In Search Of Refuge: Khaled Hosseini's Sea Prayer

Photo Credit: Kanchan Maji

“you have to understand, / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land” – “Home” by Warsan Shire


Khaled Hosseini has always been famed for his moving writing, his poignant characterizations, and his emphatic depictions of struggle, resilience, and compassion in the face of overwhelming brutality. In Sea Prayer (2018), however, he outdoes himself. Sea Prayer is a book that brims with loss, grief, love, and hope; I have read few other works that can capture so much aching human emotion with so much delicacy and tenderness.


Inspired by the story of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, and whose body washed up on a Turkish shore in 2015, Sea Prayer is the story of a father and son, sitting on a beach, in the cold hour before dawn, waiting for a ship to take them away from their war-torn home in Syria. In the book, the father reflects on his own childhood, on the places he lived in and loved– the places his son will never know, a life he will never understand. Hosseini throws these two childhoods – one filled with memories of family, love, and belonging, and the other fragmented with the horrors of war – into sharp relief. By using each of these two childhoods as foils to each other, in both text and art, Hosseini not only brings the war to the reader’s doorstep, but also demands and evokes an echoing sympathy from a largely desensitized audience.


Over time, the refugee crisis has often been projected to us as just another story on the nine o’clock news – another statistic from the war-torn Middle East, another political debate from an apathetic political war. The losses and unimaginable horror and grief experienced by the very real people who live through this suffering, as I write this, and as you read it, are generally lost within sensationalized media dialogues, or simply used as another tool to up ratings and/or forward a particular political agenda. Amongst the masses of convoluted dialogues surrounding and regarding the Middle East region, I cannot stress the importance of a fictional work like Sea Prayer. The work emphasizes Syria’s past – its prosperity, peace, and religious tolerance – which interrogates the wider Western prejudices and assumptions concerning the “third world” and the Middle East. The war-torn country is not the Syria the father remembers, but the world he knew is now gone – “But that life, that time, / seems like a dream now, / even to me, / like some long-dissolved rumour.”


In many ways, it may, perhaps, have been easier to turn this narrative into an extended dialogue on the human condition. I have heard Sea Prayer being called a short story, a prose piece, and an illustrated text. But, I believe it is, in both form and spirit, pure poetry. It combines art and text in a unique way, simultaneously lovely and appalling, effusive and curt. Hosseini’s mastery of the language is evident, and Dan Williams’ illustrations accompany both his content and tone in perfect harmony. The reason I bought Sea Prayer is rather simple – it was beautiful. Illustrated by Williams in an impressionist style, the paintings slot themselves in perfectly with the narrative tone- moving through bright and light nostalgia, to dark and cold fear, to strokes of yellow hope like the dawn (with all its implications of a newer, happier life) that the father desperately wants for his son. It is a book that hugs you even as it makes your heart ache, and while beautiful, is interrogative in its theme.


Considering the negative narratives surrounding immigrants and refugees, particularly in the United States, Sea Prayer is a push to humanize this narrative, to put the reader in the shoes of a father who only wants his son to survive, and grow, and learn peace in the same way, he has learnt the horrors of the war.


Devoid of bloody and decapitated bodies, or crumbling ruins, Sea Prayer slices through any romanticization or sensationalization of the conflict through its focus on the little boy whose childhood was stolen by a war that has nothing to do with him. Marman, the son, is young but not innocent. He has seen and experienced things no child, or adult for that matter, should ever have to – things that were alien to his father as a child. “You know a bomb crater / can be made into a swimming hole. / You have learned / dark blood is better news / than bright”, writes Hosseini. Beginning with bright sunlight and meadows, and the silhouette of a mother who is no longer with them, the volume grows steadily darker (literally) as it progresses, and while the father still holds on to hope and comforts his son, his helplessness and fear is evident – “because all I can think tonight is / how deep the sea, / and how vast, how indifferent. / How powerless I am to protect you from it.”


What Sea Prayer accomplishes, in summation, is to bring the heart-wrenching realities of the refugee crisis home. By focusing on the humanity, rather than the political conflict – the war itself – it commands a realness and ache that only a few other works have accomplished. Which is why I would recommend reading this book. Because, at its heart, the refugee crisis is not a series of statistics or political debates – the crisis is little boys like Alan Kurdi, whose bodies wash up on alien shores. And it is parents like this narrating father, who only wants his child to survive, and whose hopes are pinned to the sympathy of unknown and faraway strangers, and the kindness of the sea.

Avani Udgaonkar
Avani Udgaonkar has a Masters degree in English literature. She works as an editor and is currently based out of New Delhi.
Written by Rheea Mukherjee

Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth (Unnamed Press /Penguin India 2019) which was shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live First Book Award. Her work has been published and featured in, Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Vogue India, Out of Print, TBLM, and Bengal Lights, among others. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore, India. Rheea has an MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts.