The Lightless Sky | Reflections & Highlights

Gulwali Passarlay. The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape To A New Life in Britain. Atlantic Books, 2015. (365 pages)


Heartbreaking, enlightening, and infuriating, this can’t-put-down tear-jerking dramatic memoir of Gulwali Passarlay’s journey from Afghanistan to the UK will brilliantly and tragically illustrate everything that is right and wrong with humanity. The “facts” of the US’s military engagement with Afghanistan, the human smuggling trade, and the political bureaucracies that complicate them all are no match for the reality of the lived experience of a 12-year old boy who faced insecurity, inhumanity, and death far too many times for any human being, much less a child. I wept more than once reading this book, and I have profound gratitude to Passarlay for not just having the courage to write this book, but for giving me a Master’s course in the human condition. The Lightless Sky gives us a profound understanding of the clash of thinking, worldviews, and values that are so often the seedbed of violent conflicts that result in our refugee crisis. It is that understanding that is necessary to advance a redemption, and oh how I wish everyone would read and empathize with the plight of our fellow brothers and sisters in this world.

In addition, we get an introduction as to why the Taliban were (and still are to many) a welcome reprieve from the foreign invaders of Russia and the US, and why we (humans) appeal to religious strictures in the wake of devastating anarchy. We get an education on the “business” of human smuggling and the psychological tragedy of exchanging life for cultural divides. And most inspiring, we see once again why and how friendship and love truly are the most essential of human experiences; it was not just the possibility of drowning in the Mediterranean that brought the possibility of death, but the feeling and sense of being alone in this world which brought the greatest despair.

The great reflection for me, however, was to be confronted, yet again, with the tragic paradox of our species, that to dehumanize another for our own sense of security, identity, and superiority appears to be, painfully, very human. The great debate of humanity’s most fundamental essence—good/bad—will, to my mind, never be resolved. We are neither. We are tragically both, often at the same time, and for contradictory reasons that somehow live in the same headspace, at the same time. Accounting for our duality is to simply say we are all victims of our circumstances, navigating this world with the sum total of our environments and experiences expressed in our decisions. What looms, still, is the great question, whether evil and ultimate love are mere gradations on the spectrum of our morality and which will ultimately win out in the course of our species’ evolution. Perhaps it is here that some transcendent influence could be of help. To this end, I pray.

Thanks to Choose Love on Carnaby St. in London for their store and introducing me to Gulwali’s story. To leverage your consumerism for humanity’s benefit, visit (UK) or (US).


I have heard somewhere that drowning is a peaceful death. Whoever said that hasn’t watched grown men soil themselves with fear aboard an overcrowded, broken-down boat in the middle of a raging Mediterranean storm. (1)

Before getting on this boat, I had never even seen the sea before; the only knowledge I had had of it was from pictures in school text books. The reality was beyond the wildest reaches of my imagination. For me, those waves were truly the entrance to the gates of hell. (5)

For many Afghans, and for my family, the ultra-conservative Taliban were a good thing. They were seen as bringing peace and security to a country that for over fifteen years had suffered a Russian invasion, followed by a brutal civil war. (10)

The Taliban position was simple: strong social controls and Sharia law was the true path to both peace and God. (24)

He lifted a thin reed high into the air. (26)

By Allah the most merciful, you have been sentenced to a fitting punishment for your crime. (26)

With hindsight, I can see what barbarity this was. But it has to be put into context. The country was recovering from a war in (28) which brutality had known no bounds. Millions of people had been killed, thousands of women raped and children slaughtered. There had been a complete breakdown of law and order with no national governance. Their mantra was this: ‘If you don’t accept peace or our rules, we will force it on you.’ (29)

| My grandfather called life under the Taliban: ‘The best of times we are living in.’ Given that he’d lived most of his life in the insanity of war, I don’t think it is too surprising that he and many other Afghans felt this way. (29)

The idea that the Taliban left and suddenly everything in my country improved overnight is nonsense. To many people, like my grandfather, it felt as if the world had collapsed into immorality. (34)

| And as bad as the Taliban might have been, the NATO forces were far from perfect too. I witnessed one incident, which, like the stoning, still gives me nightmares today. (34)

There was a hail of gunfire from the American soldiers. (34)

There were also the petty humiliations of life under occupation. There were near-constant roadblocks. One poor woman gave birth by the side of the road because the soldiers refused to let her and her husband past. (35)

| I hated these people who had come to conquer us. I saw these latest invaders as worse than the Russians. (35)

The Afghan calendar is based on the date that Islam became predominant in Afghanistan, around fifty years behind the main Islamic calendar. (36)

The reality is that in war, ordinary families like ours are often left to make hard choices: appease one side and you make an enemy of the other side; try and placate the other side and the first side wants to know why. You can’t win. The best you can do is try and negotiate a middle path and keep everybody happy, thus best ensuring those closest to you are kept safe. (38)

I only knew one thing clearly. I had lost my father and grandfather, and so as was the tradition in my culture, I wanted revenge. (38)

