Afghan-American novelist and activist Khaled Hosseini noted that the inspiration for his latest novel, “The Sea Prayer,” was the silent, forgotten deaths of refugees, particularly that of Alan Kurdi. The disquieting image of the 3-year-old Syrian refugee’s body lying on the shores of a Turkish beach in 2015 horrified the globe. In “Sea Prayer,” Hosseini explores how even while facing the possibility of death, refugees carry with them throughout their journeys a vital glint of hope.
The graphic novel features the uncertain words of a father writing a letter to his young son who is sleeping on his lap on a beach. With only a few lines on each page, Hosseini has structured the novel as an intimately raw letter from a father writing to a son who is still too young and innocent to truly grasp the dire situations the two find themselves in. Readers flip through the pages of the book never truly finding out who the father is, what time period it is or even what has happened to the rest of the father and son’s family. Instead, their story is meant to embody the universal fear and desperation that all refugees and migrants are overwhelmed with as they flee their countries.
Throughout the book the father’s voice is scattered, as are his attempts to reassure his son — and himself — that the arduous journey they have ahead of them will be a success. The father remembers the serene, bucolic memories he had forged in his hometown of Homs in Syria. Since he was his son’s age, he had left pieces of himself in the city, leading the city and his own self to become intertwined.
However, he is now forced to leave those pieces of himself behind in the city’s rubbles. “But that life, that time / seems like a dream, / even to me, / like some long-dissolve rumor,” the father writes. His freshest memories are marked by the senseless deaths, bombings and destruction enveloping his hometown. He wishes that his son could remember instead the tranquil fields and long summers from before the war instead. The father knows, however, that his son will never be able to.
The sea suddenly becomes the new, cruel villain the story. Like thousands of other refugees displaced by war, the father and son have little control over their fate; they hope to board a raft to asylum. The father writes his prayer to the sea and to God. He prays to God to protect the raft that the two of them will set foot in, and he prays that the sea have mercy for his son’s life.
The father feels powerless, not just before the vast power of the sea, but also before the larger political forces of the world. He knows that other nations see him as a burden, but he still tells his son that he is precious, and he prays that the relentless sea understands this as well. Through brevity and poetry, Hosseini is able to successfully convey, through the voice of a single Syrian father, the universal struggle of refugees for not only safety, but for a chance at a life even somewhat similar to the one they used to have.
Filling the pages’ spaces are accompanying illustrations created by Dan Williams. Williams makes use of broad, impressionistic brush strokes to bring to life the father’s memories: those of his childhood have green and blue earthy colors, those of the war that follows are grey and brown, while those of the two embarking on the sea are darker shades of blue that seem to consume whole pages. The Mediterranean, after all, has earned the macabre title of being the largest graveyard in modern history.
They’re hazy and almost dream-like, but by keeping them so, Williams is able to evoke how faded and evanescent these memories are in comparison to the harsh surroundings the father and son find themselves in. For a moment, Williams’ illustrations are able to transport readers to the mind of the father watching over his son. Their eyes, briefly suspended from reality, transform into his.
Hosseini has experienced for himself the fear and uncertainty that life as a refugee entails. In an audio interview with the podcast “Awake At Night,” he retold the jarring events of when, at the age of 13, he had realized that “going home was no longer an option.” In 1978, Hosseini witnessed the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in what would become a long proxy war against Western powers. He recalls seeing tanks rolling down streets on his television and hearing the unsettling news of his uncle’s imprisonment. Hosseini’s family was able to receive asylum in the United States, but for many others the only form of safety has been crowded boats trying to float through violent seas.
The displacement of families and breakdown of social bonds in war-ravaged countries has become a central theme in the settings of his novels. Hosseini’s debut novel, from 2003, “The Kite Runner,” followed the story of two Afghani friends in Afghanistan who find a way to reunite after betrayal and separation. In the 2007 novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” Hosseini allowed his readers to delve into the fictional story of two women whose lives are drastically transformed by the terror felt under Soviet occupation and later under the Taliban in Afghanistan. His 2013 novel, “And the Mountains Echoed,” meanwhile, explored the story of two Afghani siblings separated by war attempting to find each other despite their entirely different new lives.
Apart from relaying the experiences of refugees in his novels, Hosseini has been devoted to helping refugees fleeing the barbarism of war by visiting them in their homelands and working with the United Nations. He has become a vocal advocate for providing assistance to refugees fleeing from not just Afghanistan but also the rest of South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Hosseini currently serves as the president of his own foundation, The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, which is dedicated to providing relief efforts to vulnerable communities in Afghanistan. In the pocket of every copy of “Sea Prayer” Hosseini promises that the novels’ proceeds will go to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency and to his own foundation.
“I worry that we’re becoming desensitized to the dying and the suffering of fellow human beings,” Hosseini told “Awake at Night.” The images of anguish from refugees and victims of war that fill large and small screens alike have become a new norm in today’s world. Hosseini’s work allows for the world to see not just the misery and death. He shows that refugees’ lives are not defined solely by their expiration, but by the hope and tenacity that they embody on their voyages.