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.