Book Reviews

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

War. Destruction. The never after. In Sea Prayer, a beautifully written, poignant piece, Khaled Hosseini commemorates the death of Alan Khurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed ashore the coast of Turkey in 2015 as he tried to flee a war-torn Syria, by way of the sea. The image of Alan’s lifeless body sparked a massive emotional response, opening the eyes of the rest of the world to the horrors of the Syrian situation and the trauma of refugees.


Written in the form of a letter, on the eve of a family making a sea crossing, a father recalls for his son, Marwan, the beauty of their home in Homs in Syria, the way it once was, with quiet, quaint, calm mornings. There were crowded alleys in the souk, a mosque here, a church there. An ordinary city, one that could have been anywhere in the world. Then came the protests, the siege, the war. The destruction. The breaking of bones and families. The ruins of all that once was and the never after. Marwan and his family now sit on the beach waiting for a boat to take them to a different shore, a better shore. While the father reassures his son, there is a certain turmoil in him as he thinks of the vastness before them, of the unknown future.

“You have learned that mothers and sisters and classmates can be found, in little triangular patches of sunlit skin, shining in the dark, through narrow gaps in concrete and bricks and exposed beams.”

More poetic than prose, Sea Prayer packs a powerful punch in just a few pages. The emotional power of love that flows from the father to his son is intense; in a devastated war zone, waiting for some sort of resolution, Sea Prayer meditates on the forlornness of those leaving behind their homes and the dangers of crossing the sea in search of a new shelter where they hope to be treated with compassion by their neighbours.

What lends this piece more power is the artwork by illustrator Dan Williams.

In loosely stroked ink and wash spreads Williams has unfolded the story in impactful colours, from light hues of yellows and greens to depict a once-ordinary Homs to the dark greys of war to the deep blues of a turbulent sea. The illustrations are both beautiful and saddening as they render visuals to the emotional buildup page-by-page. The figures in the tale begin to feel small and fragile; the causes outside of it, the nature, the bombings, become larger than life.

“I have heard it said that we are the uninvited. We are the unwelcome. We should take our misfortune elsewhere. But I hear your mother’s voice, over the tide, and she whispers in my ear, ‘Oh but if they saw, my darling. Even half of what you have. If only they saw. They would say kinder things, surely.’”

I picked up Sea Prayer at the bookstore and thumbed through it in less than ten minutes. But here’s why you should buy it instead. This book is not supposed to be another story in print. It is a fundraiser that will contribute towards the refugees from The Middle East. UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) along with Hosseini is the driving force behind this. In the year after Alan’s death, 4,176 others either died or went missing at sea, a number that in 2017 stood at 8,500 as the Mediterranean crossings continued. If this number causes you even a moment of discomfort, go to the bookstore and buy it.

A graffiti by artists Justus Becker and Oguz Sen depicts the drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi at the harbour in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (AFP)

Complement Sea Prayer with a goosebumps raising experience with a 360-degree illustrated film by the same name. Narrated by BAFTA-winning actor Adeel Akhtar, this is the first narrative animated virtual reality film that has been designed using Tilt Brush, a tool for painting in a 3D space with VR. It is a creation by the Guardian’s in-house team and Liz Edwards, a VR artist. Accompanied by a score composed by Sahba Aminikia, an Iranian-American contemporary classical music composer, and performed by the US-based string musicians Kronos Quartet and the musical saw player David Coulter, the short film is guaranteed to leave you feeling uncomfortable.

The full text of Sea Prayer can be found here – Khaled Hosseini on Twitter

Have you read Sea Prayer yet? What are your thoughts on it? 

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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