Autism And War In Fiction: The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War by Sumia Sukkar

AleppoeyewearIn a recent post I reflected on the implications of war for autistic children and their families. In particular, I wondered why media reports from warzones never seem to include footage of or reference to autistic children: Where have the autistic children and adults gone? I asked.

In this post I review a BBC Radio 4 production of The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War by Sumia Sukkar. The radio drama (broadcast on 8/11/2014) is an adaptation of Sukkar’s debut novel and focuses on the experiences of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome during the war in Syria. Links to the novel and radio production can be found at the end of the post.

Random and ordinary

AleppoeyewearThere is, I have noted previously, an absence of representations of autism in the arts. Just as women and people of colour have argued that fiction should reflect their lives, so people with an Autistic Spectrum Condition should be able to recognise themselves in literature. While Mark Haddon’s stand-out novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night raised the profile of autism, there is a need for more, and more ordinary, roles in contemporary fiction for autistic people and their carers (I review a novel which includes multiple representations of autism here).

The subject of war may seem extraordinary but it is ordinary lives which it transforms, as randomly and suddenly as an autism diagnosis. Sukkar is to be applauded for recognising that some of the ordinary children caught in war will bring to it the unique insight of autism. As well as focusing on the challenges which conflict presents, The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War explores the possibility that autistic perspectives may help us to new truths. If the scope for suffering for an autistic child during war is great, Sukkar suggests, the capacity for resilience and survival may be great also.

The bunker

AleppoeyewearThe focus of Sukkar’s novel is Adam, a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who lives with his middle class family in suburban Aleppo. Adam’s relationships with his father, brothers Tariq and Khalid and sister Yasmine are drawn with intimacy and affection; the family is close and their love for Adam evident. This context is important; the war will take a cruel toll on Adam’s family but Adam will receive the support from it he needs to survive.

Although no longer alive, Adam’s mother is a constant presence in the narrative. When Adam’s father, Baba, shows Adam a secret door to a basement room, Adam is surprised to find his own paintings on the walls. Adam’s mother had decorated the makeshift bunker with Adam’s paintings in the hope they would help her son during the disruption she knew war would bring. Baba tells Adam that his mother put the paintings on the wall ‘to keep them safe’. If Adam is ever alone or in danger, he tells his son, he must lock himself in the room: he too will be safe there. This room, I realised as I listened, is a version of dad’s coalmine in my recent post autism and war.

One of the themes of The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War is that instead of being a source of support for an autistic child, during war the community becomes a threat. Adam receives some protection from the conflict because he is part of a secure and loving family. Tariq’s death in the early days of the uprising, however, has a profound impact on the family, most obviously on Baba who suffers a collapse. Yasmine, who had the chance to leave Aleppo with her boyfriend but opted to remain with her family, now takes over the care of Adam. Adam observes that his mother understood he was different but ‘always said it didn’t matter’; this acceptance now informs the way Yasmine cares for her brother.

Voices

AleppoeyewearSukkar writes powerfully about the impact of war on Adam’s family although she doesn’t have direct experience of autism herself; in an interview For BBC Radio 4s Front Row (broadcast 7/11/2014) she identified a friend’s child as the catalyst for Adam and acknowledged that her novel had started with the war rather than with autism. Sukkar has, however, done her research; she is aware of the importance of routine to autistic children, for example, and gives preoccupations to Adam which parents will recognise. Sukkar also understands that the disruption of these routines through war will challenge Adam, creating the narrative conflict she needs.

Sukkar is often convincing: ‘Simpson Time’, for example, captures Adam’s interest in The Simpsons and illustrates the way routines are used by Adam to structure his days. While not unconvincing, other descriptions of Adam sometimes lack freshness (a ritual avoidance of stepping on tiles is a bit tired) or feel composite: Adam has special interests in time, mathematical calculations, dictionary definitions, food and cartoons. What I find more troubling, however, are inconsistencies in Adam’s narration which switches between a reflective, a naïve and an explanatory voice.

It is Adam’s ‘telling’ voice I find most problematic. Adam’s awareness of his own difficulties sometimes seem implausible; he speaks lines such as ‘I hate change’ , ‘This is why I hate change’ and ‘that’s why I don’t like touching people’. While I found the impact on Adam of disruption to The Simpsons convincing, this was spoiled by him telling me about the impact. As other characters don’t explain themselves I assume Sukkar felt the need to give Adam such lines in order to interpret his autism for the reader. ‘Show don’t tell’ may be clichéd advice but it is good advice; having characters explain themselves is rarely good and this holds true even if they are autistic. Sukkar could perhaps have trusted her readers more.

