Title: Sonam and the Silence
Author: Eddie Ayres
Illustrator: Ronak Taher
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Publication date: Paperback edition published in 2023
Additional notable information: A comprehensive teacher resource can be downloaded from the Allen and Unwin website here.
Sonam and the Silence written by Eddie Ayres, illustrated by Ronak Taher and published by Allen and Unwin tells the story of Sonam, a young girl, just shy of turning seven, living with her mother and siblings in Kabul, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. This is set at a time when music has been banned, no one is permitted to play or listen to music. In the author’s note Eddie explains that for six years Afghanistan was devoid of music and when it was permitted again, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music was founded, a school whose students were made up of orphans, or children who worked on the streets. Eddie taught at this school and met Sonam, a student, who inspired this book. This is a story about curiosity, courage, discovering the transformative beauty of music and the power in learning what is in your heart can never be taken.
This story begins with Sonam playing with her sister at home. When she isn’t at home, she spends her days at the market with her older brother where she amuses herself by playing hide and seek, childhood experiences that could occur in many parts of the world. When she reaches the age of seven “she is no longer a child. Her big brother orders her to cover her hair and begin to work”.
On the way to the market Sonam is struck by an unfamiliar, yet enchanting, spell binding, melodious sound, one she cannot identify the source of. Intrigued and captivated, she is led by the sound to a home framed by mulberry and pomegranate trees. There she is confronted with a man holding what appears to Sonam as a foreign object. He is playing forbidden music on his rubab.
Enchanted by the irresistible music, clandestine lessons take place with the old man who gifts Sonam her very own rubab.
Music becomes her solace and is a source of comfort, an escape, as she works selling chewing gum to drivers in the city. Her ears and heart are filled with the tunes she hums and drowns out the noisy backdrop of cars and horns and disturbing distant gunfire. Sounds of beauty fill her heart and mind instead of the “sounds of fear”.
Humming is not safe as it is forbidden and when her brother hears her humming, he immediately quizzes her about this. She is hesitant, but discloses how she learnt about music. Her brother takes her rubab and forbids her to play, or sing again.
Her brother’s actions deeply affect her as her newfound love for music is abruptly banished. The sounds of fear flood her mind and swamp her thoughts.
Sonam, unable to live without music returns to the old man’s garden. What unfolds is a beautiful discovery about music, how it can evoke such vivid memories and is indelible once it captures your heart.
The layered illustrations add to the narrative text revealing more details about Sonam, particularly her emotions and reactions to situations. Interestingly, Sonam is depicted numerous times in floating or flying-like positions, capturing her lack of control. Visual literacy opportunities abound throughout this book.
This story is a portal to a glimpse of one story of childhood in another country, a war torn country and another culture. It gives readers an opportunity to compare and contrast the similarities and differences that exist between them and Sonam. In the author’s note, Eddie challenges readers to consider what it may be like living without music or something that unites your country such as sport. Students could consider what this would look like, feel like, sound like and the implications (socially, economically and culturally) of such a ban.