By Indrani Bose
Rohingyas, Syrians and countless other refugees from different countries—all have one thing in common: the pain of not being able to go back home and be reunited with their families because of war. Add to that the non-acceptance and harsh judgments in their new-found homeland, Europe, and the situation gets more grim.
Peace and security are two words that do not exist in a refugee’s dictionary. They are unpaid and underpaid in several of the countries they have taken shelter in. These displaced people not only have trouble finding decent accommodation, but employment as well. Plus, eastern and south-eastern countries like Serbia, Hungary and Czech Republic have completely turned their backs on refugees, intensifying the stigma of being runaways. And who can forget the picture of Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on the beach, which became the sad face of the migrant crisis?
It’s that haunting image that bestselling author Khaled Hosseini has taken inspiration from for his latest book, Sea Prayer, which, in a departure from his thick novels, is more of a picture book with an accompanying short story. Known for his heartwrenching stories, Hosseini, also a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) goodwill ambassador, says the story is close to his heart because he himself is from a war-torn country. And even though he has been privileged enough to have found a new life in California, he can relate quite well with his refugee brothers and sisters because of his roots. Although much shorter than his previous works, Sea Prayer does not fail to capture the plight of a helpless father trying to protect his innocent child from the harsh realities of their circumstances.
Hosseini has experimented with displacement in all of his earlier works. The Kite Runner had Amir fleeing to California with his father after the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, while A Thousand Splendid Suns gave voice to Laila and Tariq, who find shelter in Pakistan after fleeing the Taliban’s brutal regime in Afghanistan. The author’s third novel And The Mountains Echoed, too, showed the brother-sister duo of Abdullah and Pari leaving Afghanistan, only to be reunited years later in California.
The book, which was created impromptu by the author at a private fundraising event for refugees in March 2017, has beautiful watercolour paintings by London-based artist Dan Williams .
The book is dedicated to refugees who breathed their last trying to escape and start a new life in Europe. A father, in the form of a letter, narrates to his sleeping son the untroubled times in the city of Homs, which had a mosque for its Muslim citizens and a church for Christians, along with a bazaar full of gold pendants and bridal dresses. He describes the packed lanes where one used to get a whiff of the “fried kibbeh” to his son Marwan. “I wish you remembered Homs as I do, Marwan,” he laments in the letter.
The father, who is trying to escape war-torn Syria with his son, is regretful of the fact that when Marwan grows up, the memories etched on his mind won’t be of evening walks with his parents around Clock Tower Square in Homs or how he held hands with his mother while she showed him “a herd of cows grazing in a field blown through with wild flowers”. The father is agonised that his son’s innocent childhood has been scarred by protests, starvation, bombs and death: “You have learned/dark blood is better news/than bright”.
Sea Prayer is emotionally moving and strikes the right chord, especially when the father rues how powerless he feels compared to the vast and indifferent sea. All he can do is give a false sense of hope to his son, saying, “Hold my hand. Nothing bad will happen.” All the while knowing that he and his “precious cargo” Marwan—along with all those Somalis, Iraqis, Eritreans, Afghans and Syrians—would be unwelcome on foreign shores: “I have heard it said we are the uninvited/We are the unwelcome/We should take our misfortune elsewhere.”
Despite all its grim reality, the book, however, ends with the father’s prayer, revealing the power of infinite hope.