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