How does a writer ethically engage with a story of trauma—specifically the trauma of a Syrian refugee family—in his work? How is that task complicated by writing a book for “readers of all ages,” encompassing, in that broad category, children who may not have yet faced the topic of the Syrian refugee crisis? In reading Khaled Hosseini’s latest book, Sea Prayer, we can glean the answers to these questions.
Sea Prayer is a beautiful, haunting story about a father’s desperate attempt to imbue his son, Marwan, with the memory of a pre-war Syria before his family embarks on a dangerous journey across the sea. The book ends with the father’s prayer that the sea will recognize how precious Marwan is and, in that recognition, will keep the family safe. At a little over forty pages, Sea Prayer is a marvel for both its lyricism and its brevity, its ability to span generations and touch multiple narratives in such little space.
The reader feels the urgency of Marwan’s father’s stories and hopes that Marwan will be able to envision the Syria that once was, where his father spent mornings that were filled with “the stirring of olive trees in the breeze,” where the “bustling Old City” provided mosques and churches where Muslims and Christians alike could gather to worship, where the grand souk provided a place for all “to haggle over gold pendants and fresh produce and bridal dresses.” Marwan’s father tells his son of his own childhood in Homs, where he and his brothers had sleepovers on his grandfather’s farmhouse roof, built dams in a creek near the farmhouse, and listened to the sounds of their grandmother’s goat and of her preparing meals in the kitchen.
How wildly this contrasts from the Syria that Marwan has come to know, where he has learned how to transform bomb craters into swimming holes—an especially affecting image, as it shows the pure, childlike ability to turn even the most dire situations into opportunities for play—and is no stranger to encountering the dead bodies of classmates and family members “in narrow gaps between concrete, bricks, and exposed beams.” To see Marwan’s experience up against that of his father’s is destabilizing, a jolt to the reader.
The stunning watercolor illustrations, done by Dan Williams, are hazy and impressionistic, mirroring the elusive quality of the tale Marwan’s father tells him as the Syria they knew before is rapidly escaping them, being replaced by a contorted, violent place. The color drains from the illustrations once Marwan’s father mentions the war, the palette shifting to dark blues, grays, and browns, only returning to the bright greens and golds of the earlier parts of the book on the last page, as Marwan’s father completes his prayer for safety.
We do not ever see the family’s actual voyage, and we do not know if they make it to their destination. Surely, this ambiguity will engender questions in young readers. Sea Prayer provides an opportunity for parents to discuss the details of the Syrian Refugee Crisis with their children and to broach the topic of the very real uncertainty refugee families face when they are torn from their homes. The ambiguity of the book’s end can be interpreted as a call to action to its readers, as an impetus to not just feel for Marwan and his family but to do something to ensure that Marwan’s tale is one of ultimate triumph instead of tragedy.
Hosseini has never been one to shy away from emotionally-charged subjects. His previous, best-selling novels, The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed, deal with themes of war, loss, abuse, family separation, and oppression. But in Sea Prayer, his project is different, more delicate, its implications even more vital than those of his earlier works.
Hosseini has said that seeing images of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in September 2015, gave him a “visceral reaction,” and that, as a father himself, he couldn’t help but imagine what Kurdi’s father must have felt as images of his lifeless son proliferated worldwide. In Sea Prayer, Hosseini gives a solemn tribute to Kurdi’s life and concretizes the refugee crisis, a subject that, due to highly politicized media coverage, is in constant danger of becoming an abstraction to those who do not have to deal with its consequences on a daily basis. Towards the end of the book, Marwan’s father says, “I have heard it said we are the uninvited. We are the unwelcome. We should take our misfortunes elsewhere.” With Sea Prayer, Hosseini is writing toward an eradication of that stigma.
Photo Courtesy Riverhead Books