Monday, February 29, 2016

The Lightless Sky by Gunwale Passarlay with Nadine Ghouri

Given today's refugee crisis, this is a very timely personal account of a young boy's escape from Afghanistan to the west.

Gulwali Passarlay was born in 1994 in a small Pashtu community in Afghanistan.  As a very young boy he lived a shepherd's life in the mountains with his grandparents.  Later he helped his uncle's in a market tailoring shop.  Gulwali's father was a well-respected doctor; his uncle a Taliban officer and his mother and other female relatives traditional women who generally stayed at home, but wore the full body blue burqa when they did venture out.  Gulwali himself was taught to be deeply religious and to fight for the honour of his family and the superiority of the men in the community.  He did not support educating his younger sisters.

When Gulwali was 12, and the Taliban had been chased from power by coalition forces, both the Taliban resistance and the invading armies tried to recruit him and his older brother.  Instead his parents sent him away to live with his maternal grandparents in another Afghan village.  While he was there both his father and grandfather were executed for collaboration with the Taliban.  Because this book is written from Gulwali's perspective, as a child, we never really know the extent of their involvement with the Taliban.  My personal view is they were just poor, traditional tribal villagers who were trying to survive however they could.

Gulwali's mother decides it is no longer safe for her oldest sons so she pays human smugglers to take them to freedom in Europe (we later find out she has paid $8000 each to get them as far as Greece).  She accompanies them as far as Peshawar, Pakistan then instructs them to hold each other's hands the whole way and "no matter how hard it gets, never come back".  These words haunt Gulwali throughout his lengthy escape.  First, because he is separated from his brother by the smugglers in the  Peshawar airport and must make the escape entirely on his own.  Second, it gets really hard and he desperately longs for the comfort of his mother and grandmother.

Most of the book gives us insight into just how difficult escape is, and how organized a machine human smuggling has become.  Gulwali travels from Pakistan to Iran, through Iran, on foot to Turkey, by train to Bulgaria - where he is jailed and returned to Turkey, where he is jailed and returned to Iran.  Then from Iran back to Turkey, by leaky boat to Greece, then to Italy, Calais, France and finally England.  Along the way he meets the worst of the smugglers who prey upon people's desperation.  But he does meet up with some kindness - in other, slightly older, refugees boys who take him under their wing, some of the lowly hosts of refugees who are doing this just to make a living and take pity on a small boy doing this on his own (he is particularly favoured by some of the wives and mothers who feel for him and do what they can, whether it is giving him a bit extra food or slightly better sleeping conditions).

Some of the most vivid descriptions are of makeshift refugee camps in Europe - particularly "the jungle" in Calais.  It's eye opening to see what is happening in these supposedly developed countries. In the end Gulwali makes it to the UK alive - but he is permanently scarred both physically (from an aborted attempt to smuggle him across the channel in a truck filled with some sort of chemical powder) and emotionally (he suffers from severe depression, and even attempts suicide at least twice).  But he is obviously extremely bright and makes the most of his educational opportunities in the UK.  He says he dreams of returning the Afghanistan and one day perhaps becoming its president.  Given his remarkable survival skills, I for one believe he probably could become president of Afghanistan one day.

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