Wars can leave permanent scars on the face of a nation, as they did in Afghanistan’s case. Ironically, writing about the turmoil in that country has made the Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini a global literary success. His latest book Sea Prayer, which is extraordinarily brief, has brought him and his work back to the attention of readers, reminding them of why he has been so phenomenally popular.
Born in Kabul in 1965, Hosseini only spent only the early years of his life in Afghanistan before the Soviet-Afghan war broke out in 1979. He has recreated the Afghanistan of his early years in the first half of his bestselling novel, The Kite Runner (2003). His family lived in Paris for a few years and then sought asylum in the US during the Soviet invasion.
Hosseini’s voice has drawn immense attention to the plight of Afghans – both those living in the war-torn country and those living in exile. And it is his skilful storytelling and clever techniques that have earned him his writerly reputation. One can only marvel at the fact that he arrived in the US in 1980 at the age of 15 with not even a working knowledge of English, though he was well-acquainted with Persian literature.
Hosseini went on to study medicine and became a physician, but he kept writing. It was one of his short stories about a kite-flying tournament in Afghanistan (which was banned during Taliban regime) which he later rewrote as The Kite Runner. He credits his wife for encouraging him to tell the world about the Afghanistan of his childhood. And such is the vividness of Hosseini’s images that a country in times of peace also shines through them. Hosseini’s bildungsroman was published at a time when the world was still dealing with the after-effects of the 9/11 attack in New York – the corollary of which was America’s war against terrorism.
“For you, a thousand times over”
Hosseini’s book hit the shelves under the looming clouds of uncertainty. There was little hope that it would do well in post 9/11 America, and Hosseini himself wanted to abandon writing it. That the West was turning increasingly hostile towards the entire Muslim world, associating all of it with terrorism, made the prospects bleak.
Yet, the novel’s sales – after a slow start – kept swelling and till date, over 31.5 million copies in over 60 languages have been sold. The novel remained on the New York Times bestsellers list for 240 weeks, which is no mean achievement. So what was it about this unknown writer who adroitly conjured the Afghanistan of his childhood in his first novel that resonated with readers around the world?
Perhaps it was the inevitable melancholy seeping from his writing that captivated one as a reader – the melancholy of a lost world, coupled with the despair of a man living with tragic guilt from childhood sins he has not atoned for. One can only suffer with Hosseini’s characters.
Throughout the novel one has to deal with the sense of loss felt by the narrator, Amir, as he traverses countries – from Afghanistan to America and then to Pakistan, the back to war-torn Afghanistan, going on to Pakistan again before returning to the US. Beneath this flurry of activity lurks a yearning to be good again, which is unknown to him, or so it seems, until the novel comes to a Bollywoodesque crescendo: Amir and Assef, the villain, fighting with Pashtu music playing in the background.
But before Assef can kill Amir, the young son of Hassan (Amir’s childhood friend and servant, whom he had betrayed) intervenes. The scene with Sohrab, the young boy, aiming his slingshot at Assef’s head, repeating the word “bas”, as tears stream from his eyes, is straight out of a Hindi film, but it does achieve catharsis of a sort.
“You cannot bury the past”
The ghosts of the past creep out of their graves to haunt Amir again and again in this novel. It is as if Hosseini is constantly returning to the same admonition that he made in the opening page: “It’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.” And those familiar with Hosseini’s corpus know that he believes we only have one choice: to live with the past, no matter how tragic and vexatious it is.
The Kabul of the opening chapters of The Kite Runner may have changed beyond recognition. The particular mode of life he painted may have vanished. But Hosseini has immortalised this extinct Afghan life in his fiction. His intensely moving first novel captures the hopes of Afghans for change and peace — portrayed in young Sohrab’s eagerness for a new life away from the pandemonium of war.
Hosseini takes us through two Afghanistans: before and after the Soviet invasion, showing us how the war has mutilated the hopes of Afghans and how poverty has taken over what were once flourishing houses and bazaars.
We come across a former teacher, once much respected, begging on the streets of Kabul; a former Afghan army general yet to make sense of his new American life in exile; a man feeding his guests dinner in Afghanistan at the expense of keeping his children hungry; a man in charge of a derelict orphanage selling young boys and girls to the Taliban to feed the other orphaned children. The novel is full of such harrowing tales of loss, sorrow and pain told in an almost incongruously lyrical style.
The notion that love, friendship and human kindness can move mountains, avert disasters – or, at least, allow humans to endure them – is conspicuous in Hossein’s work. His second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) was well-received as he yet again succeeded in tugging at his readers’ heartstrings with this mother-daughter story.
The book traces the intersecting lives of two women, showing how they eventually emerge triumphant against patriarchy, which treats them as commodities, as child-bearing machines. Through the characters of Mariam and Laila, Hosseini gave voice to a whole generation of Afghan women subjugated by the Taliban. And it is in this novel that he traces the ways the Taliban choked Afghan society.
Set in Kabul, the narrative is shaped by love and bonds that cover continents and generations, entwining the past and the present, and, predictably, breaking readers’ hearts. Still, love emerges triumphant. Among the many quotable lines from the novel, this one offers the essence: “Yet love can move a person to act in unexpected ways, and lead them to overcome the most daunting obstacles with startling heroism.”
Despite the optimism, Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountain Echoed (2013), fails to replicate the compelling quality of his previous works, despite having the same backdrop.
The writer and his politics
Every writer obviously tries to influence readers to think about certain things in specific ways, and that includes politics. In The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendal writes: “Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore.”
It isn’t easy to decipher Hosseini’s politics in his fiction. His opinions, backed by relevant information, intrudes so much on his storytelling that it is difficult to ignore indeed. His moral compass is old-fashioned, with the bad guys being punished, which is not always the case in real life.
As long as Afghanistan was the epicentre of war-related suffering, Hosseini kept his sights on it as a theatre of fiction. But with Syria having entered an extreme phase of internal war, and the world’s attention trained on it, he has now turned to the Syrian refugee crisis for his new book, which is really a slender tale that had to be illustrated to acquire the proportions of a volume readers can hold in their hands.
And so, after five years, Hosseini’s Sea Prayer is here. Comprising all of 545 words, with English artist Dan Williams’ illustrations added, it is inspired by the three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 while attempting to escape the civil war in Syria. Hosseini has dedicated the book to thousands of refugees who died or went missing at sea while trying to reach safety in Europe.
The book, which is in verse, begins with a father writing a letter to his sleeping son by the glow of the moon. They are at a beach from where they, along with other refugees, will go on a journey by sea at the break of dawn in search for a new home.
He reminisces about the peaceful times — remembering the old city of Homs as he had seen it before bombs began to rain from its skies. He tells his son how a mosque and a church stood next to each other in equanimity, and about the bustling bazaars and lanes “smelling of fried kibbeh”.
The book is moving and lyrical at its best. The father laments his powerlessness against the mighty sea when it comes to protecting his beloved son (“precious cargo” as Hosseini puts it), well aware that even if they prevail against the sea, they will still remain uninvited upon reaching foreign shores. The book ends on a note of hope not borne out by reality – as, perhaps it must. And as all of Hosseini’s works do.