The Lightless Sky: My Journey to Safety as a Child Refugee (2015) by Gulwali Passarlay is a nonfiction book about a 12 year old’s year traveling as an illegal refugee. He starts off with his childhood in Afghanistan, briefly discussing Afghani culture, the Taliban and the extreme views of Islam that was applied in his society. This took a lot of courage, for him to speak about it so openly in an English-language book published in the West. He was not apologetic for wanting, as a boy, to keep his sisters home from school. He simply states that that’s the way things were.
“I was happy about this. Not because I wanted to deny them an education, but because I didn’t want any of my friends telling me they had seen my sisters outside”
I found his honesty appealing, and I also found the views he showed us to be all too familiar. The idea of seeing sisters/ women as shameful is unfortunately widespread even in Qatar 2019. An Afghani saying says that women move from the home to the grave and those are the only places they are allowed to be. A lot of families I know, still see women as going out too much, leaving the home too often as a bad thing. Even if it’s for something as innocent as coffee with friends.
I was also shocked by the Taliban’s behaviour, beating men who would stay home from prayers to nurse their dying wives, beating men for not being able to grow thick/long enough beards. This was his normal. This brutality was simply the institutionalisation of pre-existing Afghani thought.
“Until we reach our destination, we are at the mercy of these people. They own us, and can treat us as they will. You’d better get used to that”
Gulwali then is catapulted into a journey, alone. More than once, he remarks on the confusion of having your fate so fully in the hands of strangers. Imagine months on end of everyone you meet lying to you, everyone treating you mercilessly, grown men being beaten to writhing pulps and kept in chicken coops. Men who will probably never be seeing their families again. Their humanity is being torn away inch by inch. Living like this, you aren’t human, not really. You aren’t able to make any choices, or decisions, or move freely. You aren’t even free to be sad because that will lead nowhere. And this is all because you tried to run away. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
“The mental anxiety of not knowing where I was going or when the walking would end made every step harder; it’s easier to walk for miles on end if you know where you are heading”
Passarly obviously kept his prose simple, understandable considering his background and that English isn’t his first language. This isn’t a great work of literature. But it is extremely powerful and moving. Perhaps it was made even more so as a result of the pared-down language. This book will punch you in the gut.
“He kept urging me on, taking my hand when I couldn’t put another foot in front of the other. My feet were bleeding and I just wanted to lie down next to the path and sleep. But that would have been fatal”
The book is surprisingly insightful. I noticed a few tropes (and here I am using literary tools even though this is real life and not literature). I noticed horses and beards and anger. Through all the atrocities you start to notice the small things that can be the symbol of freedom: a phone, walking out of a front door, a full belly, a friendship.
“It was a beautiful, bright autumn day but inside the sheds it was dark and dank, smelling of cow dung. We didn’t understand why we were there or for how long we’d have to stay”.
He also includes photographs, just to make sure to remind you that this is his life. Not some writer behind a desk making up an odyssey. This was his struggle and his past. Some of us even feel that even this book might be sugar coated, that maybe the most scarring and painful parts were not able to make it to these pages.
“One of the strangest things about this journey was how whenever a smuggler or driver gave us an instruction, we simply followed it. Whether it was get in the car, stay silent, follow me, eat this, shave your beard, hand over your passport – we simply followed orders. Without questioning or really even thinking, we put our lives into the hands of strangers, time and again. We had no choice. When they said come, we little lost sheep had to follow”
I also love how he didn’t stop at the end of the refugee journey but also showed us a little bit of his life after reaching his final destination. He showed us how the journey affected his mental health, how he tried to recuperate, the steps he took toward healing.
“It’s very hard to explain the feeling of repeatedly putting your complete trust in the hands of strangers who see you as a commodity. Every time I did as one of these men asked, I had an acute awareness that this could be the last instruction I would ever follow. Each of these men had the power to take us to our deaths at any time”.
I also now follow him on Instagram (he even followed thebbookclubb account).
“In an information vacuum, even the appearance of knowledge has power”
Even things like rage, depression and sloth have no place when you’re fighting for your life everyday. All of these emotions don’t matter when your life is on the line day in and day out. The ability to wake up and say “not today, world” and go back to bed is one of the utmost luxuries.
“I felt like tearing the world apart, just so it would know how I felt”
This book had me treating everyone I met a little more kindly. It had me appreciating my cushy first world life more. It changed me. And that’s when you know a book is important.
“Life only has value as long as you believe it is worth living. I was no longer sure”
“I think the truth was that we were all so desperate that we quickly came to resent anybody who had something we did not – the extra mouthful of water, a tiny bit more floor space, a filthy pillow, or a few grains of rice. Our humanity was slipping away – being stolen away. perhaps that as the teal price of this journey”
“Before I died, I contemplated how drowning would feel”
The beginning was so powerful.
“I had been taught from a young age to fear the Shia as apostates – yet the azzan, the abolition… everything seemed to be the same as my own rituals. As we went inside the mosque to pray, I realized that we also said the same prayers. The only real difference I noticed was that when I prayed, I placed my hands in front of me; they had their hands by their sides…. There, in the mosque, as I looked around me, I did not see heretics or disbelievers as I had been led to believe the Shias were. All I saw were men of faith. And I was thankful to be there, praying by their side”