Robin de Crespigny’s telling of Ali Al Jenabi’s story in The People Smuggler, is an evocative, jaw-dropping and, at times, truly heartbreaking read.  And it’s all 100% true.

The People Smuggler follows the life of Ali Al Jenabi, a people smuggler who became well-known in the Australian media in 2012.  Set in Iraq, Indonesia, and eventually Australia, we follow the course of Jenabi’s life, which was changed irrevocably with the rise and totalitarianism at the hands of Saddam Hussein.

From the prisons of Iraq, where he endures horrific torture, to the tearing apart of his family, to the fleeing that Jenabi and his family are forced to do in order to remain alive, The People Smuggler essentially tells a story of the type of person that is often misrepresented in Australian media.  Not only do we learn about Jenabi, and countless other Iraqis with unconquerable spirits, but we also see the impact of the crackdown on ‘boat people’ both here and in Indonesia.

The People Smuggler is a fantastic portal that allows us to see into the life of Jenabi, something I can honestly say I wouldn’t have had any clue about otherwise.  Personally, while I had a vague understanding of what Saddam Hussein had done, I never understood the full impact or brutality that Iraqis faced under his leadership.  Furthermore, I had no idea of the different races, religions and countries that all had a part in the Iraqi war, and how dangerous and, at times, futile, it was to escape.

The People Smuggler also shows us a glimpse into the life of a people smuggler; a person who is essentially paid to pay off the police, organise false passports, and provide a way for people to enter a foreign country without permission.  Though I have always been sympathetic towards asylum seekers, there is a tonne of negative publicity to not only refugees, but also to the people enabling them.   Though Jenabi may be an exception to the rule, it was incredibly insightful to see his perspective and to understand why he was doing what he was doing; essentially, he wanted his family to be safe, and he wanted others in his situation to be safe also.  Which is something that each of us can resonate with.

What I most appreciated about de Crespigny’s writing is that she doesn’t pack any punches.  She recounts in detail about the horror that Jenabi had to face in jail; from the torture, to the food, to the horrific conditions.  She creates a perfectly nuanced scene that seems to capture the immense terribleness of Jenabi witnessing his brother’s mutilation, simply because he himself could not provide information.  And, perhaps most horrendous of all, we’re constantly reinforced with the image of his broken father, a man he once looked up to, who has been reduced to a mentally ill, depraved man, living alone.

However, I do also have to admit that I had a problem with de Crespigny’s overall style of writing.  This book was nominated for a Walkley award, and while I think she deserves it in bringing attention to Jenabi’s story, I think she lacked in terms of delivery.  Her writing to me came across as clunky and very straightforward.  This happened, and then this, and then this, and on, and on.  I felt that she had this incredible story to tell, yet it was told in such a linear fashion that I became to lose sight of where Jenabi had come from, or how he had evolved from his experiences.

Overall though, The People Smuggler is an insightful read into a wildly different life, and for anyone who wants to know more about refugees and asylum seekers, then I would recommend this book for you.

Have you read The People Smugglers or anything by Robin de Crespigny’s?  Are you sympathetic towards asylum seekers?  Let me know!

the people smuggler by robin de crespigny

The People Smuggler – (image taken from