Syrian author Nadine Kaadan: ‘Writing was my way of processing the war’

Meet the Syrian author and illustrator drawing on her heritage to create enchanting children’s stories. (Supplied)
Updated 16 September 2019

Syrian author Nadine Kaadan: ‘Writing was my way of processing the war’

LONDON: Like many of her fellow Syrians, London-based author and illustrator of children’s books Nadine Kaadan now lives far from her homeland and is still coming to terms with the fallout of the country’s brutal civil war.

When Kaadan and her husband left Syria, neither thought they would be away for long. “It took us a year and a bit to decide that it was not safe to stay. When I packed, I thought it was just for one year,” she says.

The immediate plan was to study for her MA in Illustration at Kingston University. But by the time she graduated, the war had only intensified. So she went on to take a second MA in Art & Politics at Goldsmiths University. Then, she says, “We came to the decision that we didn’t want to be living year-to-year with no clear map, and that we needed to get settled.”

Kaadan is an open and attentive listener who weighs her words carefully. Her striking looks —blue eyes and golden hair — mean she often has to explain that yes, she is 100 percent Syrian. Her books contain beautiful illustrations that draw on her Arab culture and draw readers into her imagination, shaped by her upbringing in Damascus.

Kaadan was eight when she began photocopying her illustrations and selling them to schoolmates. Her early foray into entrepreneurship was not appreciated by the headmistress, however, and she was told to stop. But support from one of her teachers (who even helped Kaadan with her writing and calligraphy), her family and her friends was enough to convince her to keep writing and drawing.

Kaadan grew up in a household where reading was “part of the culture,” she says: “At lunchtime, me and my three siblings would always eat with our books (open).  It’s a scene I remember well. I don’t know if it was very healthy, but that’s the way it was. I always saw my mum reading, and even if I could only look at the pictures I would mirror my mum, sisters and brother. I loved the illustrations and looked at them for hours. I also spent a lot of time in the library — just being there and looking at the books was fascinating for me.”

As a teenager, Kaadan discovered the acclaimed Syrian author and feminist Ulfat Idilbi’s work. It was the first time she had really connected with an Arab writer. “I could see myself in her stories. She talked a lot about the culture and inequalities in the Arab world,” she says.

Growing up in Syria in the Nineties, there were very few children’s stories or young-adult novels written by Arabs available. Until that point, Kaadan had mostly read work by French authors. And that dearth of Arab cultural references had a profound impact on how she expressed herself as a child.

“When I first started writing I was using Westernized names rather than Arabic names,” she says. “Even when I played princesses with my friends I would choose Western names. I thought we were not worthy of being princesses, because all the princesses in the books I read had Western names.

“As a writer I decided to change that and, honestly, it’s really easy to be inspired by a magical city like Damascus,” she continues. “It comes naturally. If you look at the old city – it’s a fairytale in itself.”

“What do you miss most about Damascus?” I ask. And from her reply it’s clear just how deeply Kaadan feels her loss.

“The summer nights. The sky, the stars, the moon. The breeze. The sound of the fountains. The scent of jasmine. Walking in the old city at night. The beauty of the architecture. And the light.”

Many children who have been through the trauma of war will see their experiences reflected in Kaadan’s book “Tomorrow,” written at the onset of the conflict in Damascus.

 “I saw the impact immediately in my illustrations, which became full of dark images,” she says. “If you look at the illustrations on my website and compare them with those in ‘Tomorrow’ you will see the shocking difference. It was a period of our lives where we were waking up to horrible news every day and not really understanding what was going on. There were days when we were stuck at home because we were told it was better not to go out. There was denial and confusion. That’s why I wrote ‘Tomorrow.’ It was my way of processing the war and reflecting on what many children around me were going through.”

Kaadan feels strongly that it is important for children to be able to relate to the stories they read. She has visited children in refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Croatia to read them her stories and help them express themselves.