Ears and eyes

Aleppoeyewear The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War does, however, offer a rich account of synaesthesia and autism. References to the senses are scattered through the piece. Colourful vegetables on a plate are ‘a bowl of emotions’. When Adam eats paint because there is no food he tells Baba it ‘tastes really green’. The sound of protest in the streets is the noise of wolves. Caught in an explosion, Adam feels ‘hot black smoke’ in his body. Oxygen is something that, if you look closely, you can see.

Adam thinks and feels in colour. When his brother Tariq is killed in the uprising Adam says that it has turned Yasmine ‘just grey – all the time grey’. Later, when Khalid is injured, Adam reflects: ‘everything is grey. There is no more colour in Aleppo. We are all grey’. One day Adam finds an ear, which he mistakes for a seashell, in the street; afterwards he is convinced an ear is following him, something which brought to mind my own son’s anxiety about ears. Adam also shares with Dylan a love of water; he dives underwater ‘to hide’ and stays under until his lungs ‘are bursting’. Water, Adam tells us, is his friend:

the water against my skin understands me more than people ever do.

Adam’s sensitivity to touch and sound is also demonstrated through spinning, a behaviour linked to proprioception and balance which triggers pleasurable feelings. One of the most dramatic sequences in the radio production of The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War is an encounter with soldiers while Adam is spinning in the street during a trip out with his sister to find food. What follows is harrowing; Yasmine is taken by the soldiers, who beat and mock Adam before leaving him alone in Aleppo. Although Adam is subsequently reunited with Khalid and Baba, Yasmine doesn’t return.

Blood and hair

AleppoeyewearPainting is the only thing Adam has ‘ever really understood’ and now he copes with Yasmine’s absence by painting. When he runs out of art supplies Adam cuts hairs from the head of a body to make a paintbrush and bottles spilled-blood for paint. Hogarth, Adam says, used red for blood; why can’t he use blood for red? The pictures Adam paints on stones at the side of the road are not pretty; ‘they don’t lie’, he says. Adam’s record of the war becomes a truth-telling, a way of knowing forged from and about the blood and hair of the casualties of war. Adam, we are told, is the boy ‘who painted the war so that everyone can see.’

‘They think I paint the same picture again and again’ Adam says but – like eyes – ‘no two pictures are the same’. There has been much speculation about the tendency of autistic children and adults to avoid eye contact. My observation of my son, Dylan, is that although his eye gaze doesn’t linger he notices everything (including eyes) in fine detail. In The Boy from Aleppo Who Painted The War Adam also has an intimate knowledge of the eyes of others, information which has particular importance to him.

Adam compares himself to the pupil of an eye and his father to the white, likening his siblings to flecks of colour: Khalid is orange, Yasmine is ruby and Tariq is green. The image is striking; eyes are not only a means of witness but a way in which members of a family recognise each other. The image also places Adam, symbolically, at the centre of the family. This unique way of seeing enables Adam to produce his extraordinary paintings of the war. It will also help him to find his sister; later, fleeing Aleppo with Khalid and Baba, Adam is drawn by the eyes of a bald-headed woman at the side of the Damascus road: ‘like rubies’, Adam exclaims.

Extraordinary miracles

AleppoeyewearA series of miracles brings a lightness and close to the narrative. I found these slightly unsatisfactory. I wasn’t convinced by the sudden phone call from an aunt which triggers the family’s 200 mile pilgrimage to Damascus. Nor do I believe the way Adam takes charge of guiding the family. Or the sudden appearance of a bus. The discovery of Yasmine is a happy chance but her recovery rather too miraculous for a victim of kidnap and (implied) rape. Although the family has suffered terrible loss and tragedy it ends in the light: ” I can’t stop smiling”, Adam says.

While I don’t mind a bit of luck and miracle, I would have preferred more shadows around the light. Perhaps for purposes of the radio adaptation these events were more telescoped than in the novel; the fact that I intend to buy it and find out is hopefully recommendation enough. And maybe long shadows are drawn in Adam’s closing reflection that ‘all the tears in my body have dried up. I can’t think of anything that will make me cry again’.

Sukkar describes the novel as having started with the war rather than with autism. It seems to me that The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War ends with war too. By the close of the radio dramatisation I had almost forgotten the link with autism. There are powerful descriptions of surviving war; a scene where Adam and Khalid cook Tariq’s poetry books in an attempt to extract nutrients from their leather covers for example. Sukkar writes most insightfully, however, about women and war; the depiction of Yasmine’s role in the family’s survival (‘our wings’ as Adam calls her) is as compelling a narrative, for me, as the story of Adam.

References and Links:

Fiona McAlpine (Director) The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War by Sumia Sukkar (Radio 4 Drama of the Week, 8/11/2014)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04nqpd0

And here’s a link to the interview with Sumia Sukkar (Radio 4 Front Row, 7/11/2014)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04n695f

Sumia Sukkar, The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War (Eyewear Publications, 2013).

