Verkocht is an evocative story that can be read in two ways: as an exciting adventure set in the rugged desert of Dubai, but also as an unequivocal indictment of child slavery in the Middle East. Hans Hagen tells the tale of the four-year-old Pakistani boy Yaqub, whose parents are forced to sell him to a people smuggler.
After a frightening journey over the sea, Yaqub ends up in Dubai, where, very much against his will, he is made to work as a jockey in dangerous camel races. During the day, he learns how to ride the camels and take care of them; at night he sleeps with other young camel jockeys in a dilapidated shipping container. The children’s life is a harsh one, consisting of hunger, headaches and thirst. Fortunately, there are occasional rays of hope to keep Yaqub going. He discovers how much fun it can be to make drawings in the sand and on wood, and he takes courage from his close friendship with the other jockeys.
Philip Hopman has provided the story with understated pencil drawings that beautifully complement the sober mood of the story. Using subtle shades of grey, he sketches the slumped shoulders of Yaqub’s father as he says goodbye, the hustle and bustle of the streets of Karachi and the camels in the desolate desert, against a backdrop of electricity pylons and skyscrapers.
At the end of the book, Hans Hagen explains how he first came upon the trail of the camel jockeys during a trip to Pakistan. He read a series of short newspaper reports about the abduction of Pakistani children. Only years later, when he was visiting a racetrack in Dubai, did he realise where those children may have ended up: working as camel jockeys. After undertaking thorough research, he decided to write a book about the subject. In spite of the serious theme, Verkocht is definitely not a weighty or ponderous book. Hagen’s greatest assets are his integrity, his sense of distance and his light and vivid style. The real pain lies between the lines and is concealed within small hints, such as the golden chain that Yaqub finds in the dust, which he hangs on to with grim determination, for when he sees his mother again. What makes Verkocht such a moving book is the knowledge that this life has actually been the fate of real children.
By Annemarie Terhell