“In the camps it’s hard, sad, beautiful and inspiring all at once. You see and hear stories and reactions and you feel weak and hopeless and don’t know what to do. You feel angry about the unfairness of such things happening to these children. It is so dark and brutal. Yet at the same time these children have the ability to share what they have and to run and play and smile — and that is beautiful,” she says. “When I go to the refugee camps I learn from the children and am empowered by them, rather than the other way round.”

Even though she is now an established author with two books published by Lantana, and currently illustrating her first non-fiction work (a collaboration with a journalist), Kaadan says she never takes publication for granted: “I have just finished a book and have submitted it to publishers. It’s such a scary period because you always worry, ‘Am I ever going to be published again?’

“It is such a competitive industry here in the UK,” she continues. “I never expected to be published here. I am not a native English speaker and I always wonder how good my illustrations are compared to others who live here.”

Her biggest challenge, she says, is “how to keep our Syrian culture and not let it fade away, which is almost impossible in a big city like London. And now, with some of the heritage of Syria destroyed,  what do I tell my child? So much of what made us proud has been diminished. It’s tough.”

Kaadan’s parents have opted to remain in Damascus, though her siblings have all left the country. “My father is a surgeon and he feels he has a responsibility to stay and help. There aren’t enough doctors in the country,” she explains.

And while she recognizes that after so much “pain, trauma and deep sadness” it will take “years and years of hard work” for her country to recover, she does not hesitate when asked if she intends, one day, to return to the sky, stars and moon of her homeland.  


Yara Shahidi glows on NAACP Image Awards red carpet

The US actress was nominated for an NAACP award for her role in “Grown-ish.” (Getty)
Updated 23 February 2020

Yara Shahidi glows on NAACP Image Awards red carpet

DUBAI: On Saturday night, A-listers descended upon the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California, for the 51st annual NAACP Image Awards. Among the stars in attendance was US actress and activist Yara Shahidi, who was nominated for the Best Actress in a Comedy Series award for her role in “Grown-ish.” While the 20-year-old didn’t take home the prize — the accolade went to her “Black-ish” co-star Tracee Ellis Ross — Shahidi was a major winner when it came to her scene-stealing red carpet look.

The US-Iranian actress stepped out wearing a mint green satin minidress covered in embellishments by Gucci and a pair of chunky metallic leather platform sandals, also from the Italian house.

As for her beauty look, Shahidi decided to embrace her natural curls on the red carpet. Glowy skin, brushed up brows, a feline flick of liquid eyeliner and a swipe of reflective gloss rendered her makeup look complete.  

The US-Iranian actress stepped out wearing a mint green satin minidress covered in embellishments by Gucci. (Getty)

Other stars who turned heads at the annual awards ceremony include “9-1-1” actress Angela Bassett who accepted the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series award wearing a mint-colored, structured evening gown by Lebanese couture duo Azzi & Osta. The dress featured a waist-cinching belt with an asymmetric neckline and was accessorized with a matching emerald-green clutch and drop earrings.

Other winners on the night included singer Lizzo, who was named the Entertainer of the Year, and “Just Mercy,” which won the Best Motion Picture award, while its lead actor Michael B. Fox nabbed the Best Actor trophy and its secondary star Jamie Foxx won the Best Supporting Actor prize at the awards ceremony that recognizes entertainers of color.

Angela Bassett accepted the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series award wearing a dress from Azzi & Osta. (AFP)

Jordan won for his role as a crusading defense attorney in the film, while Foxx won for his portrayal of the wrongly convicted man he fought for.

Elsewhere, Lupita Nyong’o won the Best Actress in a Film prize for her role in “Us,” and 15-year Marsai Martin won the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in “Little” over superstar names including Jennifer Lopez, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer.

Meanwhile, singer-turned-beauty-mogul Rihanna received the NAACP President’s Award for Special Achievement and Distinguished Public Service. She called for racial, religious and cultural unity during her acceptance speech. “If there’s anything that I’ve learned, it’s that we can only fix this world together,” she stated, adding: “We can’t do it divided.”