‘The Lightless Sky’
by Gulwali Passarlay
Atlantic Books 364pp £8.99 paperback
Reviewed by Jonathan Stones, Sherborne Literary Society
‘The West loves dogs, almost as much as it loves war. Bush and Blair consummated their invasion, and we are the unwanted puppies of their bombing. They don’t want to let us in to the warmth of their fire – but they don’t have the stomach to kill us. So, here we are, locked out in the rain and the cold, fighting over whatever scraps fall from their table.’ Such is the introduction to the refugee camp otherwise known as the infamous ‘Jungle’ at Calais which the twelve year old Gulwali Passarlay receives from an embittered fellow migrant, after he has travelled over twelve thousand miles in the course of a year in the wake of the US-led war with the Taliban and endured a frequently brutal succession of hardships and setbacks on his way to England, in this enthralling odyssey.
Following the death of his father and grandfather in a fire-fight with the Americans (who evidently believe, and perhaps with good reason, that Gulwali’s family have been stockpiling weapons for the Taliban) his mother makes arrangements at considerable personal sacrifice for Gulwali and his older brother Hazrat to leave Afghanistan for the West, armed only with the dubious protection of a mysterious agent who we know merely as ‘Qubat’ (who we never meet), and with whom funds are deposited by Gulwali’s family in order to procure the safe passage across Asia and Europe of the two children. But in the hands of a succession of traffickers, profiteers and gangsters. Gulwali and his brother are soon forcibly parted and It is with Gulwali’s account of his journey through the human underbelly of the world that we become absorbingly concerned.
At first Gulwali seems entirely unfocussed on where precisely he is aiming for, beyond an abiding desire to find his brother. But his focus becomes sharper when he at last obtains word in Greece that Hazrat has survived thus far in his separate journey and is given the name of an agent in Rome who may be able to tell him more. And when he gets to Rome and tracks down the agent and is told that Hazrat has reached England, his own ultimate aim becomes suddenly clear to him.
In Gulwali’s company we encounter human squalor on an almost unimaginable scale as he forms part of an enormous, suffering human tide. In addition to enduring the more mundane privations of excessive heat, cold, starvation and thirst, Gulwali is shot at, abducted, imprisoned, thrown from a moving train, stuffed into stinking holes too small even for a child. In one of his many attempts to leave the Jungle for England, he is burned, blinded and hospitalised. He nearly drowns in a sinking overcrowded boat on the journey from Turkey to Greece. He becomes an expert escaper, at one point jumping from a third-storey window. He trudges for miles without food or water; rides in trains, buses, boats, on a horse and in many vehicles, including the one carrying bananas by which, as an unknown ‘illegal’, he finally enters England.
It is perhaps understandable that after his arrival in England, the last part of his account reads like something of an anti-climax; the details occasionally feel blurred, and a certain lack of spontaneity creeps into some of the phraseology, reminding the reader that this is a work involving two people, Gulwali himself and Nadene Chouri, a journalist. But the treatment he receives at the hands of officialdom reads with shaming authenticity. He finds himself regarded with dismissive disbelief that one so young could have achieved so much, and at one point he is officially designated as over two years older than his actual age. And paradoxically after reaching physical safety, it is the sense of hopeless isolation and despair that is engendered by this seemingly endless carousel of obfuscation, which finally overcomes him and results in two suicide attempts. But this is a story of hope; Gulwali’s case is taken up by inspired individuals who gradually restore his sense of optimism, and this, coupled with his own innate determination to succeed, have now brought him to the point at which he regards England as his adopted country.
Gulwali was born as the grandchild of semi-nomads. His mother was his paternal grandfather’s neice, ‘as was the custom within our tribe.’ Culturally, it was regarded as very shaming to allow the women of the family to be seen outside the home, so they rarely went out, and if they did, they had to be completely covered by burkas. Inside the house, the women were effectively the servants of the men, and Gulwali as a boy was by his own later admission, something of a prig, and eagerly participated in what to western eyes would be regarded as the bullying of his adult aunts. The debasement of women was witnessed by Gulwali in its most savage form when he was taken by his grandfather while still under the age of seven, to witness the stoning of a woman found guilty of adultery, an episode which Gulwali describes in unflinching detail. It is fascinating to observe during his journey to the West, how Gulwali is forced, at first extremely reluctantly, to acknowledge the existence of women as individuals in their own right, then to accept individual women as having authority over him, and finally to embrace their protection and friendship. This is the other story which is touched on from time to time, and which perhaps is no less remarkable than Gulwali’s physical journey, but which probably belongs in another book; his transformation from a child born into a deeply insular tribal culture to the cosmopolitan individual he has become; from stateless migrant to citizen of the world.
Gulwali Passarlay will be speaking at the 2017 Sherborne Literary Festival on Friday 13th October . Further details can be found here.