It’s just a coincidence that I had a copy of A King in Hiding, How a child refugee became a world chess champion, but the current crisis involving refugees from Bangladesh was a spur to bring it to the top of the TBR pile. I’m glad I read it: prior to doing so, I knew about as much about Bangladesh as French chess master Xavier Parmentier who co-narrates the book with young Fahim:
Before I met Fahim and he became my pupil, I could locate Bangladesh on a globe, sharing a border with India. I knew it was one of the world’s poorest countries, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that its capital was Dhaka. And I didn’t know either that it is so much at the mercy of typhoons, cyclones, tsunamis and floods that by the end of the century, unless we do something to halt climate change, it will be swallowed up by the oceans. (p. 8)
(Of all the misery the West has inflicted on other countries in the name of progress, it seems to me that the most iniquitous of all is that it’s poor countries that will bear the brunt of climate change, when they have never had any benefit from the carbon-based economy. And yet we close our doors to them).
Fahim, however, was not a so-called economic migrant, trying to escape poverty. His father was a fireman, and his family lived in what Fahim considered a middle-class life in Bangladesh:
We were rich. We lived in a big house with two rooms: a bedroom with a double bed for me and my sister, and the living room, which had my parents’ bed in the corner. And the baby’s bed too.
It was a lovely house, but it needed a lot of repairs. One day, a great chunk of ceiling came down right beside me and scared the life out of me. Cyclones were frightening too: it felt as though the wind was going to tear the walls apart. It wasn’t just me who got worried either: our neighbours would come to our house and say prayers in Arabic. The monsoon season didn’t bother me though. The rains were torrential, there was water everywhere and everyone got fed up with it, but it wasn’t frightening. When the courtyard turned into a lake, the neighbours would pile up sandbags so they could walk about without getting their feet wet. Sometimes the water would come up over the steps and into the house. (p.10)
(You can see from this excerpt that Sophie Le Callennec, the anthropologist and teacher to whom Fahim told his story, has been able to keep the authenticity of the child’s voice. Xavier Permentier fills in the background events and the social context in his co-narration).
For Fahim, life in Dhaka was good. His father, a veteran of the local chess club, taught him to play and he loved it. He was bored at school because the work was too easy, but by the time he was six, he was recognised as a child prodigy at chess and had won his first tournament in Kolkata in India. He was on TV and in the newspapers.
But as it turned out, it was Fahim’s fame that brought his childhood to an end. He and his father were forced to flee because Fahim’s fame as a junior chess player made him vulnerable to kidnap. During the 2008 State of Emergency imposed by the military dictatorship Fahim’s father came to be suspected of political protest, and the house was repeatedly raided. Kidnapping is apparently a common way to exert pressure on parent, and his family’s efforts to protect him meant that he was confined indoors, unable to go to school or outside the house to play. When one day an anonymous letter came, it was time to go. To Fahim’s great distress, his mother and siblings stayed behind because the flight of a family of five was bound to attract attention.
The original plan was to go to Spain, but from India they made their way to Rome, and then to Hungary – where Fahim stunned the Hungarian Chess Federation by successfully competing against adults. But when they entered Paris en route to Madrid, they were advised to stay because France offers protection to people like them. In the beginning, it turned out to be true: they were treated humanely during the initial period while the claim was assessed, but things deteriorated once the claim was denied. (It is deeply depressing to read just how easily mistakes were made, and to know that this not unusual.)
If you’ve seen the 2009 French film Welcome which highlighted the plight of illegal immigrants in Calais, then you will remember that shocking moment when the reluctant hero Simon realises that trying to help the young Kurd Bilal with a bed for the night and a bit of food, is a criminal offence. Although it wasn’t illegal for Xavier Parmentier to help Fahim and his father Nura during the application process, it became so after the claim was rejected. Although it is glossed over in the book, probably to protect those who helped, it is clear that there is a functioning network of French people willing to risk trouble in order to act humanely.
Fortunately for Fahim, his talent as a chess player and his luck in finding Xavier Parmentier as a coach and mentor led to a better ending. As Champion of France in the under 12 category Fahim made headlines, and before long the Prime Minister François Fillon was asked to intervene. However, it is quite clear that it was that talent that led to political intervention on his behalf, which begs the question, what about all the others, not valuable enough to France to warrant being a special case?
Today Fahim is 15, ranked no 4 in the U/16 in the French Nationals, and 220 in the U16 world rankings, which is remarkable considering the experiences he’s had in his short life. As Sophie Le Callennec says in the Epilogue, a long period of hunger and homelessness have taken their toll. :
He struggles now to find the talent and spirit that were so much a part of him when he arrived in France. He still nurtures ambitions, certainly, as though determined to get his own back on fate, and he is resolved never again to be in a position of need. But in snatching his childhood from him, life has clipped his wings. Fear continues to distil its poison. At his age, it’s no easy matter to wipe the slate clean of three and a half years of hell. Fahim has already endured more hardship and sorrow that most adults in his adopted country will ever know. He’s no longer a king in hiding, but he’s still a king in recovery. (p. 224)
This is an inspiring story, especially reading about the real hero of the tale, Fahim’s father.
Author: Fahim Muhammed, with Sophie Le Callennec and Xavier Parmentier
Title: A King in Hiding, how a child refugee became a world chess champion
Translated from the French by Barbara Mellor
Publisher: Icon Books, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin