‘Even heaven is not home’: Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini returns with a beautifully illustrated Sea Prayer inspired by Alan Kurdi

Updated - September 01, 2018 12:39 am IST

Published - August 31, 2018 02:30 pm IST

 Khaled Hosseini while on deputation with UNHCR.

Khaled Hosseini while on deputation with UNHCR.

It was just good timing that Khaled Hosseini and his family left Kabul when they did. Or else he too might have been one among the millions of displaced Afghans today, the second largest refugee population after Syrians. The novelist who became a celebrity with The Kite Runner says “we have to keep telling stories” to make the tiniest impression on the way the world unfolds. Excerpts from an email interview.

Separation and home are powerful icons for you, displaced as you were from Afghanistan aged 11. How do they inform your writing?

Undoubtedly, the theme of displacement has informed my writing to a great extent. I think it was a seminal and transformative experience for my entire family, likely most for my parents, who were middle-aged when we arrived in America.

It is a powerful and tectonic event in one’s life, to be uprooted and to restart life in a foreign country. Consequently, to varying degrees, all four of my books have addressed this issue.

Why did you choose to write Sea Prayer as a long poem, with beautiful drawings (Dan Williams), rather than as a full-length novel?

I wrote Sea Prayer initially for a private fund-raising event for refugees in March 2017. I was given about five minutes to speak and I decided to write something original rather than read from my books. I thought immediately of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015, and whose death became a global rallying cry, at least for some time. I imagined the anguish of his father.

As a father myself, I imagined all the countless fathers who’ve been forced by war and persecution to make the agonising decision to put their loved ones aboard unsafe, unseaworthy boats and place the lives of their families in the hands of smugglers. The entire story, more or less as recreated now in Sea Prayer , came to be in one fell swoop over the course of an afternoon.

You’ve spoken of how providential it was that your family left Kabul just before the Soviet invasion. Otherwise, you may have become a soldier, maybe a refugee…

 An illustration from ‘Sea Prayer’

An illustration from ‘Sea Prayer’

I was fortunate, unlike millions of my fellow Afghans who lived in squalid refugee camps, to resettle in the U.S. when the Soviet war broke out. So I am always reluctant to compare my circumstances to those of far less fortunate refugees around the world.

But, yes, the experience of not being able to return home certainly influenced my decision to work with UNHCR.

In 2006, when they asked me to advocate for refugees, I leapt at the chance because I felt a personal connection to the plight of people who daily have to abandon home and community and flee for their lives. It’s been the most rewarding work of my life.

The Khaled Hosseini Foundation contributes to the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Do you dream of returning someday? Do refugees always crave for ‘home’?

In my role as a UNHCR ambassador, I can’t tell you the number of times refugees have expressed the deep-seated desire to go home.

 An illustration from ‘Sea Prayer’

An illustration from ‘Sea Prayer’

In Uganda, a south Sudanese teacher who teaches local Ugandan and south Sudanese students wept quietly when we were alone and said, “Sometimes I ask god why he made me a refugee. How much longer must I be a refugee? When can I go home and live among my own people and help build my own country?”

One Syrian young man I met in Lebanon said to me, “Even heaven is not home.” Indeed, a recent survey of refugees in Lebanon showed that nine out of ten refugees wanted to go home if conditions were safe. The desire to return to your roots is a universal one.

From The Kite Runner onwards, your novels have dwelt upon your troubled homeland, and now Sea Prayer writes of a Syrian father waiting with his son to board a boat to freedom. But the world’s attention, whether on the Afghan or the refugee crisis, is already wavering. Do you hope to make a difference? Or is writing merely a catharsis?

I think both are the case. But I certainly do hope to spark some dialogue around this issue. I think we have to keep telling these stories and working through the fear and compassion fatigue, and hopefully people will re-engage with this issue differently and feel some kind of personal stake, even if in a small way, in the protection of millions of ordinary fellow humans beings who’ve been forced into extraordinary circumstances.

Just as Alan Kurdi’s image made the refugee crisis come alive for the world, it was a photo by Steve McCurry of a girl with piercing green eyes on the cover of National Geographic that personified the Afghan war. Without one image, one story, we seem unable to grasp the enormity of a humanitarian crisis. Why do you think this is?

 An illustration from ‘Sea Prayer’

An illustration from ‘Sea Prayer’

We as a species respond to stories, whether visual or auditory or otherwise. For a meaningful shift to happen in our minds, we have to care first, and in order to care, we have to feel first. This is how we are hardwired. We have to experience a private resonance, in the emotional sense more so than the intellectual. Facts and statistics and metrics, which straightforward journalism can provide, are important and necessary, of course, but they don’t move the needle. They’re best used in a supporting role, when they serve a storytelling process, through which we’re invited into the experience of others and hopefully run into something that catches, that we recognise, something that inspires us, angers us, moves us.

You recently travelled in Lebanon and Sicily listening to refugees, visiting communal graves, recording stories. Do you have any single memory that engraved itself on your mind?

In Catania, Sicily, I met an Italian woman who runs a restaurant where the menu is based on dishes from countries along the various routes refugees take to Europe. She has hired refugees to run her kitchen. She told me they had enriched her life beyond description. So much so, in fact, that she had opened the doors of her home to young migrants who had arrived in Sicily as unaccompanied minors. She told me something I won’t soon forget: “A home can be as big as you allow it to be.”

And what I learned on this trip, over and over, is that the same is true of the human heart. I think this is such a beautiful illustration of how refugees and a host community can work and mesh together in a positive way that enriches both parties. So when I’m asked why we should help refugees, I think of her and am moved by her example.


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