Tima Kurdi is Alan’s aunt, and her new memoir, “The Boy on the Beach,” is an impassioned plea for the rights of refugees through the heartbreaking account of one family’s unimaginable loss. Three years after that photograph was first published on front pages across the world, it’s hard to remember the moment that once galvanized artists, activists and politicians to action. In 2018, Western societies no longer have the political will or the public appetite to accept refugees. With the success of President Trump’s travel ban, the United States has essentially sealed its borders to Syrian refugees, among others. The families who survived the treacherous crossing to Europe are struggling with integration, resigned to crowded housing complexes as xenophobic political parties fundamentally opposed to their presence gain power across the continent. Can one family’s personal story return readers to that galvanizing moment of empathy and awakening? That’s the test for Kurdi’s elegant and deeply moving memoir.
The book begins in Canada with Kurdi desperately awaiting word from her younger brother Abdullah that his family has safely crossed the sea. After several painful days of silence, she sees the news photograph of a boy’s corpse on her smartphone, immediately recognizing her nephew’s red T-shirt and jean shorts as the gifts she gave him on an earlier visit. “ ‘Breaking news’ is an apt term for the way that photograph smashed my family into pieces,” she writes.
The narrative then shifts in time as Kurdi begins to put her broken family’s story back together. Jasmine-scented memories of Damascus before the war give way to her own migration to Canada through marriage. During visits to the family she left behind, she sees the devastation of the Syrian uprising and the war that follows. Her siblings decide they have no choice but to flee.
It’s a narrative that sweeps from the Islamic State-occupied northern villages of Syria to the refugee ghettos of Istanbul, from the shadowy world of smugglers extorting impoverished families to the sea of pain where overcrowded rubber dinghies drown on a daily basis. By keeping the focus on how Abdullah’s family is uprooted by the escalating humanitarian crisis, Kurdi avoids the tangled politics and history of the Syrian conflict itself. Those explanations are better read elsewhere.
This kind of memoir — the third-world innocent transformed into a heroic figure through unimaginable suffering — is a standard of the memoir-industrial complex. Often ghostwritten and tied to foundational campaigns, these earnest and elegantly packaged texts are designed to inspire and sell. While Kurdi’s book has its own didactic moments, the story succeeds by eschewing the impersonal language of good intentions for something more visceral. Kurdi is rarely kind to herself. She neglects her career and family as she campaigns to bring her siblings to Canada as refugees. The countless application forms fall on deaf ears. She struggles with survivor’s guilt nestled in Vancouver, B.C., as her siblings languish in Turkish ghettos. These are some of the book’s strongest sections with its most devastating revelations. For Kurdi, the asymmetry between her divided selves — a life of privilege in Canada and her family’s suffering in Syria — becomes too much to bear. In a state of helplessness, she decides to send her brother $5,000 to pay smugglers for the illegal crossing to Europe. Abdullah, his wife and two sons arrive on the Turkish coast to board a crowded boat in the dark of night. Through later interviews with her brother, the sole survivor of that crossing, Kurdi re-creates the drowning of the family in horrifying detail.
A recurring theme in Kurdi’s heartbreaking tale is the elegant use of two languages. Each chapter is titled in English and Arabic, with expressions and proverbs from the author’s Syrian childhood integrated into the text in Arabic script, transliteration and translation. It’s an act of literary unification that echoes the book’s message — that despite the struggle involved, two worlds can be threaded into one; that the integration of the unfamiliar is not only possible but also possibly beautiful.
Alan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean with his mother, Rehanna, and older brother, Ghalib. Tima Kurdi’s memoir is timed to coincide with the third anniversary of their deaths. The book doesn’t fetishize or harp on the image of Alan’s body, rarely succumbing to the pornography of pain so easily found in crisis reporting. Kurdi writes that she is still angry with many of the reporters who got the basic facts of the family’s story wrong, beginning with the frequent misspelling of her nephew Alan’s name as Aylan. The growing antipathy and distrust for refugees inspired this reclamation of her family’s story and its dignity. Kurdi’s book is infused with the hope that a new home for Syria’s stateless refugees is still possible. Everyone deserves the chance to make a home again, she writes. “We have an Arabic saying: ‘trees often transplanted never prosper.’ I hope that’s not true for people.”
Kurdi’s memoir proves that in an age when images and headlines vanish as fast as they appear, long-form writing in the first person remains a powerful stand against forgetting. This is an accomplished and searing political memoir — one woman’s poignant and pointed eulogy for a nephew who deserved more than passing notoriety as the “boy on the beach.”
Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsweek and on NPR.
THE BOY ON THE BEACH
My Family's Escape from Syria and Our Hope for a New Home
By Tima Kurdi. 272 pp. $26.