Friday, 30 May 2014

On feet and two wings

Abbas Kazerooni On two feet and wings (Allen & Unwin).

Set during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, On feet and two wings tells the story of an Iranian boy, Abbas, who is soon to be 10 and therefore, unbelievably, eligible for call up to the army. Abbas' parents decide that he and his mother will try to escape via Istanbul to England, but at the last minute his mother is not allowed to board the plane and Abbas travels to Turkey on his own. Remember, as you read on, this is not fiction, this is a memoir. Kazerooni says:
"The book is based on real events that happened to me a long time ago when I was a child. To write it for you I have simplified some events and changed some details."
Abbas arrives in Istanbul, where he doesn't speak the language or understand the system, and has to fend for himself for 12 weeks while he tries to get a visa for the UK. I'm not sure I would like to do that now, never mind as a nine year old. Obviously Abbas has a lot to learn, not least how to judge character and who to trust. In general, the kindness of strangers is greater than that of the few contacts his father has managed to make for him. For example, the man who was to meet him at the airport and help him abandons him almost immediately. Fortunately, he finds a taxi driver with more integrity who helps him to find a cheap hotel where Persian is spoken.

Abbas manages to find his way around the city, change money on the black market (his father has given him a supply of dollars), persuade someone to translate for him at the British Consulate - and also make a living! His best friend is Murat, the hotel owner, whom he talks into giving him work serving drinks and shining shoes. Murat also teaches him backgammon, at which he proves to be a natural, and they make a lot of money taking bets on his performance. Not all is plain sailing though. A less attractive job is delivering packages for the jeweller who changes his money - what is in them is never disclosed, but the job earns him his first beating - and, at heart, Abbas remains a small boy who cries himself to sleep because he misses his mother.

There are traumatic scenes in the book, but it's not unhappy overall. The story zips along, and you really root for the resourceful Abbas who is far more cheerful than many would be in his situation. Also, because we know the adult Abbas is writing the story in real life, we don't need to worry about him surviving. However, as well as being a good story, I think the book would help a lot of children to understand issues of immigration, asylum and persecution. Unaccompanied child refugees still arrive in this country today, so anything that encourages empathy and challenges the dangerous rhetoric preached by such as the Daily Mail and Ukip is to be welcomed.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for sending me this book, which I won in a draw. I will now be donating it to the University of Strathclyde for its Teaching Practice collection and, I hope, addition to its Refugees booklist.