Below is a link to the publisher’s website. Eyewear is a small independent press so please consider purchasing directly from them if you decide to order this book.

http://www.eyewearpublishing.com/http://

Autism And War: on being anxious and absent

Kent August 2012 084I grew up in England during the 70s and 80s in the era of superpower politics. It was a nervous time; as East and West squared up to each other the threat of nuclear warfare appeared real. Or at least that is how, as a teenager, I perceived the world.

During adolescence my interest in politics was both empowering and a source of anxiety. In the early 80s, under the leadership of Thatcher, Reagan and a trio of old guard Presidents of the USSR (Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko) superpower politics reached new levels of hubris. I feared that in a fit of pique a President or Prime Minister would press one of the buttons located (it was said) in Downing Street, the White House and the Kremlin. These, we were told, would launch the missiles which would trigger a global nuclear war.

wtwb wikipediaIf it’s a little hard for me to think myself back to that time now I need only remember the publication in 1982 of When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel about nuclear war (later released as an animated film). This was followed in 1984 by Barry Hines’ Threads with its nightmare vision of a post-nuclear world; Threads would have the additional impact on my nervous heart of having been filmed in my hometown.

threads wikipediaThis climate affected me deeply; although my first love was literature I opted to study History and Politics at university. There I would meet others with similar anxieties. I remember in particular a friend who left his notebook in my room one day, open at a page on which he had doodled a mushroom cloud. We were in Boston, Massachusetts, in the summer of ’82. I can still recall his inscription beneath the picture: “I am afraid the world is going to blow up and I won’t see mom and J [name of his sister] again.” I felt uncomfortable reading his private reflection but took strange comfort from our shared fear.

The bunker

mine bbc.co.ukThe following summer the friend visited me in England. As well as spending time in London, where I was a student, I took him home to the Yorkshire coalfields where my Dad worked. The area would become the focus of fierce confrontations between the miners and Government as Thatcher embarked on a programme of pit closures the following year. In the summer of ’83, however, our concern was not yet with coal; our anxiety was still, predominantly, the risk of nuclear war. It must have been around this time that I had my first conversation with Dad about what we would do.

Dad, what will we do if a nuclear bomb drops? I mean, I know what will happen – but what would we do? Straight afterwards I mean?

Well now our Elizabeth it’s funny you should ask me that. I’ve asked myself the same thing.

miningartifacts.orgDad’s answer surprised me. I hadn’t realised that grown-ups had these thoughts too but Dad, it seemed, had a plan. At the first sign there was something wrong, he said, I should get home as quickly as I could. Then we would go together to the colliery where he worked. We would go underground. The mine shaft was deep and the tunnels extensive. It would be the safest place to be in an attack. Dad had thought it through. People who didn’t work at the mine would head there too, he said. There would likely be a stampede. We would have to be quick to have a chance of getting down. People wouldn’t stand politely in line offering their tallies (the metal tags used to clock miners in and out) for admission.

tally 001After this conversation we updated each other with our plans from time to time. I suggested that leaders would emerge; decisions would be made about who should get a place in the paddy trains. Maybe Dad would be seen as someone worth making space for; he was a Sparky so could be useful. I, meanwhile, didn’t have anything to offer. They’d need people with brains as well, Dad reassured me. And so I spent the rest of the decade making a note of the nearest mine (or tube station) and collecting literature on nuclear warfare.

Anxiety, adolescence and autism

war 003Looking back on those years it seems to me that what I, and other young people, suffered from was generalised anxiety. The perceived threat was constant but removed from our everyday lives; the idea of a finger on a button in some distant place, causing the release of something invisible but deadly, created free-floating worry. I don’t mean to suggest this is how I lived each day; I spent more time dancing than worrying, happily. But anxiety was certainly part of my youth.

war 006If adolescence is a time of idealism and questioning, and if young people are vulnerable to anxiety about the future, then presumably the current climate is as scary to young people today as the cold war was to me. Current threats may feel less abstract than nuclear war appeared to those of us who came of age in the ’80s but this doesn’t reduce the potential for anxiety. I’ve had some opportunity, as an adult, to witness the impact on teenagers of accounts of war. Poetry from WWI continues to be a mainstay of the school curriculum in England while literature which focuses on the experience of women and children is a popular approach to teaching young people about WWII (Ann Frank’s diaries for example). I have seen some young people break down when encountering these and other accounts.

brave pixar.wikiaIn my last post I raised the issue of how and what we tell autistic people about war. Dylan’s learning disability is significant enough to affect his ability to engage with the concept intellectually. As he is also lucky enough to live in a place where he doesn’t have direct experience of war, Dylan’s knowledge is limited to the few films he watches which include battle scenes (Lord of the Rings, for example, and Brave). Recently, during a meeting to discuss changes in Dylan’s behaviour, a psychologist suggested that Dylan may find it difficult to separate fantasy from reality. If he is watching a DVD in which a human is swallowed by a whale, she said, or a boy grows ears like a donkey, then Dylan may be anxious that these things could happen to him. Perhaps, she said, Dylan’s distress is caused by increased anxiety as he tries to make sense of the world through older eyes.

