History is written by the victors, or so the saying goes, so it’s rare but eye-opening to read the version written by those not celebrating the spoils. And none are more eye-opening than the memoir of convicted people smuggler Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oskar Schindler of Asia’, which shows ‘queue-jumping boat people’ and the people who smuggle them in a light that differs vastly from that cast by our popular vote-seeking politicians.
Written by Sydney filmmaker Robin de Crespigny over three years and myriad hours of interviewing Ali (I’m going with ‘Ali’ because I’m unsure whether to use ‘Al Jenabi’ or just ‘Jenabi’ and don’t want to cause offence), The People Smuggler is written in an imperfect but credible first person. It’s as if Ali himself, who only recently learnt English, is telling the tale.
It’s a smart decision because it both makes your connection to the tale more personal and intense and because, well, it helps you realise that such incredible awfulness not only happened, it happened to one person.
The People Smuggler is a fabulous, must-read book, but I won’t deny that it made me simultaneously heart-swellingly impressed at the triumph of the human spirit to keep getting up when it’s being nothing but repeatedly steamrolled and despondent at the horror the human race deliberately, unconscionably inflicts on itself.
Ali’s tale begins with his happy childhood in Iraq, which changes forever when at school he accidentally blurts out a phrase his father says in the privacy of their home: ‘Saddam is a bastard.’ His father disappears the very next day, and thus begins the family’s plunge into the murky world of incarceration, torture, mental health issues, and near starvation.
As the oldest son, but still a young child, Ali is nonetheless tasked with rescuing the family. This continues for the next 20 (or more) years, as he first earns them money at the markets, then graduates to working at a tailor’s, and later gathering intelligence for the resistance movement. In between, he himself is repeatedly captured, locked up, and tortured in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, emerging as one of its few survivors.
In danger, on the run, and with his family too in mortal danger, Ali is forced to leave Iraq. The journey beyond is equally harrowing as the homeland horrors he’s attempting to flee. Call me naïve, but I was shocked at how hard it was to leave or stay anywhere. Ali’s refugee journey didn’t involve a relatively linear leaving of Iraq, arriving in one or two places, then landing in Indonesia as a gateway to Australia.
Instead, his escapes were repeatedly thwarted and he was forced to double back or was captured and repatriated to the places from which he’d come, let down by those who and those organisations which were supposed to help, before desperation forced him forward again.
How many times can one person survive this? I kept wondering. That one person has even one of these things much less all of them, happen to them seems utterly unfair. Which is how Ali came to be in Indonesia, ahead of his under-threat family, under threat himself, penniless, and desperate to bring them to safety.
Double crossed on top of being double crossed on top of being double crossed, Ali is cheated more than once out of his scrounged money and promised safe passages to Australia. Which is how he comes to be a people smuggler—one with a conscience. By controlling the process, he reasons, can put his family on a boat to Australia.
The People Smuggler pieces together the events and terror that force people to take their chances on rickety boats. It fleshes out and humanises the people the politicians would rather we didn’t identify with and that the 30-second sound bites cannot ever capture.
It forces us to re-think the government’s ‘children overboard’ scapegoating version of events, the actual ways to ‘stop the boats’ that significantly differ from politicians’ postured but ultimately empty promises. It highlights the farcical and inhumane systems we have in place for processing—or not processing, as the case often seems to be—refugees we turn into detainees.
Ali sums up the situation well:
This is the first time I have heard of queue-jumping. I try to imagine this queue. What do they think? That when the secret police are shooting at you, you run down the street yelling, ‘Where’s the queue? Where’s the queue?’
He also writes:
It is unclear why Australians are so strangely concerned about asylum seeks arriving by airplane; maybe because there’re no pictures in the paper or on TV. But they are so afraid of the two percent who come by boat that they lock them up like criminals. As with the Jews in World War II, the refugees’ pitiful plight inspires irrational fear. If Australian people only knew the strength it takes to get on one of these boats, to keep holding onto life after the horrors these people have been through, they would be filled with awe and admiration.
That’s exactly what I’m filled with after reading The People Smuggler. I have a good mind to post copies to our not-so-esteemed ‘leaders’, especially the blustering, ‘I’ll stop the boats’ one who has a penchant for wearing budgie smugglers.