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December 16, 2018


Since the Syrian civil war started in March 2011, rebel forces and the regime headed by President Bashar Assad have engaged in increasingly bloody confrontations, both sides being aided and abetted by various countries keen on gaining — and keeping — a foothold in an already politically volatile region by waging a proxy war. As the country became progressively more destabilised, the militant terrorist organisation Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also weaved their way into Syria, causing the situation to escalate even further.

Since 2011, therefore, millions of Syrians have fled the country as refugees. Millions more are internally displaced. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have received the greatest number of refugees since the crisis started. Others have tried fleeing to various European countries (Sweden, Germany and Switzerland among others), as well as the United States and Canada. The mass exodus has caused an international hullabaloo over ‘security risks’ and ‘cultural disintegration’ in the West, resulting in widely shared negative outlooks on the presence of refugees seeking asylum in Western countries.

Poorly concealed xenophobic laws have prevented many refugees from finding a place to belong to, leading to a constantly growing number of fleeing Syrians trapped in ‘temporary’ refugee camps, living the life of nomads indefinitely. Thousands more have tried (many times tragically unsuccessfully) taking the more dangerous route of travelling the rough seas on flimsy boats to reach a safe space where they can request asylum.

Khalid Hosseini deviates from his usual style of fictional prose to offer a heartfelt tribute to refugees in the form of an illustrated poetic letter from a Syrian father to his son

One of these instances resulted in the widely publicised death of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish descent, who drowned after the boat which he and his family were on capsized in the Mediterranean Sea on Sept 2, 2015, as the passengers were trying to reach Europe to seek asylum. Photographs of Alan circulated in the media, prompting international response on the plight of refugees — and thus moved Afghan-born American novelist Khaled Hosseini to offer a heartfelt tribute to refugees in the form of Sea Prayer — which he has dedicated to “the thousands of refugees who have perished at sea fleeing war and persecutions”, while also donating all the author proceeds of the book to funding trusts dedicated to helping refugees.

The well-known author of the bestselling novel The Kite Runner deviates from his usual style of fictional prose in Sea Prayer, which he has written in the form of an illustrated poetic letter from a Syrian father to his son. The poem starts with the father relaying his childhood memories in hometown Homs to his son Marwan. Hosseini sketches cosy scenes of peaceful mornings filled with fragrant wildflowers and cool breezes with words that breathe the sharp nostalgia of one who clearly pines for days and worlds past. Marwan’s father mourns how his son cannot experience the serenity, beauty and spiritual connection to Homs because Marwan was too young to remember his (now destroyed) home, which he and his family had to flee. Marwan will never be able to feel the security of belonging or the joy of innocent boyhood dreams because the only life he knows now is that of uncertainty and fear. As a refugee child, Marwan will be deprived of a whole culture that his father and uncles took for granted at his age — the “fried kibbeh”, the evening walks “around Clock Tower Square”, the bubbling creeks where his father and uncles played for hours. He will not know Homs like his father knew it at his age:

“In its bustling Old City,
A mosque for us Muslims,
A church for our Christian neighbours,
And a grand souk for us all
To haggle over gold pendants and
Fresh produce and bridal dresses”

— because all he will remember is the obliteration of Homs and the bloodshed that happened in the name of superficial religious sentiments and political gains:

“But that life, that time,
Seems like a dream now,
Even to me,
Like some long-dissolved rumour.”

Rumours have little or no standing in facts. At most they are uncertain or doubtful truths; at worse, completely made up stories. Even to Marwan’s father, who lived and breathed in the peace of Homs before it was snatched away by the “protests”, “siege”, and “bombs”, the life before the war seems so incredulous, and the present such an awful, final reality, that his memories now seem like dreams. The complete destruction of his life and home was so thorough that there seems no chance of ever getting back what was lost. The stories he can tell Marwan about their home are only just that now: stories. All that Marwan has known, and will ever know about Homs, is devastation, fear and bloodshed. Millions of refugee children such as Marwan will never live the sheltered, peaceful lives that their parents wanted for them.

Hosseini has successfully delivered the heartbreak of a father, powerless in protecting the innocence of his child’s dreams and scrambling to at least protect the life of his child.

And now these children are learning the world’s opinions of them, the indifference to their pain and the sheer apathy to their plight:

“I have heard it said we are the uninvited.
We are unwelcome.
We should take our misfortune elsewhere.”

Hosseini has successfully delivered the heartbreak of a father, powerless in protecting the innocence of his child’s dreams and scrambling to at least protect the life of his child. The poem and illustrations attempt to tackle the common question asked of refugees: if they loved their children so much, why would they put them in such danger? Hosseini uses the voice of a refugee father to show just how much they have lost and how little agency they have over their lives and the lives of their loved ones. The refugee father has nothing left except for his legacy and his child, and the only thing he can hope to save in the face of such mass destruction is the life of this child.

The reviewer is a finance support specialist at Yale University

Sea Prayer
By Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead, US
ISBN: 978-0525539094

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 16th, 2018