It was interesting and useful for me to hear this. Perhaps I should have realised before. Dylan may be autistic with a learning disability but he is probably still experiencing some of the anxiety which I felt at his age, albeit differently triggered. I had speculated for a while that certain story lines in his DVDs may be the cause of Dylan’s distress – separation narratives such as a baby dinosaur losing its mother for example – but having watched Dylan viewing his films in the last couple of weeks I think fighting makes him anxious too.

The attic

threads sheffieldhistory.co.ukOne of my recurring dreams is set in a post-apocalyptic world. Over the years it has changed in detail but the context is the same: I am wandering in a familiar city, trying to get to a place of safety. I suspect I am not alone in such imaginings; along with falling, being chased and railway stations it is, apparently, a fairly standard dream. One of the things which interests me, though, is how the narrative changed after I had children and especially since I became a carer.

threadsshowroomworkstation.org.uk2These days my war dream is likely to involve a desperate attempt to save one or both of my children from various dangers. These may be natural disasters which I must survive by physical strength or danger from an enemy who I must outwit. Often, the situation presents itself as challenging because of Dylan’s disability. So in one version of my dream, for example, we are in a hiding place which requires us to be silent. I assume the source for this is Ann Frank’s diary with its account of hiding in an attic room; occasionally I use an extract from her diaries with students and perhaps the discussion emerging from these sessions triggers my imagination. In my dream, however, what becomes horribly scary is my inability to ensure Dylan’s silence.

sheffieldhistory.co.uk3This fear of not being able to conceal ourselves because of Dylan’s disability is a narrative which resonates with that of other vulnerable groups during wartime. As well as my concealment dream I have conjured visions of pilgrimage, famine and siege, each of which presents particular challenges within the context of autism: being confined to the house, not being able to eat and having to walk somewhere unspecified would all be difficult for Dylan.

threads sheffieldhistory.co.uk2These narratives may emerge in dreams but I imagine they touch on a reality. If you are autistic a particular challenge of war, presumably, would be the breakdown of structure and routine. Meals would be an issue for someone like Dylan who eats only a limited range of foods in a specific colour. There would, of course, be no DVDs. That would be hard. No baths. No trains. No day centre. No going outside. While these examples may seem trivial from an everyday perspective, from an autistic perspective the loss of routine can represent a loss of self. For Dylan, routine is enabling and, I think, keeps anxiety at bay.

Actually, I find it very difficult to comprehend what would happen. I don’t know how someone autistic would survive a warzone. My dreams present me with these problems and unanswered questions again and again.

Where have all the autistic children gone?

And because of this I have made a point, over the years, of examining newsreel footage from war zones and scenes of natural disaster. Where are the autistic children I ask myself? They never seem to be in camera; the silent children waiting patiently in line for food rations, or sitting quietly in the corner of a makeshift shelter, do not remind me of my son. The mothers the reporters interview do not refer to the difficulty of managing with an autistic child to care for. I cannot believe that it is because autism doesn’t exist in these places. Are they lost or just out of camera? Where did they go, the autistic children?

A couple of weeks ago my attention was caught by a trailer advertising a radio drama, The Boy from Aleppo Who Painted The War, based on a novel of that title by Sumia Sukkar  (Eyewear Publishing, 2013). The story follows the experience in war-torn Syria of Adam, a boy with Aspergers Syndrome. Given my longstanding curiosity about the absence of autistic children from media accounts of war, I listened with interest to this fictional representation. Perhaps it would provide an answer and an ending to my dreams?

In a future post I will review the radio production…

Images:

  • The photograph of Soviet Submarine Classes was taken by me at Dungeness Lighthouse in Kent. I also took the photographs of an Orgreave miners’ tally; a Government information leaflet and an anthology of WWI poetry. 
  • The images for When the Wind Blows and the Threads DVD are from Wikipedia
  • The image from Brave is via Pixar.Wikia.
  • The images of mines are from the BBC (pit head) and miningartifacts.org (underground)
  • Scenes from Threads are used in ‘The attic’ section of this post: these are from sheffieldhistory.co.uk except for the traffic warden who is via showroomworkstation.org.uk (Sheffield’s wonderful independent cinema).
  • The image of the Sumia Sukkar novel is via Eyewear Publications.