Of the human heart and the peacemaker

June 21, 2020

Hamed Amiri’s new book is not only a trek through the refugee experience of a family in crisis but also a love letter to the NHS

‘“Moscow.’ Dad said. ‘We’re almost there.’ I didn’t know what this meant. Almost where? We didn’t even know where we were going. He smiled brightly, but I could sense he was uneasy.”

The Boy With Two Hearts, a non-fiction narration by Afghan-British writer, Hamed Amiri is a trek through the refugee experience of an Afghan family, from Herat in Afghanistan to Cardiff in the United Kingdom (UK). The writer takes us from an Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban, through the jungles of Ukraine, the paved streets of Moscow, the unexpected comradeship in a concentration camp and a fearful experience of another, until we reach the UK. While the writer is conscious of giving voice to all the characters in his story – his stoic father, empathetic mother, the protagonist of the book Hussein, the baby brother who is taken care of and Hamed himself, the middle child.

While the reader is aware, they are reading a true story, and a non-fictional narrative, the reader feels trapped in the booty of the 4x4 to escape border patrol, they are jilted when the kind-looking man who offers candy turns out to be a charlatan, the readers want to grab Hussein, the protagonist when he is left behind in a field because he cannot walk as fast as his brothers due to a worsening heart condition. The story is so captivating, that the characters spring out of the textual discourse and one begins to understand their dilemmas, celebrate their successes, experience their tests.

At the same time, though, owing to the lucid flow and continuous narration, The Boy With Two Hearts is also suited to those who are fond of reading fiction, for the story is soulful, and the narration, simple but fluent. One might be reminded of The Last Lecture, by college professor Randy Pausch from Pittsburgh, who wrote his autobiography when the doctors told him he had only a few weeks to live. This book, The Boy With Two Hearts, in comparison, is a posthumous memoir. It has the same spirit as Pausch’s, for the crescendo in both books is that of death but still, not of loss or despair but of growth and hope.

The question, however, is: is the refugee experience easy to write about? Speaking with The News on Sunday (TNS), Hamed Amiri, the author of The Boy With Two Hearts explains, “Putting out my own emotional trauma for the world to read was not easy at all. However, when writing about the experience of escape, and uncertainty, and hiding, to the passage of relief and settling down, I asked myself a simple question - would the sharing of my inner feelings help someone else? This question was asked of myself, not once but several times, when I felt vulnerable when I felt I could not do justice to every memory of the days that we spent huddled and bundled, every moment of gloom and doom and each blissful day of togetherness wrought with the positivity Hussein added to our home and of several others. Each time, the answer I found to these questions was, I had to write it, to help another person or another family, trying to find solace, recompense and answers to a similar trauma of losing a loved one.”

“I [Amiri] not only feel closer to Hussein and have come to terms with the biting reality of loss but also feel, that this book has helped me dig up those of my emotions which I was afraid to explore, and put them into words.”

On whether writing this book has been cathartic for him, or a significant part of his healing process, Amiri says, “After I lost Hussein, I recall the feeling of coming to face two choices: the first was to lock myself in a room to hide from the world, cry, question and consume my mind with negative thoughts, maybe undo what Hussein had built inside of me all through life. The second option was to utilise my pain and translate that into something useful but also eternalise Hussein for me, to have him and his memory in physical form to hold, cherish and love.

“I ended up locking myself in a room, but to write about our journey through life, through boyhood and adulthood, together. I not only feel closer to Hussein and have come to terms with the biting reality of loss but also feel, that this book has helped me dig up those of my emotions which I was afraid to explore, and put them into words. It was only after writing the book that I realised, writing not only became my healing process but also gave me a new purpose.”

Hamed’s brother Hussein, had a problem with his heart, which made his family travel from Afghanistan to the UK, where the family of five settled.

The very complicated and tense voyage which involved dealers and handlers, police and border patrol searches, hiding in containers and escaping from hard luck, is undoubtedly, peppered with the more filial and emotional side of the story – the burden of the middle child who has emotional responsibilities towards the older sibling and fatherly considerations for the youngest. The mother who, despite making fiery speeches against the Taliban in Herat, takes a secondary role in decision making once the family is out in the open. The multiple scares given by Hussein’s two hearts – the biological one and the pacemaker – are all examples of how the stressful course of the journey is made acceptable with a delicate probing of filial love.

The blurb on the jacket of the book declares it a love letter to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, a respectful nod to the NHS not just in one country but everywhere, in the times of the global pandemic where health workers, doctors and nurses are front line workers. The book is timely, then, one might consider. Having said that, the narration constantly talks of a Dr Nav Masani, Hussein’s doctor.

“I never forget telling people that the NHS gave me my brother for several more years, I never thought much past that but as you said the NHS has a very diverse workforce and Hussein’s main consultant eventually became a part of the family,” says Hamed about the importance of writing about the coloured element of the NHS.

Of being smuggled from one continent to the other with family, of having a heart that needs extra care and attention than any normally functioning blood pump, of losing a loved one, and of coming to face one’s own most terrifying fears through self-exploration, the book has it all. Hamed must write more.

The Boy With Two Hearts

Author: Hamed Amiri

Publisher: Icon Books

Pages: 304 (Hardback)

Price: $24

The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)

Hamed Amiri’s new book is not only a trek through the refugee experience of a family in crisis but also a love letter to the NHS