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Powerful, moving rendition of a life less ordinary

Fabio Geda tells the remarkable story of Enaiatollah Akbari, an abandoned Hazara boy who saw the ugliest the world had to offer, writes Deepanjana Pal

DEEPANJANA PAL  18th Dec 2011

Fabio Geda with Enaiatollah Akbari

n Judaism, Christianity and Islam, spending three days in a dark, confined space is a rite of passage for many great men. Jonah spent that time in the belly of a whale and emerged as a prophet. Jesus Christ's resurrection happened three days after he was buried in a tomb. The Prophet Muhammad often secluded himself for three days in a cave and it was during one of these periods of solitary prayer that the angel Gibreel appeared before him. Enaiatollah Akbari, the hero of In The Sea There Are Crocodiles, spends three days in the false bottom of a trailer, which is packed with 65 refugees, going from Van in south-eastern Turkey to Istanbul. The blessing that he receives at the end of his three-day trial is that, despite the blood in his urine, the excruciating pain in his body and being homeless, he is alive and in Istanbul. And for a boy who has lived by his wits in some of the most dangerous places on the planet, since the age of 10 when he was abandoned by his mother, being alive is blessing enough.

In The Sea... is about Enaiatollah's journey from Nava, a village in Afghanistan, to Turin, Italy, where he now lives. Enaiatollah was about 10 years old when he left Nava. Afghanistan wasn't safe for him and his family because they are Hazaras, an ethnic group hated by the Taliban for their Mongol features and for belonging to the Shia sect of Islam. By the time he was 11, Enaiatollah had lost his father (a lorry driver who was killed by bandits); evaded Pashtuns who wanted to take him and his younger brother as slaves; seen the Taliban kill his schoolteacher; and been smuggled into Pakistan with his mother. Then one morning, his mother disappeared. Enaiatollah learnt she had returned to Nava, to his younger brother and older sister, leaving him alone in Quetta.

Geda does a wonderful job of creating a voice for Enaiatollah that matures subtly, becoming sharper with every mishap but never losing the ability to make the best of a situation.

From this point onwards, Enaiatollah is at the mercy of strangers. Their whims, greed, bad moods and impulses are what he must negotiate to survive. There are kindnesses, but they are too few compared to the perils Enaiatollah faces. Human traffickers take everything he earns and get him in and out of countries. In Iran, he works on a construction site and gets harassed by the authorities who deport him. When he treks from Iran to Turkey he learns that the mountains, which had always meant 'home' to him, could also be murderous. In Turkey, he survives that three-day journey to Istanbul. With four boys, he crosses a bit of the Thracian Sea in a flimsy dinghy to reach Greece. In Athens, he finds work because the 2004 Olympics needed cheap labour. He hides in a container and arrives in Italy. Yet, for all the hardship, In The Sea is full of wit and the book is really about determination. Enaiatollah refuses to settle into sadness, no matter how dangerous the road to happiness may be.

o say Enaiatollah and his story are remarkable is an understatement. Unlike Dave Eggers's brilliant What is the What, which declared itself both autobiography and novel, Geda describes In The Sea... as fiction based on a true story. However, it feels anything but fictional. Geda may have done much more than transcribe Enaiatollah's memories but he channels Enaiatollah brilliantly, particularly in the sections set in Pakistan and Iran, making us forget the author and subject are two separate people. Among the most moving aspects of In The Sea... are the things that make Enaiatollah happy: a plastic watch, a friend, a meal, human traffickers who stick to their promises. Geda does a wonderful job of creating a voice for Enaiatollah that matures subtly, becoming sharper with every mishap but never losing the ability to make the best of a situation.

Ironically, when Enaiatollah's story comes closer to the present, it starts lacking in detail and is hastily written. The section set in Italy feels particularly rushed, as though Enaiatollah was tired of talking about the past by this point. Geda races through Enaiatollah settling into Italy and discovering a sense of belonging with his foster family. Even more cursory is the telling of Enaiatollah's reunion (of sorts) with his mother. Geda doesn't really explore Enaiatollah's feelings about his mother's decision to leave him defenceless in Quetta. Neither does Geda ask Enaiatollah how sees himself in the present – is he Italian, or Afghan, or both? What does asylum mean to a boy who calmly offers advice like, "if you ever spend time as an illegal, look for the parks"?

However, these are problems only when you consider In The Sea... fiction. Read it as reality and you feel admiration for Enaiatollah and relief that he has found his way home, albeit in a foreign land.

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