“I didn’t want my daughters to grow up with bombs overhead”

Wed, 19/04/2017 - 16:34


Entrevista. We spoke to Gulnar Hajo, a Syrian author and illustrator exiled in Istanbul. Hajo was the guest illustrator at this year’s edition of the literary festival for children and young people, Món Llibre.

Gulnar Hajo (Damascus, 1977) transmits optimism from the very first moment. Mother of two daughters as crazy about music as she is about books and art, her numerous and award-winning works include the story La Nur s’escapa del conte, published in Damascus two years ago and this year in Catalan by Mosaic Llibres. The book tells the story of a girl who lives in a dark world which she manages to escape thanks to her own imagination. Married to another artist and editor, Samer al-Kadri, who she founded the publishing company specialising in children’s books Bright Fingers, Hajo opened a café-bookshop in the historical neighbourhood of Fatih in Istanbul, where she has lived in exile with her family since 2015. ‘Pages’, as the establishment is called, has become a literary and human shelter for Syrian refugees in Turkey. Hajo was the guest illustrator at the literary festival for children and young people in Barcelona Món Llibre 2017  on 8 and 9 April, even though she couldn’t attend in person. We spoke to her via Skype.

These are particularly sad days, following the chemical weapons attack suffered by civilians in Syria this month. What do terrible news stories such as that mean to you when you’re in exile?

It’s extremely sad. It seems there’s no limit to how much worse it can get. Terrible things are going on and nobody seems able to stop it. It’s a feeling of terrible insecurity. We’re talking about civilians! The use of illegal weapons! It’s really frightening. Terrifying.

What do you remember about the day you decided to leave your country?

I remember very clearly the day we decided to leave. We were against the Al-Assad regime and felt we were in danger. We lived in Damascus and we have two young daughters. We didn’t want them to grow up with bombs overhead. We were particularly scared for our daughters, as we could see how things were getting increasingly dangerous. I could sense it. It was 2012 and my husband and I had to go to a book fair in Abu Dhabi. We sent the girls to stay with my sister, in Jordan. While we were away, a security official turned up at our house and asked about us. That was a defining act. We realised we couldn’t go back and we stayed in Jordan.

Had you always lived in Syria?

Yes, we’d travelled because of work or on holiday, but Syria is our home. We have friends and family there. Leaving was a really tough decision. We love our country. It’s terrible not having the option to go back. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

At the start of what was called the Arab Spring, the perspective from here was one of expectation about the revolts against dictators that the West itself had backed. It must have been very frustrating seeing it from the inside.

It was. Very frustrating. The Syrian revolution was big. We have a very cruel and dangerous dictatorship. Citizens shed off their fear and said they’d had enough. Syrians want democracy and a future. Unfortunately, at the moment, either because of the strategic location of the country or whatever other reason, the idea of revolution is at a standstill. The idea of the revolution has been hijacked, but I think it’ll return. Maybe I’m naïve but I think it will.

“We have a very cruel and dangerous dictatorship in Syria”

Are you an optimist?

I am. I’m very optimistic. I believe in beauty, love, humanity, peace. We can always focus on these things at such a dark time. Always. In this really tough period we’re going through we have the obligation, the duty, to focus on beauty and good things.

La Nur s’escapa del conte is a sad story but leaves an opening full of hope at the end.

Creativity and imagination always reflect the personality behind them. I am full of hope.

Just the idea of setting up a café in Istanbul which can be defined as a ‘literary refuge’ is about that: books, culture, as protection and a meeting point…

In June it’ll be two years since we opened ‘Pages’. First we spent some time in Jordan, but going around Istanbul we found many similarities with Damascus. We saw that there were many Syrians and found there were many Arabs, but no Arab bookshop. It was easy to find a school for the girls and so we made up our minds. It was actually my husband’s idea. It’s not just a bookshop, we do lots of activities. We run children’s workshops. There’s music, meetings.

How does Turkey treat people arriving as refugees from Syria?

At first, people arriving were very well-received in Istanbul. It was easy to find work, but over time there were more and more Syrians. We’re talking about nearly three million Syrians [in Turkey] now. That’s a lot of people. We’ve become a problem for Turkish society, a challenge, and politicians use the Syrian issue. Things are more difficult. Now the majority of Syrians are trapped in Turkey and can’t move. If you don’t have a residency permit, a business, you can’t get in or out of the country.

Many Syrians in Turkey think Europe may be a good destination and a place with rights. Maybe it’s not what it was. One just has to see the deaths in the Mediterranean…

Unfortunately, they don’t stop trying. I feel I’m better off here. I like Europe but Istanbul is closer than Sweden or Germany. It depends on people’s own situations. People need to work, and maybe an engineer thinks it might be easier to do that in Germany than in Turkey. In Syria there are all sorts of people, like any other society. The situation in the refugee camps is inhumane. It’s the worst problem since the Second World War. But it’s not a problem for Turkey. It’s a problem for the world. There are less people going to Europe now, much less. The deal between Turkey and the EU makes it more difficult.

“I understand Europe wanting to protect itself, but we refugees are normal people”

What do you think of how things are evolving in Europe, more and more closed in and reticent towards foreigners?

I understand the suspicions, the fears, the reticence of Europeans, as with the Turks. They’re the same feelings we might have. We need to stand together and help each other. If I can help the Turks, I do so. I understand Europe wanting to protect itself, but we refugees are normal people, like you. We need to stand together. Terrorism is another matter.

Do Syrians try to stick together?

Of course. ‘Pages’ is like home. When you’re in a foreign country and you’ve lost your home, it’s important to be able to meet. You can feel Syrian and feel comfortable. No problem. We try. We have history and a culture, literature, arts, music. It’s always necessary but in circumstances such as exile it’s even more so. It’s a need, like eating or breathing.

Would you like to go back?

Before the war I had this fantasy about living away, but now I always think about going home. I dream about the war ending and that I’ll go back home.


Share this content