So many stories and interesting pictures are shared online by people all over the world.
One day while I was browsing on Facebook, a single image caught my eye. It was a beautiful, tender image of a mother holding her baby. Behind her, the father was trudging along under a heavy load. The image displayed such strong emotion. It touched me deeply. But the amazing thing was the medium. The image was not painted; it was not drawn. It was composed entirely of stones.
Wait a minute, I thought. How can stones display such emotion? Who is the artist who can breathe such life into solid rock?
I looked more closely and noticed that one of the stones was signed: Nizar Ali Badr. I searched the name and found a Facebook page full of his amazing work. Each image told a story expressing love, anguish, sorrow or joy. I learned that Nizar was a Syrian, and it soon became evident that much of his work was inspired by the war that has engulfed his country.
Like everyone else, I was familiar with the refugee stories coming out of the Middle East. For many months I had seen and heard the almost-daily news reports of people struggling to cross borders to safety. Of people frantically trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in unsafe boats, many not making it. Few of us have not been touched by stories of desperate refugees from Syria and elsewhere seeking asylum in the West.
Nizar’s work spoke to me strongly. In his art I saw people changing—from happy, carefree children into people burdened and fleeing. There was hurt and sorrow. But ultimately there was also love and caring. And, amazingly, all of this told with stones.
As a children’s author, I found myself inspired to create a story that could be illustrated by the art of Nizar Ali Badr. But, of course, I knew I couldn’t just use his images without his permission. Artists must be compensated for their creative work. And would Nizar Ali Badr be willing to work with a children’s writer he had never heard of from halfway across the world?
There was only one way to find out. But how to contact a stranger in war-torn Syria? So the adventure began. First I sent Nizar Facebook messages. This went on for some time, but to no avail. It occurred to me that perhaps he did not speak English. I wrote him a letter and asked a friend of mine in Australia to translate it into Arabic for me. Again no reply. What if something had happened to him? What if he had fled Syria?
But when I saw a recent Facebook post by him, I knew he was alive. I then asked a friend in Pakistan to see if she could contact him. She soon reported that his Facebook page had reached its friends limit. As a result, he was not getting my messages. Now what? My friend in Pakistan finally managed to get a message through to Nizar in Syria. “My friend Margriet in Canada wants to talk to you,” she told him.
“Tell her to email my friend Saji,” Nizar replied. “He speaks English.”
I was so excited to hear this!
Quickly I sent a message to Saji, who, like Nizar, lives in Latakia, Syria. I explained my idea about making a book together. Would Nizar be willing to let me use his images? Did he still have the original photos? Was the quality of the images high enough for book production? “Maybe,” said Saji.
Saji explained that Nizar, like so many artists, is not a wealthy man. That he collects rocks on the beach for his works. That he does not even have money to buy the glue that would give permanence to his art. Saji explained that after taking a photo of a piece, Nizar often has to take it apart again. I was thrilled when Nizar agreed to work with me on the book. Next I wondered who would publish a book for which I had the art but was still writing the text. This is not the way children’s picture books are typically produced. Also, I wanted a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book to be donated to an organization or organizations devoted to helping refugees. No one ever gets rich from producing books. Would a publishing house be willing to cut its profits and donate to this cause?
Luck was with me. I phoned Bob Tyrrell, the founder and president of Orca Book Publishers, and described my vision for the project to him. “Yes,” he said immediately, “we’ll do it.” It turned out that Bob and his wife, Avril, were already involved with a group sponsoring a Syrian refugee family, so he felt the decision was easy for him.
And so we all joined forces, and my plan fell into place. Contracts were signed, advances paid. The book began to evolve into something more than a vision. Nizar created new pieces. Saji translated my questions and took photos of Nizar’s art. I wrote and Bob edited. We rewrote and retook photos.
And now we can share our story with you! I hope it will help raise awareness of the plight of those who have to flee the horrors of war. But I hope it conveys too a sense of peace and love, of people helping one another. I am also happy to have played a part in bringing the work of the wonderful artist Nizar Ali Badr to an audience he might not otherwise have reached. This has been an interesting and intriguing project for me…my own journey of discover. May it be the same for you.
Margriet Ruurs, May 2016