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Years 5 and 6: Mahtab's Story

Mahtab's Story

A young girl flees from Afghanistan with her family, making a long and dangerous journey to Australia to seek refuge. The novel was inspired by true stories including that of Nahid who now lives in Sydney.

Go to Libby Gleeson's website

Key definitions:

Refugee  - a person who has fled her country in fear of being persecuted because of race, religion or membership of a particular social group.

Asylum seeker - a person who has fled their home, seeking protection from another country. They are waiting for their claim to be a refugee to be evaluated.

Detention camp - a compound where prisoners are detained temporarily whilst awaiting determination of their legal status under immigration laws.

Taliban - a fundamentalist Muslim movement which took control of much of Afghanistan from early 1995 and was overthrown by US-led forces in 2001.

Studying the novel

A theme is a big idea or central topic of importance in a work.  It is often timeless and universal (like a concept), such as ‘love’ and ‘death’. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. A theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters' actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story's theme.

Try to describe the theme in a sentence rather than a single word. The main themes of Mahtab's story are:

  • wars, disaster, persecution and poverty can make it necessary for people to leave their homes butthe decision to leave home is difficult to make and the journey is often dangerous
  • it can be difficult to adjust to life in a new country, especially when the media negatively portrays refugees and asylum seekers.
  • family is important even when they are not physically with you
  • memories are important and help to define who you are as a person

Mahtab describes the fog blanketing the family and enclosing them in Afghanistan at the start of the novel. It may well be a real fog but it also stands for the Taliban and the way they are suffocating the people and their normal lives, like forbidding girls to attend school, forbidding traditional activities like kite-flying and attacking people like Mahtab's father and grandfather.

Kites and birds also feature in the novel, standing for freedom and hope. When the children's kites are buried in Herat, it symbolises a loss of hope and freedom. At the end of the novel, the kite-flying scene by the beach symbolises the freedom and hope of the family's new life in Australia.

The stories Mahtab's grandfather told keep Mahtab brave in tough moments and are an important part of her heritage. She thinks of Ali Baba hiding in his cave from the evil forty thieves and this gives her courage to hide silently in the truck as they drive over the mountains into Pakistan.

Just as we in Australia have our own storytelling tradition, Afghanistan has powerful tales handed down from generation to generation. Click on the link to read the story:

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

Aladdin and the Magic Lamp

Sinbad the Sailor

Refugees Statistics: ABC Splash

Interview with Libby Gleeson and Nahib

Resources for Teachers

Primary English Teachers Association Australia (PETAA)

 Unit of Work for Upper Primary Students   (PDF 158 KB)