On Friday January 10, writer Jake Halpern and artists Michael Sloan and Adeebah Alnemar visited Hopkins and spoke with the community through assembly speeches, panels, discussions, and time spent in the Keator Gallery.
On Friday January 10, writer Jake Halpern and artists Michael Sloan and Adeebah Alnemar visited Hopkins and spoke with the community through assembly speeches, panels, discussions, and time spent in the Keator Gallery. While they have all produced work on their own, it was their joint project, a cartoon called Welcome to the New World, that brought them together and was the focus of their time at Hopkins.
Welcome to the New World focuses on Adeebah’s family, who fled Syria, went to Jordan, and after getting approved to come to the US, arrived on election day in 2016. Halpern said, “This family has landed in one coun- try and woke up the next day in another country.” Halpern met the family soon after they landed, and since then has developed a close relationship with them through telling their story. He explained how, “a lot of people who survive these sorts of things - they don’t talk,” but the Aldabaan-Alnemar family soon wanted to share their experience.
Alnemar said she chose to speak to Halpern because “I just want to see how I can save my family. I had been in America for one month. We wanted to show the real side of the Middle East, not the side that the media shows.” Halpern agreed that telling their story went beyond giving a simple tale of a family who moved to America; he could, “get the truth out there and the truth will do something to tell about the tyranny and oppression of this (Syrian) regime,” He continued, “if we can trust, this fear of divide can be eroded.”
Soon, conversations were flowing and the process of creating the weekly cartoon began. Sloan described the rapid process: “The script went through an editorial process at The New York Times before I received it, usually on a Monday morning, and the final art for the comic was due on Thursdays. Then I emailed the completed sketch to the editors and Jake by Wednesday morning. Finally I emailed the art to the Times by the end of the day Thursday. I think the digital version came out on Friday (the print version came out on Sunday).” Despite the rapid process, it was rewarding for Sloan - “It was always a thrill to see the episodes published in the Times’ Sunday Review section, and to share it with my family.” While Sloan drew the cartoons, the illustrations still involved a level of collaboration. Sloan created the cartoons by first “drawing a pencil sketch, placing Jake’s text into speech balloons in each panel so I’d know how much room there would be left over to sketch the visuals.” After discussions about the accuracy of his sketch, he “traced it onto a sheet of Bristol board paper and begin inking. Then I scanned the finished inked drawing into Photoshop, added color, and formatted the art for both the print and digital versions of the newspaper.”
The drawing process would involve lots of dialogue and feedback between Sloan, Halpern, and the Alnemar family to make sure that the pictures, like the dialogue, painted an accurate picture of their life in Syria and their journey since then. Sloan described, “it was a collaboration between me, Jake, and the refugee family, requiring face-to-face meetings and time spent together getting to know one another, exchanging ideas, and developing trust.”
The dialogue was a similarly collaborative process. Halpern described the process for writing the dialogue in the cartoon: “I would go out there every week and get the update, asking questions, taking notes. This family made it easier. Looking at my notes, now I had to turn it into a scene. Outlines, blanks. When I had my dialogue, I’d go back a third time.” The third time focused on making sure the dialogue was true to what actually happened; Halpern recalled the discussions the Alnemars had when going over the dialogue: “I didn’t say it just like that. How did you say it? I said it a bit more like this.” Halpern also drew information from outside the family, “calling people who I know in Jordan, fact checking to get as close to the truth.”
While the process to make the cartoon realistic was strenuous at times, it was worth it for everyone involved. Halpern commented, “I don’t want a Syrian to read it and say, this is not right.” He knew that as a white man in the US, “you could look at this and think, you should not be writing this story,” but he “also had faith that sometimes it’s good to have an outsider’s perspective who can step back. I hope people get the right picture, racism stops - that’s why we tell our story.”
Before coming together for Welcome to the New World, Halpern, Sloan, and Alnemar all discovered their passions for writing and making art along separate paths. Halpern worked in internships at many publications along the way, including being a copy boy at The New Republic. Sloan knew he had a passion for drawing early on: “I’ve been drawing since I was two or three years old. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, though it wasn’t until I moved to New York City several years later and met some freelance illustrators that I decided to become one myself. My first published illustration appeared in The New York Times Op Ed page; I liked seeing my work in print, and decided that this was something I wanted to pursue.”
For Alnemar, her career as an artist developed with her journey out of Syria and to the US. Similar to Sloan, she had always enjoyed drawing; she said, “It was a hobby from God. When I was in middle school, they used to call me ‘the artist Adeebah.’ Whenever there was a test about drawing, my friends used to ask me for help.” While her drawing started out as purely a hobby, “when I came to Jordan, while it was something I had kept for myself, I knew I had to open it - it would help my family.” While at first she, “thought I was a normal artist,” when, “I came to Jordan and started working hard, I saw was good and that women can do anything.”
Since then, Alnemar has continued drawing in charcoal. She chose charcoal because it “describes both sadness and hope at the same time.” She explained her process, saying, “I like to start drawing when it’s all quiet and when I can sit down and think. Sometimes, I’m in so much pain that I can’t hold the pencil of draw, but sometimes I feel the pain and emotion and I draw anyway.” In her drawings she tries to “send a message of how I lived, how I had a hard time. I bring in real events, and when I add them into art, I can explain real things happening.”
Alnemar said, “I always try to send a message to people. You can see some sadness in my pictures, but I always try to put colors and happiness, because after every dark time is a light one.” You can read Welcome to the New World on The New York Times website and see Alnemar’s artwork at adeebah.com.