Taliban representatives began to visit more and more oftne. They wanted my brother and me to become fighters or even suicide bombers – martyrs – to avenge our father’s death. (40)

| I was so angry that I wanted to do it. … But my mother knew that an angry and hurt child couldn’t understand the consequences of such a drastic action and could be easily manipulated in his grief. She had been there for the horrific event and she too was filled with fury and pain — certainly a lot of Pashtun women would have wanted their sons to take revenge, even if it meant them losing their lives. Revenge is a central yet often lethal part of Pashtunwali — if you don’t avenge yourself against your enemies, you have failed as a man. (40)

| But my mother was influenced by a different set of thinking — her deep and abiding faith. …true Islamic law…is a religion that prohibits the taking of life. She had been taught that killing anyone was wrong, even if the reasons might seem justified. She had been taught to try and forgive, to show compassion and to accept tragic events as God’s will. It wasn’t easy for her, but her faith helped her get through losing my father. (40)

[via: For a while I have been trying to discern the difference—if there is one—between “belief/faith/religion” and “ideology.” Risking a tautology, this distinction is where I am currently leaning.]

This isn’t just about revenbe for your father, boys. We want you to be part of a bigger and greater mission — expelling the invaders.

Later, the messages took a more sinister and threatening turn in the form of so-called ‘night letters’: a handwritten letter would be thrown over our compound wall or through the doorway. The words on the page were stark: Be martyred, or die. (42)

[via: I can’t help but be distracted by the completely ironic logic in that threat.]

I doubt that the Taliban would have killed us for not joining them — this was about threatening persuasion. But I think if we had collaborated with the US military they certainly would have. While my brother and I were just two little boys, in the political and moral whirlwind of that time we were pawns in the two sides’ deadly game of chess: easily played and easily lost. (43)

I was so anti-Western, it felt like a complete betrayal to even consider wearing these devil jeans. I couldn’t understand why he was making us do it: denim was the cultural uniform of my enemy. (45)

Quickly, I blocked them out. I was already learning that in order to keep going I had to stop loving, stop remembering. Thinking about those I had left behind was too painful. (53)

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 was the real price of this journey. (92)

Greece was a mythical, magical country I had read about in school. I knew it as an ancient civilization and the home of Alexander the Great, a man respected in Afghan history as a great warrior after marching through central Afghanistan in 330 BC. He famously wrote a letter to his mother about the bravery of the Afghan warriors he fought: ‘You have brought only one son into the world, but every man in this land could be called an Alexander.’ His blond-haired, blue-eyed descendants are still very visible in the areas where he and his men made camp. (109)

[via: I tried to find the source of this but could only find references to Steven Pressfield’s The Afghan Campaign which I do not have, and could not search well.]

But I knew Allah was always with me. I prayed often, I talked to God, I found comfort in my faith. I don’t even know if that was a choice I’d consciously made. I simply had to. Faith was all I had left. (172)

It was surreal. One second I was being shot at; the next I was eating eggs and oranges. (178)

With a pang of guilt, I thought of my mother. During that last, awful twenty-four hours, running for my life, I had cursed her and questioned again and again why she had forced me to go away. Now I reminded myself that she had done it for me, for my safety. Once again I had survived, God had kept me safe. That had to be for a reason. I couldn’t let her down now. This journey had to mean something. (179)

Life is an education, Gulwali. And all life must have a purpose. — Gulwali’s grandfather

But I felt a new sensation, as though I was standing between two worlds — the old and the new. (187)

My old and my new. (187)

| I calculated it must be close to seven months since I had left my home and my family. I was still no closer to Western Europe. But I had changed. I was no longer a little boy. I might still look like one, but I certainly wasn’t one inside. How could I be? I had been beaten, abused, arrested. I had known hunger and fear and misery. (187)

For Muslims, being dirty is a great shame. The reason we take ablution before our five daily prayers is to stand clean before our Creator. Not being able to wash myself was a great source of distress for me, as I’m sure it was for all of the other human cattle kept in that vast, damp room. (201)

| At that moment, I felt less than human. (201)

The Pashtun are the traditional rulers of Afghanistan and it’s true the Taliban were predominantly Pashtuns. The leaders of the Northern Alliance, a group of non-Pashtun tribes in the north (204) of the country, were resistant to the Taliban and it was they who helped the US to overthrow the Taliban. (205)

One thing about life on the run is, just when you think you’re as miserable as you’ll ever be, life manages to laugh yet more loudly in your face. (215)

As I struggled to sleep on the hard ground, with a grizzling empty stomach, I couldn’t help but let the memories flood in — memories I usually tried to block out. I’d dream I was back at home, teasing my cousins or listening to my mother hum softly as she folded our laundry, the house filled with morning light and smelling of freshly baked naan bread — only to wake cold and hungry to yet another lightless sky above the forest canopy. (217)

In the end she prescribed me some sleeping pills. They helped (234) me sleep better, but I could still feel the demons in my head. A few pills weren’t going to magically make them silent. (235)

Besides, no one had yet asked us if we had wanted to claim asylum, and without that security there was no way any of us were going to put trust in the system. We’d seen enough to know there was little logic to what happened, and even less effort to communicate it. (236)

Whatever you’ve heard about the Jungle, it’s worse than they say.

