If you missed this book when it came out in October, after reading this review you might reconsider tracking it down in the bookshop. A Lightless Sky: An Afghan refugee boy’s journey of escape to a new life by Gulwali Passarlay and Nadene Ghouri is an emotionally and ethically challenging read that will spur you into action, writes Jennifer Somerville.
One of the most impressive parts of this heart-rending, well-written and courageous story is the map showing the progress of a 12-year-old boy from a life under threat in Afghanistan to the UK.
Author Gulwali Passarlay spent 12 months on the road, half-starved and filthy, covered over 20,000 kilometres, used six modes of transport, including walking. By 2015, aged 21, he was a student of politics at the University of Manchester, having done extremely well at school despite needing to learn English on his arrival at 13. He was granted asylum in the UK and in 2012 proudly carried the Olympic torch in Bolton, his adopted hometown.
Passarlay is frank about his life in Afghanistan, where his father was a doctor. His deeply conservative Pashtun family followed the rule of the Taliban without concern, and he recalls bossing his aunts about as a little boy (because he was male), following the Pashtun line that they should not uncover their hair nor leave the house.
The Taliban, as well as US intelligence, wanted the boys to come under their influence. This would have been a death sentence, whichever group they chose to support.
This conservative upbringing didn’t prepare him for many shocks he would experience when his mother arranged for her two elder sons to be sent away after her husband was killed by US forces in 2005. The Taliban, as well as US intelligence, wanted the boys to come under their influence. This would have been a death sentence, whichever group they chose to support. Passarlay was separated from his brother when they were about to board an aircraft to Iran, accompanied by the first people-smuggler agents they were to encounter. The young boy would later learn that his mother had arranged to pay $US8000 to the head of an organisation in Kabul for her sons to reach Italy; if they had died along the way, the money would still be have been due.
Nadene Ghouri, an award-winning journalist, has put Passarlay’s journey into perspective with a co-author’s note. By the end of 2014, there were 59.5 million men, women and children forcibly displaced from their homes by persecution, conflict, generalised violence or human rights violations. That is one in every 122 people around the world.
Ghouri notes that if that number of people were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest nation. She writes a powerful analysis of people-smuggling operations around the world, in which the rarely seen national agents are at the top of the tree, followed by regional agents, then the middle-management men who own shelters or fleets of transport, and finally the lowest level, such as the poor man who provided young Gulwali with a horse and guided him over the border into Turkey.
Passarlay almost died several times on his journey and has been left with mental, physical and emotional scars. He pleads with his readers to help change the world, not for him, but for the other children alone out there, and for their mothers, who send them away to give them a chance at life.
5 stars – Atlantic $29.99
Reviewed by Jennifer Somerville