9/20/2021 Peter Durantine

Afghanistan to Italy: A Young Migrant’s Odyssey

In Fabio Geda's internationally acclaimed 2010 novel, “In the Sea There are Crocodiles,” the author converses with his character/subject, Enaiatollah Akbari, and asks him how he chose his new home. Enaiatollah tells him, “You recognize it because you don’t feel like leaving.”

At 4:30 p.m. Oct. 5, Akbari and Geda will appear via Zoom in Franklin & Marshall College’s Lisa Bonchek Adams Auditorium. They will discuss Akbari’s four-year odyssey that took him from Afghanistan, through four countries and across a sea, to Italy, where he settled. 

“The book is based on the real story of Enaiatollah Akbari, who left Afghanistan as a 10-year-old,” Professor of Italian Giovanna Faleschini Lerner said. “His mother smuggled him across the border into Pakistan and then left him in Pakistan and returned to Afghanistan.” 

  • Italian novelist Fabio Geda. Italian novelist Fabio Geda. Image Credit: Fabio Geda

Lerner first taught Geda’s novel in a 2017 Italian course on Italy and Mediterranean migrations, which have been the focus of her research for several years. When the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan commenced in early August, with the Taliban taking control and forcing more than 100,000 people to migrate, she reached out to Geda and Akbari. 

“There’s a lot of rhetoric about refugees, asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Europe to exploit the social security network, but in fact, many people escape their countries without having a specific destination in mind,” Lerner said.

That is Akbari’s story. A member of the Hazaras, a minority ethnic group under threat from other tribes and the Taliban, he was in class one day when an armed group swept into his school and killed his teacher right before him. His mother decided he was safest out of Afghanistan.

“The novel tells of how he went from Afghanistan to Pakistan and then to Iran and Turkey, from Turkey to Greece, and finally arrived in Italy,” Lerner said. “Always through smugglers and along informal migration routes.”

In Italy, Akbari settled in a group home and met Geda, a novelist who, according to his publisher, Penguin Random House, works with children under duress, writes for several magazines and newspapers, and teaches creative writing.

“It’s important to know that it was Akbari who asked that his story be told,” Lerner said. “It took the form of a novel because of the gaps in Akbari’s memory of events and his reluctance to revisit certain traumatic experiences.” 

In 2020, Geda published a sequel, “Story of a Son: There and Back,” which begins with Akbari speaking to his mother by phone for the first time since she left him in Pakistan. The story is about leaving family and country and what happens to those left behind.

In one sense, “In the Sea there are Crocodiles,” speaks to the young preparing for their own life’s journey. Said Lerner, “It’s a book written for younger readers so it’s really a story of persistence, survival and resilience for audiences who might have no idea what that journey entails.” 

More Programs on Afghanistan

Bookending the Oct. 5 Afghan migrant conversation are two events that look at Afghanistan from different perspectives:

--Gendered Perspectives on Afghanistan at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 21 in the Life, Sciences and Philosophy Building auditorium is a student-moderated faculty panel sponsored by Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “It will look specifically at women and the way women are often weaponized by westerners that say we need to save them and by the Taliban who sort of hold them hostage,” Professor Giovanna Faleschini Lerner said. 

--Music, Cuisine and the Human Family is at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 in the Lisa Bonchek Adams Auditorium, where Emel and Mamooda Sherzad will discuss their families, who left Afghanistan in the 1980s, during a different conflict.

“We actually understand what happens in the world and we have empathy, compassion and a deeper level of understanding if we hear stories by individuals who have gone through certain experiences, without tokenizing them, without wanting to victimize them again, without wanting them to relive traumatic experiences … We need to find ways to listen to their voices,” Lerner said.

  • In the Sea There Are Crocodiles
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