Some time ago — before 1 million refugees made it to Europe last year — the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees mounted a campaign to encourage people to think of those fleeing conflict as individual adults with their own stories, not as mere statistics. Then last summer the photo of a small boy lying facedown on a beach in Turkey went viral, and children became part of the narrative.
A decade earlier, before images of refugees became common news fare, a widow in eastern Afghanistan gave two young sons small rucksacks and ordered them to seek safety in Europe. Gulwali Passarlay and his brother were not fleeing the Taliban, who had taken power in 1996; they were running from U.S. troops. Ten years and a 12,000-mile odyssey later, Gulwali, now at a British university, dreams of returning home and running for president of his still war-torn country.
He was 12 when he set out and was separated from his brother early on. His yearlong saga at the hands of several dozen people smugglers took him through Iran and Turkey, across the now all-too-familiar patch of the Aegean Sea to Greece, up through Eastern Europe to the French port of Calais and, finally, to England.
To call "The Lightless Sky" picaresque rather than moving or tragic might seem callous when co-author Nadene Ghouri, a British journalist, writes that she hopes the book "will give voice and a human face to the refugee crisis." In fact, when the book was published in London last summer, she was reported to be the driving force behind wanting to make the 10-year-old story relevant today.
But although the 357-page book — the significance of the title is never made clear — is overly long and overly written, it does read like something Miguel de Cervantes or Charles Dickens might have written. It definitely brings to life the narrator, who comes across as an agent in his own destiny, not a hapless victim in the way many refugees are depicted today. And "little Gulwali" seems preternaturally skilled and resourceful, figuring out early on that his tender age can be an asset, not a liability.
But the use of the present tense is disconcerting. Stuck for some days in Shiraz, Gulwali refers to the city as "a little bit like an Iranian version of Dubai." He makes other references to things a boy growing up herding goats in the mountains probably would not have known.
Ironically, his account of life before the fateful raid — a loving boy's-eye view of rural Pashtun existence — may be the most interesting part of the book, perhaps unconsciously underscoring the tenacious attachment of many Pashtuns to their traditional society.
Susan Linnee is a Minneapolis-based journalist who was with the Associated Press for 25 years in North and South America, Europe, and East and West Africa.