An Upturned Bucket List

Reading Caroline Brothers’s Hinterland

Vamika Sinha

August 2019


For some, this string of glamorous capitals might be a bucket list of places to visit, but for others it can trace a much uglier reality. Kabir and Aryan, two young, recently orphaned brothers from Afghanistan, recite these names to each other while on the run. It is a mantra, in that it is made up of equal parts desperation and hope.

The route materializes itself in the world of Australian journalist Caroline Brothers’s debut novel Hinterland. The brothers are only fourteen- and eight-years-old – just children. Fleeing the Taliban in Kabul, and the consequent shattering of their family, they are political refugees in search of an English education. They carry two sets of clothes on their backs at all times, scraps of food, little money, and no papers. The novel opens with them enclosed within the jaws of a truck, carrying them to the fantasy of Europe. I am reminded, eerily, of the novella by Ghassan Kanafani, titled Men in the Sun. Three Palestinian refugees arrange, with intense difficulty, to get themselves smuggled from Iraq to Kuwait in order to escape their camps and find employment. They hide in a water tank in a truck travelling across the desert. Upon crossing the last checkpoint, the story ends, only to find their dead bodies spilling out of the overheated tank. The men had died at the final moment. It was a grim reminder of the difference between life and narrative; one could be controlled, while the other had no obligation to ever reach catharsis, but simply falter, like breath, in the middle of a sentence.

With this foreboding thought, I continue to read about Kabir and Aryan, continue tracing an invisible finger across the map  – KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon. Over an arduous winter, the brothers work as laborers on an anonymous farm in Greece. They are not paid, barely eat, and suffer violences to their bodies and minds in ways that children should not have the faintest conception of. They carry on. In Italy, they retch on their own fear while confronted by the police, paperless and ill-equipped in every possible way for a reality so mammoth, it dwarfs their small existences. They carry on. In Calais, they endure the even more powerful, lingering pain of waiting. Waiting for some kind of resolution. In a sense, they too are in the heated tank, travelling across Europe towards some salvation.

Brothers’s novel was adapted for the stage as Flight by the Glasgow-based theatre company Vox Motus and premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival. It will have its UAE premiere at the NYUAD Arts Center next month.

The journey is speckled with small moments of tenderness – a haircut from an Afghan wife in a corner of Rome. Fresh clothes, hot pasta, and a train ride to Paris from an Iranian-American couple, found, by some magical luck, speaking Farsi on their trip abroad. The innocent stirrings of desire on an overnight train, while catching the soft, occasional gaze of a girl sleeping across from Aryan. These are moments of ordinariness, illuminated not by their normalcy, but by their scarcity; the whole novel unfurls in the same calm, slightly detached, plain prose. 

It makes sense then that Caroline Brothers is primarily a reporter. Hinterland is her attempt at casting a more empathetic, “human” light on her lifelong journalism on migrants. Based in France, she has conducted hundreds of interviews with child refugees, trapped in their own versions of Kabir and Aryan’s journey. It becomes, quietly, more horrifying to realize that Hinterland is only fiction to the extent that it embellishes upon what is, for thousands, everyday and real.

While studying in Paris for a semester, I once found myself, along with two friends, lost on the way to a bar. Google Maps directed us to a large, pulsating establishment by the waterfront of Bassin Louis Blanc, deemed one of the ‘hottest nightlife spots in the city.’ But we were confused, stopped in our tracks by a … smell. Two rats scurried by. We fought the urge to flee. It stank of stale bodies, disuse and urine. Right next to the bar, thronged with the ‘bobos’ of Paris, the hipsters and underage, overdressed teenagers with beers in hand, was a large muddle of tents. Bodies moved within them, shifting imperceptibly, carrying on as usual, unnoticed if you didn’t stop and really take a closer look. 

“Is it a slum?

“They’re all brown…they must be immigrants.”

“Why are they partying next to a slum?”

“Do you think they could be gypsies?”  

“Does nobody care?”

Over the next few weeks, under eventual daylight, the sun fell on the truth: we had stumbled upon a refugee slum. In the middle of Paris, next to one of its most popular clubs. A few return trips yielded conversations with the slum’s inhabitants (mostly Afghan), a million questions, immigration papers waved in our faces, pleas for help in French, English, Urdu, and ultimately, fruitlessness. One of my friends left Paris to end up writing a lengthy, sensitive article about how she had tried to capture, in words, what she had experienced upon finding such a place, about her desperate attempt to twist a story out of the conversations and shine some kind of light on the refugees’ plight in Paris, and, more widely, on the larger crisis of migrants coming into Europe. 

Beneath Hinterland is buried the body of a huge political argument. One that asks us to take a closer look at the tents. What are the nuances of our border policies, our hot debates on migrants, our thousand little stumbling blocks of bureaucracy, xenophobia, fear, corruption, that place children like Kabir and Aryan in a refrigerated tank bound for England?

“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon,” Aryan asks Kabir to repeat, in the novel’s final scene, again in the mouth of a truck. I am taken back to one of the Afghan refugees in Paris appealing to me in Urdu: “Please, you’re from India. Our countries are brothers. You have to help me.” In that moment, I too became infected by helplessness. “SloveniaCroatiaGreeceItaly …” he rattled the mantra off with practice. “I’ve gone everywhere to be here.”

Vamika Sinha is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing with a minor in Music. She is a co-editor of Airport Road, food columnist for The Gazelle, runs an independent magazine called Postscript, and enjoys ramen and jazz.