Fahim: A French immigrant fairytale

by Diana Mihajlova
1/4/2019 – Fahim Mohammad is an aspiring chess player originally from Bangladesh who immigrated to France. His life story is the subject of an upcoming film 'Fahim' starring Gerard Depardieu. DIANA MIHAJLOVA got to know the boy ten years ago in Budapest and recounts his unlikely rise to prominence in his adopted country. | Photo: Diana Mihajlova

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Life writes stories

During my recent attendance at the Paris Championship, I was very happy to meet again and spend some time with Fahim Mohammad, the boy from our article of 2012, ‘Fahim the conqueror’. It was a story about a Bangladeshi boy caught up in the turmoil of immigration and life uncertainties with his father, an illegal immigrant in Paris. Carried by and thanks to the royal game the boy who won a chess national championship, innocuously check-mated the system and was awarded French residency.

Once the immigration formalities were in place, his life followed an ordinary, modest routine that his father, Nura Alam, could provide after being granted a job and income, thanks to his young son’s chess prowess.

Fahim and Diana

The boy has grown up: Diana and Fahim in Budapest 2008, and in Paris, July 2018

Fahim Budapest 2008

This is how I knew them: at the First Saturday, Budapest 2008, father and child battling at the chess board and in life, with courage, honesty and tenacity | Photo: Tournament’s archive

Nura Alam, who had just recently returned from a brief visit to Bangladesh had kindly invited me to meet them at their home in a Paris southern suburb. The family, however, prefer to keep a low profile, choosing to stay away from the limelight.   

The boy did not disappoint. With peak 2356 rating and a FIDE Master title, in spite of all tribulations, frequent ups and downs and changing luck, Fahim steadily kept up with his ‘profession’ that life and passion had bestowed upon him.  

After his spectacular entrance to the French chess scene in 2012, when at 11 years of age, he became a French national champion while an illegal immigrant, and a member of the national youth team representing France at several international tournaments. He reached the winners’ podium on many occasions, and already the following year, he won the World Schools Championship Under-13.

World School Championship 2013

Fahim, winner at the World School Chess Championship, 2013 in Porto Carras, Greece | Photo: official site

National Youth 2014

In 2014, a member of the National Youth squad, with their coach Xavier Parmentier

French World Youth Team 2016

A member of the French team at the WYCC in 2016 | Photo: French Chess Federation

French Rapid Championship

French Champion U-18 in rapid chess | Photo: French Chess Federation

Second BNP blitz

Second in the Challenge BNP blitz tournament integrated to the French Blitz national | Photo: French Chess Federation

French vice champion 2018

French vice-champion U-18 | Photo: French Chess Federation

Fahim montage

Fahim at the Paris Championship, July 2018 

Fahim’s father, Nura, a chess player himself, instructed his son in chess at a very early age. By the time Fahim was six, he had won his first tournament in Kolkata, India and was recognised as a child chess prodigy already in his own country where he was featured on the TV and in the newspapers.


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Finding a home

Fahim’s real training came when an IM, a professional trainer and one of the top French coaches, took interest in the young homeless chess sensation who had just won a French Championship Under-12. As sometimes happens, misfortune leads to unexpected happy coincidences. When they arrived in Paris, they sought temporary refuge at the ‘Terre d’Asile’ (Land of Asylum) in the suburb Créteil. Nura by accident passed by a chess club in the vicinity and introduced his young son who was immediately accepted. It turned out to be one of the best chess schools in France lead by the famed coach, Xavier Parmentier. Xavier was pivotal in shaping Fahim’s chess career. As destiny would want it, life brought together the two like-minded souls and a special friendship was born. Xavier did not stop only at directing Fahim’s chess moves, but he went out of his way to instigate the immigration process for his protégée to obtain French residency. He mounted a media campaign and was indefatigable at lobbying authorities.

TV appearance

Xavier and Fahim appear together at the French TV after his becoming a French chess champion

In a short video, published by Chess and Strategy, from a TV France2 channel program, although in French, readers can see Fahim in his home atmosphere and in a training session with Xavier.

Sophie Le CallennecIn his endeavours Xavier was assisted by his cousin, Sophie Le Callennec (pictured), anthropologist and historian by formation and a director of the section of pedagogical works ‘Magellan’ at the publishing house ‘Hatier’. She has written numerous school textbooks, mainly in the subjects of history and geography. She is also dedicated to exposing problems related to child psychology, adoption, child mental challenges and their social impact and authored several books treating these subjects.

Xavier and Sophie, together with Fahim, penned a book (pictured) that was published in 2014 and was received to great acclaim: ‘Un roi clandestin’ in its original title, meaning ‘a clandestine king’.  In its 204 pages, Fahim recounts his life, in his own words, with Xavier and Sophie acting as ‘ghostwriters’, giving the book its definite, edited shape.  

book cover

The introductory note on the book’s front page reads: ‘The extraordinary destiny of Fahim, 11 years old, homeless, without identity documents and chess champion of France’ (The French abbreviation ‘SDF’ stands for ‘Sans Domicile Fixe = Without Fixed Abode, however, it has not been adopted as abbreviation in English immigration jargon.)  

