that accompanies it. In the cold morning air it takes a minute before the ink in my pen flows, and I write with it against the skin of my arm until it comes, not wishing to deface the pages of the notebook until I can write on them cleanly. (76)

This is a careful description of the physicality of handwriting. It points up one of the stylistic pleasures of the book. Adjectives are used sparingly, even in descriptive passages. Instead the narrator reports sights, sounds and smells in an even way. Yet he lets us know his reactions, for example when he first visits Abbas’s garden and is reminded of prison by the walls, but then lets the smell of the roses comfort his body. We learn too of the intensity of small pleasures, and of quiet lives.

And, yes, the notebook: its covering card is dyed violet, like the sky at dusk, at the last moment before darkness. Its paper is handmade, mulched together and pressed down then dried in the sun, before it was cut into sheets and folded into books. The pages bear the marks of their construction, and recorded in the texture of each page must be some evidence of the individual who made them. Within the paper are fine flecks of chipped wood, and threads run beneath the surface like the fossilised remains of creatures we used to find in the rocks, in places along the roadside. The firm tip of my ballpoint pen travels pleasurably over them. Along the spine, three holes have been pierced with an awl, and the loose leaves are tied through them with rough string. The string is long, so that it may be wrapped around the book to bind it; it trails loose now, as I write in the open leaves. (76-7)

Aah, this is the physical pleasure of handmade paper. What writer, what lover of stationery doesn’t recognise this?

Pomegranate photo via wikicommons Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Pomegranate photo via wikicommons Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

This simple style is also effective for reporting some of the worst experiences of the narrator.

They held me down and beat my feet. I had never known such agony – each strike travelling instantly through the entire body, my nerves lit with awful pain. It caused my stomach to seize, and I vomited, almost choking on it before I could turn my head and spit it from my mouth. The policeman swore, and beat me harder. I screamed and screamed. I struggled, but could not move. (53)

The observation that this treatment is randomly inflicted and only to relieve the boredom of the guards is yet more chilling.

The novel is structured in short scenes that move between his recovery and the events that led to his imprisonment. The reader asks, what sustains people when they are suffering? What heals them? And we know the answer, but it is beautifully and gently presented here: love, beauty, kindness, connecting, the good things about humankind.

Other readers have reviewed this book:

Mirza Waheed commented on the lingering quality of the book in a review in the Guardian.

The Hungry Reader blogger also commented on its unforgettableness, and suggested everyone should read it.

And for some of Peter Hobbs’s own story, his connection with Pakistan, his own form of imprisonment, read this article from the Canadian National Post. Peter Hobbs lived in Canada for a couple of years.

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) published by faber and faber (139 pp)

Any thoughts about this book? How did you react to it?

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