‘The Whale Swam Past the Stories We Left in the Ocean’

This originally appeared in Swedish at Arabisk barnlitteratur and was translated with help from Johanna Sellman:

Title in Arabic: الحوت مر بالحكايات التي تركنا في البحر
Title in Swedish: Valen simmade förbi sagorna vi lämnade i havet
Author: Children in Sweden and Syria
Illustrator: Doha Alkateeb
Translators: Marie Anell and Razak Aboud
Published by: Gävle Young, 2017.

By Elisabet Risberg

The book project “To Come to the Island with the Treasure is No Adventure” was launched in 2016 by the Gävle Youth Association. Through this project, 100 children, ranging in age from 7-13, wrote poems about their experiences of war and flight, and also on other themes such as peace, friendship, courage, dreams, and memories.

The child writers are, of course, the most important participants in the project, but in the background were Baree Khalil, a children’s-book author from Syria, and the writing coaches Tomas Jakobsson and Karin Olsson, all three residents in Gävle. Together, they have conducted writing workshops for children, both Arabic-speaking and Swedish-speaking, but also for children with other native tongues. They have also collaborated with the Bethbiute volunteer organization in the Syrian city of Latakia, which organized workshops within the project.

The book The Whale Swam Past the Stories We Left in the Ocean is the fantastic result of this work, and although it’s been a good while since I first got this book in my hands, I’m still browsing it. The poems really are small masterpieces. They are long, short, imaginative, sad, happy, angry, hopeful, and wise poems, but above all, they are poems that move us.

At first, it’s easy to find favorites, but then the favorites become so many that in the end it is impossible to have any favorites at all. Anxiety and irritation over a peace dove that does not do its job is easily recognizable. The feeling of being a stranger, and a desire to feel welcome, is also very clear. The equal value of all humans, and the borders that limit us, are described so well in the poems. Every poem is powerful.

In addition to the verse, I would like to say something about the actual design of the book. All bilingual books I’ve previously seen, in which Arabic has been one of the languages, have without exception been organized from left to right, even though the natural direction of Arabic is right to the left. Whales Swam Past is instead designed so that the Swedish part is read from left to right, and the Arabic from right to left, and then the languages ​​meet in the middle of the book. This not only applies to the text but also to the beautiful illustrations, which are “mirrored” so that they also go in the proper direction. It is so thoughtful that it makes me very happy.

During the summer of 2017, the project traveled with an exhibition that was shown in several libraries around Sweden. If you work at a library and would like to take part in the exhibition, you can get in touch with the project managers, for example through their Facebook page.

The book is also available for order from the Facebook page, and new poems are now being published in another project titled, Things Around Us Are Chocolate.

There has also been a musical performance based on the children’s poems. It premiered at the Gävleborg Folk Theater in February 2017.