Nadine Kaadan knows the power of stories to open up our world. Her first English-language picture book The Jasmine Sneeze does exactly this and more. Through her joyful, fun-filled tale about cheeky, karaoke-singing cat Haroun and his misadventures in Damascus, Nadine challenges the “single story” many of us have of Syria by focussing on its vibrant culture and rich heritage. Imagine our delight when we learnt that The Jasmine Sneeze was recently translated into Arabic-Slovenian, Arabic-Croatian, and Arabic-German bilingual editions! These were produced by a project called Story time: Connecting people with the power of art. Funded by the European Union and with partners from Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany, Story time aims to facilitate the acceptance and integration of refugee children into local European communities. I asked Nadine to tell us about her work with Story time and the impact of translated versions of her book on Croatian, Slovenian and Austrian readers.*
Can you tell us more about how The Jasmine Sneeze became involved with Story time?
The organisers wanted to find a book that touched on Syrian culture that they could make bilingual and that could facilitate a true integration. I went on a trip to Slovenia, Croatia and Austria to do storytime workshops and readings and also to show the local community more about the Syrian culture away from the news, away from the fear that everyone is having or that the media is spreading. They wanted, basically, to show locals more about these people who are coming. Where do they come from? What is their culture? And the organiser found that The Jasmine Sneeze was an ideal book for this project.
Nadine with Slovenian artist Vesna Bukovec
Story time also invited you to participate in their art residency programme. What was this about?
The Story time project has two sides. The story-reading project is one side. The other side of it is a one-week art residency. Artists from different countries collaborated to create artwork where traditional motifs were seen through the topic of refugees or immigration. I worked with a Slovenian artist, Vesna Bukovec. I designed a tile that looks like the Islamic tiles that you can find all over Syria. The designs on these tiles usually represent herbs or plants, but instead we used the traditional flower bouquet of Slovenia as inspiration, where each flower represents a Christian value. So what I am trying to challenge is the idea of a monoculture. I am trying to challenge the idea of separation. Through art, you can celebrate diversity truly. When you look at the tile, you see that it is coming from Syria – from Islam – and it is also representing something that is traditional and Slovenian. These tiles were spread all over public spaces in Slovenia.
Photos from KGLU – Koroška galerija likovnih umetnosti
How did it feel to hear The Jasmine Sneeze being read in another language? What did you observe from the children listening?
The kids were very excited. We read the book in Arabic and then we read the translation, and I found that all the kids – Slovenian, Croatian and Austrian – were excited to look at the Arabic letters and to learn Arabic. They would ask me to write their names in Arabic. There was a true cultural exchange happening, and I felt it left them feeling less afraid of Syria and Syrians. Kids are so excited to learn about things they don’t know anything about. This is something adults are not so good at – they are mostly afraid of the things they don’t know. And it was really fun for me to hear these languages that I also don’t speak. It was really nice to hear the tonality and learn how they express the story and it was a true cultural exchange.
Photos from KGLU – Koroška galerija likovnih umetnosti – KGLU
Can you share a standout event or a favourite moment?
In Zagreb, one of the mums told me that after reading the book her daughter said she can’t wait until she has a Syrian friend. That was really beautiful to hear. This is a time when Syrians need friends. And then in Slovenia, a journalist from the local television network that came to cover the event at the KGLU – Koroška galerija likovnih umetnosti asked one little boy, “What did you learn about Syria after reading the book?” And he said, “Well, they have karaoke parties and cats.” So, reading this book immediately created an image of Syria that was positive. It reminds people of the culture, the art. And when these kids meet a child who is a refugee from Syria, then their interaction will be different just from this one story reading.
Photo from Booksa. Arabic-Croatian edition of The Jasmine Sneeze
Why do you think we should publish and read children’s books in translation? What will we gain from reading these types of books?
I’ve learned recently that in the UK less than 3% of books have been translated from other languages. That tells us how much English kids are missing, how much they don’t know about the world and other cultures. It’s very, very important for kids to be exposed to the world, to know what’s going on around them. It creates love, it creates empathy, it creates understanding. You know, at the end of one of these events someone told me that when she gets a cat, she will name it Haroun. I think that’s beautiful, that a Syrian name now has a positive meaning for this European child – that it inspires love and not fear.
Thank you, Nadine! You can buy your copy of The Jasmine Sneeze here. And if you live in the USA, watch out for our hardcover edition – coming to US bookstores in March 2018!
*This interview has been edited.