In Review Books

Looking at the horrors of conflict and violence

Updated 21 Dec, 2018 12:42pm
Syrian refugee boys look outside their tent at a temporary refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Marj | Associated Press
Syrian refugee boys look outside their tent at a temporary refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Marj | Associated Press

It is a tiresome pattern. An atrocity – yet another one – is reported and is followed by a global outcry of anger, sadness, condemnation and more. And then the world moves on. Human lives lost are reduced to mere numbers and horrific incidents are turned into such clichés as a ‘stain on our humanity’ — before they are all but forgotten.

It all changed in 2015.

As the darkness of night withdrew on September 2 that year, the Aegean Sea lay silently by what it had washed ashore — a sleeping toddler. The child would never wake up but he would jolt the whole world’s conscience out of its slumber.

The three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, had set off on a dangerous journey in the hope of reaching a new country that offered safety, peace and stability. That is what his parents had hoped for. And, yes, he made it to a relatively safer shore but not alive. His death was much more than just another casualty, another number, and it must never be forgotten.

Kurdi, wearing navy blue shorts and a red t-shirt, complete with socks and shoes, inspired Afghanistan-born American novelist Khaled Hosseini to immortalise him in his new novel Sea Prayer. Illustrated by British illustrator Dan Williams, it is no ordinary book.

The horrors of conflict and violence have been often documented in the form of a description of victories, a narration of losses and, sometimes, as a cataloguing of lives destroyed and extinguished. Attempts have also been made to document the history of war in other forms, the most famous of them being Anne Frank’s diary that recorded the life of her Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II.

Iranian-born French artist and author Marjane Satrapi has attempted something similar in her graphic novels, Persepolis I and Persepolis II. Thinly veiling her own story as fiction, she wrote about the dangers of living as a teenager in Iran right after an Islamic revolution overthrew a monarchy there and a prolonged war began with neighbouring Iraq.

Joe Sacco, an American cartoonist born in Malta, has done the same for the victims of a number of conflicts, including one in Palestine. He has produced several works that combine prose with illustrations to record the havoc wreaked by violence, displacement and death.

Kurdi did not even reach a stage where he would have a reservoir of memories to know and communicate what had been lost. Hosseini takes upon himself the responsibility to talk about that loss.

A child walks past damaged buildings in Deir ez-Zor, Syria | Reuters
A child walks past damaged buildings in Deir ez-Zor, Syria | Reuters

Written from the perspective of a father talking to his son, Sea Prayer touches upon universal human elements that transcend geography — home, family and love. Through stunning illustrations, the book captures rural life outside of the Syrian city of Homs. It describes the sounds that make a farm a home, where nature and human beings are melded together to create a life of peace and love. The Old City of Homs is depicted as a bustling warm area where futures are woven in the form of gold pendants and bridal dresses — a distressing reminder of the young lives lost to violence that would never experience the joys of marriage and a shared future.

And then there are dark pages where Hosseini writes poignantly about violence — each word heavy with the destruction caused by war. This is what will fill Kurdi’s life and this is all he will know — bombs, anger, starvation, death. But hope survives even among the charred remains of war. Hosseini depicts how a crater left by a bomb becomes a swimming pool and how, even during the darkest of moments, fragments of life can be found amid the dead rubble.

Is it enough though? No.

Stripped of dignity and peace, people leave in silence. It is heart-breaking to read Hosseini’s depiction of broken souls huddled together in search of some safe place, all ethnic and religious differences forgotten. But is there a safer shore?

In stark contrast to the respect and warmth that these refugees, the victims of war and violence, offered others in their homeland, they receive outright rejection in the supposedly ‘safe regions’. As Hosseini writes: “I have heard it said we are the uninvited. We are the unwelcome.”

Having gone through constant suffering, they are desperate to have their story known to make the world realise what has happened to them because while human suffering is universal the realisation of that suffering is not. This desperation echoes hauntingly as the refugees prepare to undertake a perilous boat journey at a time when even nature is being unkind.

What can one do as a parent, except hope and pray, when sending off on such a journey a toddler who is too young to know where he is coming from and where he is going to? The fictional father in the book tells his son that nothing bad will happen to him. He prays that this most precious child is loved, appreciated and delivered to a safer shore by the sea because of what he represents — innocence, fear, love and a painfully desperate desire to live.

Nature, in her mysterious ways, either answers the prayer or responds to a higher call.

It wrests control from those powerful men who assume that they have the power to shape destiny — for themselves as well as for the whole world. As the Aegean Sea washes ashore the corpse of the little boy, his body in eternal slumber becomes a new reminder of man’s cruelty. It also becomes a symbol of the immense beauty that is lost as the cogs of capitalism churn furiously, squelching out humanity and raising the inevitable, somewhat weary, question: Why is it that the most vulnerable always suffer the most?

This article was published in the Herald's December 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.