The Doodler of Dimashq is one of the most moving, thought-provoking, and unassuming books I have ever read on wars. Author Kirthi Jayakumar has given us Ameenah — the child bride, the survivor, the helper, the mother, the warrior, and the doodler of Dimashq. Ameenah’s story is so powerful and heartrending that it would make so many of us realise that we don’t dive into art to escape from our lives, but find our very lives there. Every doodle that Ameenah made on broken concrete slabs is a eulogy. Every scratch was a goodbye to the deceased. Every stroke was a bold statement. Every pattern was a quiet warning; wars may go on, but peace will be created in surprising ways.
Since I loved the book, I interviewed Kirthi Jayakumar for my blog. As always, her answers were enlightening and warm. Here is my favourite writer from Chennai, India.
1. What inspired you to write The Doodler of Dimashq?
The Doodler of Dimashq was born out of grief. What was happening in Syria in 2011, has now spiralled way out of control, and the whole world is wringing its hands and looking in on the conflict from the outside. Political will is lacking in places, and where it is not lacking, it isn’t able to make an impact. There are several actors involved and the conflict is now so convoluted politically — and the price for all this is being paid by innocent little ones, like Aylan Kurdi. It breaks my heart to think of the little boy and how much life there could have been ahead of him. Wordsworth’s beautiful poem, Lines Written in Early Spring come to mind: “And much it grieves my heart to think, what man has made of man.”
In Dimashq, where I had left, Death was a houseguest. In Aleppo, where I had come, Death had a permanent residence.
2. How did you research and how long did you take to write the book?
As a student of law and peace and conflict, much of the narrative around Syria was often part of many conversations I was privy to, whether for work or in engaging to learn from friends. In 2013, when I founded The Red Elephant Foundation, the narrative took on a different light when I started listening to stories and telling some of them, of people who survived these truths. I spoke with a man named Rami Nakhla who was a Syrian who left his country and continued to call for the end of war. I spoke with a girl called Ameena Sawwan who told me about how she and her family faced different aspects of the war. I made three more friends online whose names I cannot take for they asked me not to. I had a very good friend from 2011 who would tweet to me about incidents around her, and for the lack of any information confirming the contrary, I’ve heard that it is true that she is no more. All these people had stories in them — and most of them would tell me, “Remember our stories, and let the world know what is happening in Syria.” So this was largely all my research. The book itself, though, took a month.
Forget every line that was written in your memory. Forget what you were forced to remember about this. There is no history, there is only time. There is no memory, there is only the present. You stand here, watching an edifice like many before you stood and watched, and many after you will stand and watch. You are testament, your feet brush these cobbled streets like the feet of many before you, and many will, after you. You are like every grain in the sands of time. You are everywhere, nowhere, and somewhere, all the time.
3. Tell us about the themes explored in The Doodler of Dimashq.
The lone theme as it stands out, for me, has been survival. People say that the Willow, the tree, is the strongest. It bends, but doesn’t break. I think some human souls are like that. They bend, bend, bend, and bend, until the end. They never break. Ameenah is that, Tete is that. Fathi was certainly that. Ameenah’s teacher, was that. Qudsia was that, and Maryam, was that. The Doodler of Dimashq, in hindsight, for me, are fifteen doodles that found words to speak. If you see, in all the doodles — be it blanks, blacks or patterns — they only bent. But never broke.
4. Besides the protagonist Ameenah, which character is your favourite and why?
Thank you for asking me this. No one has yet asked me, and I’m especially chuffed that it is YOU and YOUR website that is carrying this first. It is Tete. Many assume that Tete is my Paati (grandmother), and I can understand why, because of the closeness I have had with her. But the truth is, Tete, is actually one of my closest friends, in fact, a lifeline. She is resilience, positivity and the greatest, greatest embodiment of live, love, let live, and be loved.
5. Have your Syrian friends read the book? What did they think?
Two of my Syrian friends read the book as a manuscript (i.e., they don’t have hard copies of the book). They found it painful, because it is so close to them. They were very appreciative and kind despite the pain they felt. I am very grateful to them for being so selfless in engaging despite their pain.
6. Each chapter begins with your explanation on a Zen-doodle pattern. For the benefit of readers who are new to Zen-doodling, could you tell us about how the patterns depict Ameenah’s state of mind?
The patterns are a reflection of both, the situation, and Ameenah’s response to the situation. In each one, the pattern is suggestive of what the key emotional evocation in that chapter will be. For example, in the chapter where the doodles are blanks, she is facing a situation where she has no strategy — being uprooted from all that was familiar. In a situation where she has curves and arcs, she is floating along with life — creating coping strategies through and through.
The strains wove a magic that sounded like someone was doodling with music, instead of ink.
7. What do you think are the prime problems for women in India and what can we do to make our country open and safe?
The lack of safety in itself — because of something called patriarchy being a form of structural violence in society, overt violence is not being controlled. The best approach is to create intersectional strategies that make navigation of public and private spaces safe, comfortable and equal to access and engage in.
8. What do you think of the literary scene in India?
Simply beautiful! I love that we have such great writers in English, and in every Indian language. It is my dream to learn as many languages as I can and read every book there is by some amazing Indian authors — but is one lifetime enough? 🙂 Right now I am soaking myself in a beautiful melange of Indian writing comprising Munshi Premchand, Ambai, Tagore and Perumal Murugan. 🙂
9. Who are your favourite authors and what are some of your favourite books?
Oh Deepika, isn’t this the toughest question to ask a reader? 🙂 My favourite authors are Susan Abulhawa, Jodi Picoult, Marjane Satrapi, Khaled Hosseini, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Naguib Mahfouz, Deepti Menon and you. My favourite books of all time are Mornings in Jenin and The Blue Between Sky and Water.
(Thank you for everything, Kirthi!) ❤
About Kirthi Jayakumar:
Kirthi Jayakumar is an activist, artist, entrepreneur and writer from Chennai, India. She founded and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, a civilian peacebuilding initiative that works for gender equality through storytelling, advocacy and digital interventions. She also founded and runs fynePRINT, a feminist e-publishing imprint. She is a member of the Youth Working Group for Gender Equality under the UNIANYD. Kirthi is the recipient of the US Presidential Services Medal (2012) for her services as a volunteer to Delta Women NGO, and the two-time recipient of the UN Online Volunteer of the Year Award (2012, 2013). Her second book, The Dove’s Lament, made it to the final shortlist for the Muse India Young Writers’ Literary Award. Kirthi coded an app for survivors of gender-based violence called Saahas, which works as a web and mobile app. She was recently invited to the United State of Women Summit at the White House in Washington DC, as a nominated changemaker. Kirthi has spoken at TEDx Chennai, addressing Peace Education as a means to end Bullying. She has also spoken at FICCI FLO, as one of the youngest speakers to address the members. Kirthi has also had the distinction of addressing the UNV Partnerships Forum on her work as an epoch-making online volunteer with the United Nations. She is also a Zen Doodler, and runs a HerStory project called Femcyclopaedia. Her works have been commissioned by corporate establishments, non-profits and art collectors world over. Kirthi is the recipient of the 2016 Orange Flower Award from Women’s Web, the 2016 World Pulse Impact Leader Award and the 2017 Empowerment Leader Award from the Dais Foundation. Her work has been published in The Guardian and the TIME Magazine. She wrote and acted in Frankly Speaking, a play that takes off from where Anne Frank’s Diary ended, and also wrote and acted in two other plays, named HerStory and Dolls.