For the French-speaking (but everybody can sense the bright, courageous child), you can see Fahim addressing the public and answering questions from the audience in a France2 channel TV program, February 2014.

The book has since been translated in several languages. The following year, 2015, the English title came out: ‘A King in Hiding, how a child refugee became a world chess champion’. The blurb summarises the story:

Forced to flee his native Bangladesh, eight year-old chess prodigy Fahim arrived in Paris with his father. Refused asylum, as illegal immigrants they spiralled downwards into homelessness and desperation. By a stroke of luck, Fahim was introduced to one of France's top chess coaches, Xavier Parmentier, who tutored him and gave him a sense of purpose, his struggles on the chessboard mirroring both his victories and his crushing defeats in his battle for a normal life. Rising through local and national tournaments to be crowned France's Under-12 Chess Champion in 2012, Fahim became a national sensation. In 2013 he went on to win the World Under-13 Student Championship. Told through the clear eyes of a child, Fahim's tale is not only a moving account of the grim realities that underly a supposedly caring society, but also a heartwarming testimony to a father's determination, the kindness of strangers, and one small boy's courageous will to succeed.’ (Photo: English edition cover)

book covers

The book covers of the German (Play for life, Fahim!), Italian (A Clandestine King) and Spanish (The King of Bengal) editions

His newly found popularity came with some perks. A football aficionado and an ardent fan of Real Madrid, one of his greatest wishes was granted: to meet his idols, Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo. It happened during the promotion of his book ‘El Rey de Bengala’ in Madrid, in February 2016, when he was whisked to the headquarters of the famous club where he met all its members.    

Fahim with Ronaldo

Fahim and Cristiano Ronaldo in Madrid, 2016 | Photo: Fahim's Instagram account

Fahim, admirably nonchalant, goes his own way, unperturbed by the media attention. He shows a kind of phlegmatic stance, walks slowly and pays little attention around him unless directly approached in which case he engages in a friendly, articulate, bright conversation.

A sad turn

But this fairytale was tainted by a sad, unexpected event that shook Fahim’s world. Almost as soon as his life took some ordered pathway, with his chess coach and faithful friend, Xavier, by his side, destiny played a nasty joke: on the April 30th, 2016, Xavier Parmentier succumbed to cancer at age 52. After almost 20 years creating young champions, his death would sadden not only his students, to whom he was like a father figure, but the whole French chess public. For Fahim, it was an immense blow. At the mention of Xavier’s name, Fahim just turns his head aside, shuts tight his eyes and mouth as if begging not to touch where it hurts too much.

Memorial

A last goodbye to Xavier: his students and friends deposited a chess piece on his coffin; Fahim and Sophie are seen holding together their book | Photo: leparisien.fr

A few months later, the French Chess Federation announced the newly established ‘Association Xavier Parmentier’ whose aim is to help young chess players.

Sophie Le Callenec continues the legacy of her cousin in being the staunchest supporter of Fahim. He told me that after the tournament he was going on holiday to Guadeloupe ‘with my mother’.

Slightly taken aback, I inquired: ‘How come, just with your mother?!’

He replied: ‘With Sophie.’

‘Why do you call her ‘my mother’?’

‘She is my second mother’.

Fahim with chess board

A cherished memento: the chess set that Xavier presented to Fahim at the beginning of their friendship | Photo: Fahim’s Facebook page

The touching story about Fahim will be commemorated also on the big screens. Directed by Pierre-François Martin-Laval, a film titled simply ‘Fahim’ has recently finished shooting. The film represents an adaptation of the book ‘Un roi clandestin’, the joint effort by Fahim, Sophie Le Callennec and Xavier Parmentier. In the role of Xavier Parmentier has been cast the doyen of French cinema, Gerard Depardieu. The film’s release is expected in October 2019.

Gerard Depardieu

Gerard Depardieu in the role of Xavier Parmentier | Photo: ©2017 Thelma Films - Mon Voisin Productions - Orange Studio - France 3 Cinéma

The few months in Budapest that I was witnessing Nura’s and Fahim’s brave, stoic composure against life punches are, for me, bittersweet memories. At that moment, I was not fully aware of the extent of the seriousness of their situation. The happiness of being able to help, just a bit, is confronted with the impotence of doing more. Could I have done more, as Nura was given a little hope? Who knows… But every exchange of some news now and then, which recently culminated in meeting him in person again, after many years, brings warmth to my heart knowing that he has surpassed life challenges and…kept up with chess.

Fahim and Diana 2018

Fahim and Diana on a stroll under the Paris sunshine during the Paris Championship, 2018

Here are two of Fahim's best tournament wins:

 

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A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.
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Serse Serse 1/4/2019 04:41
Nice. Thank you Diana !
Et repose en paix Xavier...
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