alan kurdi, bodrum, migration, humanity,

We didn't know? Alan Kurdi, life writing and the state of the world

7 minutes to read
Odile Heynders

On 2 September 2015 Alan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, together with his mother Rehanna and brother Ghalib, when making the journey from Bodrum to Kos. The shocking photograph of his tiny body on a Turkish beach reached the media all over the world. His father survived the tragedy. His aunt, Tima Kurdi, who has lived in Canada since the 1990s, published a book, The Boy on the Beach, My Family’s Escape from Syria and Our Hope for a New Home (2018), on the life narrative of the family and on the events that led to their decision to cross the sea in an unstable boat. She gave the iconic photograph a context. The story of Alan can be connected with the story of another child of death, Hurbinek, a three-year old boy in Primo Levi’s memoirs. 

Alan Kurdi, The Boy on the Beach

Together with his wife and two very young sons, Abdullah Kurdi boarded a boat in the night of 1 September 2015, in order to cross the Mediterranean to Greece. After years of living in miserable circumstances as Syrian refugees in Turkey, they decided that fleeing to Europe was the only option they had to seek a better, more human and more dignified life. The journey cost a little more than four thousand euros.

What happened during the disastrous journey is not exactly clear. Even though Tima Kurdi's book is full of details, this particular information is still lacking at this point. She just refers to what her brother told her afterwards:

The waves were so high, the boat capsized. I did everything I could to save them, but I only have two hands. I was trying to hold Rehanna with one hand and the boys with another. Then Rehanna said (…) ‘Save the kids’. It’s the last thing she said to me (…) God rest her in peace. I tried to save them, but the waves were crashing. One by one, they slipped from my hands (p. 149).

In the early morning of 2 September Alan’s body was found on Golden Beach in Akyarlar, Turkey. His mother and brother were found about a hundred meters away on the nearby rocky shore. At around six a.m. a Turkish photographer took pictures of Alan and sent those to her newspaper, Dogan News Agency. She also posted the photograph of Alan on Twitter. The tweet led to fifty-three thousand tweets per hour. Within twelve hours the photo had reached 20 million screens. The bodies were taken to the hospital in Bodrum, and later buried at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Kobani (Syria). 

Life writing

Tima Kurdi has published the story of the tragedy and of the life of her siblings and the family in which she was born. She depicts how ordinary Syrian citizens living in Damascus transform into refugees on the move. Her narrative can be considered a form of ‘life writing’, the umbrella term for stories representing a life. The concept includes autobiography as a retrospective narrative but is also used to cover more heterogeneous self-­reflexive prac­tices (Smith and Watson 2010, p. 4). Life writing is regularly denoted as memoir or testimony.

The story was written with the help of a ghostwriter, Danielle Egan, whom Tima Kurdi thanks at the end of the book ‘for capturing my voice’. This type of life narrative often is written with the intention to spread an emotional story, to reach a general public in order to make them realise what is happening in the world, and how events and consequences are related to the everyday lives of the reader.

Life narratives intertwine one story with another, and because of the relatedness of narratives, it is difficult to decide upon the truth of any one story

Life narratives do not tell the story of just one individual. They intertwine one story with another, and because of the relatedness of narratives, it is difficult to decide upon the truth of any one story. The explanation for this is that no speaker has the final representation at their disposal of all the perspectives and historical and political facts. We could also say that no storyteller is capable of expressing the exact truth in language, in particular when we are dealing with trau­matic testimonies.

The story of the lower middle class Kurdi family, told by the one daughter who migrated in the 1990s to Vancouver, certainly is traumatic. Like millions of fellow Syrians they were victims of terrorism and geopolitics. Forced to flee Damascus in 2012, they then lived under extremely difficult circumstances in Istanbul. The various brothers and sisters and their families had no or only abject places to stay, young children could not go to school, women who had never worked in Syria suddenly had to work to maintain even the most basic conditions of survival. Abdullah tried to make a living for his family, but suffered from severe wounds inside his mouth after having been tortured in Syria. His sister – who was working as a hairdresser in Vancouver - sent him money to go to a dentist, but then he decided that the money was better spent on an effort to leave Turkey. He contacted smugglers, and after some unsuccessful attempts, they finally departed for Greece on the first night of September 2015, feeling desperate.

What is left of their story is the photograph of the young boy who died even before he could speak properly.

Speechlessness and death

We do not know what exactly happened during the journey. Apparently, the father could not express this to his sister. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben, in Homo Sacer III (2002), writes about witnessing and language, and points at the essential lacuna in language when it comes to bear witness to something that is impossible to bear witness to. How can one witness the letting go and drowning of loved ones?

Agamben wrote about Primo Levi, the Italian writer who was deported to Auschwitz in 1943 and survived the camp. After returning to Italy Levi became a writer, so that he could bear witness, argues Agamben, but he experienced that language, or even communication, is not possible in certain circumstances. Levi told us, concisely and in detail, about his experiences in Auschwitz and Buna. And at one point he wrote about a child, who had no name and could not speak. The people in the camp called him Hurbinek:

that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and again. He was paralyzed from the waist down, with atrophied legs, as thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency (Levi 1986, p. 191).

Hurbinek’s tiny forearm bore the tattoo of Auschwitz. He died in the first days of March 1945. ‘Nothing remains of him’ Levi writes, ‘he bears witness through these words of mine’ (Levi 1986, p. 192). Hurbinek outlasted his death through Levi’s descriptions, and Agamben’s writing about them. Alan Kurdi, we could say, outlasted his death through the photograph that went viral, showing him lying on the sand as if sleeping. 

Wir haben es nicht gewusst

Hurbinek is the same as well as the opposite of Alan. Auschwitz cannot be compared to the refugee crisis. The Shoah was unique in its systematization: the death machine was meticuously designed and terribly effective. But a similarity between what happened in the 1940s and today, is that the general public, we ordinary Europeans so to say, do not really care, or pretend not to know exactly what is going on. Wir haben es nicht gewusst is the phrase that comes to mind when reading that in 2015 more than 850,000 refugees left Turkish shores (Kingsley 2017, p. 5) – the vast majority marched northwards through the Balkans but many people went by boat, like Alan’s family. We could be informed through various sources in the media about what is happening, but many of us prefer to stay ignorant.

In her book Tima Kurdi reveals how she feels responsible for the deaths of her kin. 'If I hadn’t sent the money for the smugglers, Rehanna, Ghalib, and Alan would still be alive. If I hadn’t become obsessed with Abdullah’s teeth and offered to pay for implants, he would have never asked me for such a large sum of money to take that crossing to Kos instead' (144). But her book is courageous. Telling what happened, writing the narrative, puts the tragedy in a bigger context and helps ‘to fill the silence left from too many senseless deaths’. 

Tima Kurdi became a spokesperson on the global refugee crisis and the co-founder of a foundation that helps refugees:


Giorgio Agamben (2002), Remnants of Auschwitz, The Witness and the Archive, Homo Sacer III,Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books.

Primo Levi (1986), Survival in Auschwitz and the Reawakening: Two Memoirs, Translated by Stuart Woolf, New York: Summit Books.

Patrick Kingsley (2017), The New Odyssey, The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis, London: Faber & Faber.

Tima Kurdi (2018), The Boy on the Beach, My Family’s Escape from Syria and Our Hope for a New Home,New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (2010), Reading Autiobiography, A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, 2ndedition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.