Sonam and the Silence
Eddie Ayres and Ronak Taher
Allen & Unwin
Imagine living in a world without music; it’s almost unthinkable but that’s how it is for young Sonam in Eddie Ayres’ story set in Kabul, Afghanistan at the time when the Taliban forbade the playing of music.
Ayres is himself a musician and broadcaster who spent a year teaching music at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, formed after the 6-year Taliban-imposed ban was lifted.
One of the pupils he met was named Sonam and it is she who inspired his story.
When Sonam, who lives with her mother, two brothers and a sister, turns seven her older brother tells her she is no longer a child: now she must cover her hair and start working, selling chewing gum on the streets of the city.
On the way to work, the girl hears a wonderful sound and follows it to discover, sitting in a room among the pomegranate trees, an old man playing music on a rubab. Sonam is captivated.
The old man tells her that “There is music everywhere, ‘In the wind, in the earth, in the trees. Music is forbidden, but that’s when we need it most. But you can only hear music if you listen with all your heart.”
He gives Sonam his instrument and now although she continues working, the sounds of fear she felt are replaced by the music running through her entire being.
Then one day her brother discovers the girl humming and he takes away her instrument and forbids her to sing. Now her music has been silenced, Sonam’s world is full only of sounds of war.
Desperate she goes to the old man’s garden but he is no longer there; however she finds just one pomegranate. That she picks intending to plant its seeds in her own garden.
As she does so she unearths something that makes her heart sing. Her brother has in fact hidden her rubab to protect her.
Returning to the old man’s garden she sits beneath a withered tree remembering and as she does so, sounds of the old man’s music replace those of fear emanating from the city. Gradually she comes to understand that now, the old man and the music is within her, and deep inside it will always be.
Seemingly simple this is a profound, heartfelt tale of resilience, love and hope made all the more impactful by Eddie Ayres’ use of the present tense; and by Ronak Taher’s powerful mixed media illustrations. These are multi-layered and intricate with backgrounds carpeted with fragments of petals, leaves and grasses in autumnal shades over which are placed the storytelling images and the sinister silhouettes of war.
Like the music that plays such a big part in the story, this book is such that it reverberates in the mind, long after it’s been read.