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.

More on Sea Prayer

To commemorate the second anniversary of the tragic death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned whilst attempting to reach Greece in 2015, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and acclaimed author Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner; A Thousand Splendid Suns; And the Mountains Echoed) has written Sea Prayer, an imagined letter, in the form of a monologue, from a Syrian father to his son lying asleep on his lap, on the eve making the sea crossing  to Europe to seek refuge and safety.

Produced and made by the Guardian in collaboration with UNHCR, Sea Prayer is the first narrative animated virtual reality film created using Tilt Brush, a tool for painting in a 3D space with virtual reality. Using this tool, the Guardian’s in-house VR team, in collaboration with acclaimed VR artist Liz Edwards, have brought Hosseini’s sensitive imagining of this letter to life.

Narrated by BAFTA award winning actor, Adeel Akhtar, who plays the role of the father in the piece, the poetic text reflects back on the father’s childhood memories of rural Syria, the great city of Homs where the father grew up, now a devastated war zone which he and his son are being forced to leave behind, and the dangerous sea crossings that lie ahead.

Throughout Sea Prayer, Hosseini’s powerful story is brought to life for viewers through Liz Edwards’s illustrations. Using Tilt Brush as a storytelling tool, Sea Prayer develops around the viewer, with vivid images growing and new characters coming into view as the story progresses allowing the viewer to be immersed in the story as it is being narrated to them.

The piece is accompanied by a moving score, composed for Sea Prayer by Sahba Aminikia, an Iranian-American contemporary classical music composer, and performed by American string quartet Kronos Quartet and musician David Coulter, who is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost musical saw players.

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