He looked at us. ‘The only thing you need to know is this — they don’t want us there. 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 cold, fighting over whatever scraps fall from their table.’ It was obviously a favourite speech of his — and it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But I still wasn’t completely convinced. We were so close to England — how bad could it be? (289)

Life became a soul-destroying cycle of escape, capture, theft and construction. Only the physical necessities of eating at charity food points, the occasional wash and broken sleep disrupted the cycle. (302)

The humiliation was hard to bear. Many of the faces I saw spoke of the same thing. In their own countries, these people had power, even the respect of their communities. Here in the Jungle we were barely human. We were the beasts that gave this place its name. (303)

| I imagined myself running up to some high-ranking French official and shaking them to demand answers. It wasn’t my fault I wasn’t born in Europe. My home was a war zone — did that somehow make me less human? (303)

Life only has value as long as you believe it is worth living. I was no longer sure. I was becoming detached from my surroundings. Nothing mattered any more. The instinct to survive is strong, but when survival is all that there is, you are left with the obvious question: ‘Why go on?’ (311)

We have a saying in Pashtu: ‘Pa jamoo kai na zaydam.’ It roughly translates as: ‘Feeling too big for our clothes due to pride.’ (351)

| A full five years after that boat nearly capsized, I stood in Burnley town hall with my foster parents, Karen and Sean, by my side. I had clean, fresh clothes now, and I was definitely feeling too big for them. I, the once scrawny refugee, had been selected to carry the 2012 Olympic torch through Britain ahead of the London Olympic Games. (351)

My mother sent me away so she didn’t have to bury another person whom she loved. In doing so, she had made the ultimate sacrifice any mother could ever make. (352)

| As I ran through the streets of my adopted second home, the torch burning brightly, with people cheering and taking photos, I thought only of one thing — her. (352)

| At that moment I knew, beyond all doubt, that I hadn’t failed her. (352)

| I had made it. (352)


There is another Pashtu saying: ‘There is not enough time in this life for love — I wonder how people find time for hate?’ (353)

| I could all too easily have lived a life of hate. I was twelve years old when my father and grandfather were massacred. All I cared about, loved, respected and was influenced by was torn away from me in a single instant. (353)

| It would have been easier for me to choose anger. It’s in my genes. As a Pashtu, the notions of honour and family are at the heart of my identity. We are attached to the concept of revenge and blood feuds, which can go on for generations. (353)

Violence begets violence. (353)

In part, I was saved by the warmth and kindness of the friends I made who looked out for me. More than anything, this book is about faith, hope and optimism. I hope too that it is about dedication and commitment towards fellow human beings. A story of kindness, love, humanity and brotherhood. (354)

I called my mother once a week. But perhaps the hardest thing of all that I have been through is that when we talk, we have so little understanding of each other. I try to talk to her about my political work, my university exams and my campaigning, but my life here in Britain is like a different planet from our old life in Afghanistan. By sending me away, she definitely saved her son, but she also lost him. She, of everyone, paid the heaviest price. (355)

I truly believe faith and fate brought me to this land, and I want to thank Great Britain from the bottom of my heart. I have done all I can to give back to it since I got the opportunity to do so. Through my political activism and community volunteering I hope I have helped to improve other young people’s lives and to help the public understand the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. (356)

| Ultimately, that is why I wanted to write this book. (356)

The enemy of love is not hate, it is indifference. The enemy of love is turning away from those in need. The enemy of love is doing nothing when you can help your fellow man. (357)

| The refugee crisis, the greatest global crisis since World War II, has been caused by conflict, wars, poverty, injustice and oppression. It is our moral duty to treat these fleeing human beings with dignity and respect. We cannot shy away from the fact that recent wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria or Afghanistan have exacerbated this crisis. Nor can we pretend that the Western desire to buy cheap products or possess the latest must-have items at a bargain price does not contribute to poverty and inequality. (357)

[via: I would simply add “climate change” to the above list of causes.]

| True freedom and democracy demand that people educate themselves about the world around them. That requires an honest and inquisitive mind — one that questions all opinions, yet hates none. If a person wishes to be free then they must understand the shackles that bind them. (357)

None of us travel alone in life. We all have the power to help those around us, or to harm them. It is the choices we make that define our walk, define our own personal journeys and make us the people we are. (358)

If I have one single dream it is this: that a child in the future will read this book and ask, ‘What was a refugee?’ (358)

| We can change the world. All of us together. We can. (358)

| We can end this. (358)

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  1. Pingback: The Lightless Sky | Reflections & Highlights | vialogue | Gulwali Passarlay

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  3. Linda Bradshaw

    Dear Gulwali your book was recommended to me by a friend in Derby. She introduced me as a volunteer to a wonderful charity ” Upbeat Communities” to help Refugees become neighbours. Your story is inspirational & I wish you & your wife many happy years together. I have met some very special people through my work with the charity. Best wishes Linda

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