‘Sea Prayer’

A letter by author Khaled Hosseini to commemorate the death of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned in September 2015.

Marwan and his father on the beach — a still from ‘Sea Prayer’, drawn by illustrator and VR artist Liz Edwards
My dear Marwan,
In the long summers of childhood, when I was a boy the age you are now, your uncles and I spread our mattress on the roof of your grandfather’s farmhouse, outside of Homs.
We woke in the mornings to the stirring of olive trees in the breeze, to the bleating of your grandmother’s goat, the clanking of her cooking pots, the air cool and the sun a pale rim of persimmon to the east.
We took you there when you were a toddler. I have a sharply etched memory of your mother from that trip, showing you a herd of cows grazing in a field blown through with wild flowers. I wish you hadn’t been so young.
You wouldn’t have forgotten the farmhouse, the soot of its stone walls, the creek where your uncles and I built a thousand boyhood dams.
I wish you remembered Homs as I do, Marwan.
In its bustling Old City, a mosque for us Muslims, a church for our Christian neighbors, and a grand Souk for us all to haggle over gold pendants and fresh produce and bridal dresses. I wish you remembered the crowded lanes smelling of fried Kibbeh and the evening walks we took with your mother around Clock Tower Square.
But that life, that time, seems like a sham now, even to me, like some long dissolved rumor. First came the protests. Then the siege. The skies spitting bombs. Starvation. Burials.
These are the things you know. You know a bomb crater can be made into a swimming hole. You have learned dark blood is better news than bright. 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.
Your mother is here tonight, Marwan, with us, on this cold and moonlit beach, among the crying babies and the women worrying in tongues we don’t speak. Afghans and Somalis and Iraqis and Eritreans and Syrians. All of us impatient for sunrise, all of us in dread of it. All of us in search of home. I have heard it said 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 look at your profile in the glow of this three-quarter moon, my boy, your eyelashes like calligraphy, closed in guileless sleep. I said to you, “Hold my hand. Nothing bad will happen.” These are only words. A father’s tricks.
It slays your father, your faith in him.
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. All I can do is pray. Pray God steers the vessel true, when the shores slip out of eyeshot and we are a flyspeck in the heaving waters, keeling and titling, easily swallowed.
Because you, you are precious cargo, Marwan, the most precious there ever was.
I pray the sea knows this.
How I pray the sea knows this.

© Khaled Hosseini

Sea Prayer — a 360 illustrated film by Khaled Hosseini

The story behind ‘Sea Prayer’

Two years ago — on September 2, 2015 — three-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned whilst fleeing from Syria to Greece by way of Turkey. The image of the toddler’s lifeless body sparked a surge of emotion that moved countless people worldwide to take action.

Now Khaled Hosseini, the celebrated author of The Kite Runner and a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, has written “Sea Prayer”, an imagined letter in the form of a monologue, from a Syrian father to his son on the eve of making the sea crossing to Europe.

In collaboration with UNHCR, The Guardian has produced and made ‘Sea Prayer’ into the first narrative, animated, virtual reality film created using Tilt Brush, a tool for painting in a 3D space with virtual reality. You can view the film here.

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