Sketches with global appeal

How does one go about telling a story as dramatically tragic as that of the young Somali sportswoman who lost her life attempting to cross the Mediterranean in a refugee boat? And can such a story be told by a writer best known for graphic novels, comic books for adults? By Manfred Ewel

By Manfred Ewel

Reinhard Kleist, one of Germany's finest illustrators and author of several award-winning graphic novels, did not hesitate when the Goethe Institute in Palermo invited him to Sicily for a month. He was to participate in a residency programme and have the opportunity to see for himself what day-to-day life is like for refugees. "Ever since I read Elias Bierdel's book ′Ende einer Rettungsfahrt′ (end of a rescue operation), I have not been able to get the whole refugee thing and refugee policy out of my mind."

On the streets and in the camps he met many refugees from North Africa, people who had survived the dangerous crossing in overcrowded boats. During his research he also met Teresa Krug, an American journalist, who told him of the tragic fate of Samia Yusuf Omar, a young Somali woman who had represented her country at the 2008 Olympics in Peking and had been aiming to do the same in London in 2012.

Olympic hopeful Samia Yusuf Omar

Since it was impossible to prepare properly in Mogadishu for such an ambitious goal, she made the decision, like so many young people, to try to realise her dream by undertaking a risky journey that would take her via Addis Ababa and Khartoum to the Libyan coast.

Whenever possible during the rigorous journey, she kept in touch with her sister, who had fled to Finland, via Facebook. Tragically, having overcome all of the hazards of the journey, she was to die within a stone's throw of her destination and before the eyes of would-be rescuers, when the boat she was in capsized during a rescue attempt by the Italian navy – she was just 21 years old when she perished amid the panic and chaos that ensued.

Cover of Reinhard Kleist′s ″An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar″ (published by SelfMadeHero)

Until that time, Reinhard Kleist was known mainly as an author of biographies, with successful books on Johnny Cash, Fidel Castro and the boxer Hertzko (Harry) Haft to his credit.

Prior to his trip to Palermo, however, his commitment to refugees had already taken him to a camp for Syrian Kurds in northern Iraq, which he had reported on for the television channel ARTE.

In order to allow readers to better understand Samia's story, he had to supplement the sparse details of her short life through Internet research, information gleaned from her sister, or by talking to Somali migrant workers in Berlin.

As a result, he was able to include realistic scenes, both visually and through incorporating typical refugee experiences in East Africa, into his graphic novel "An Olympic Dream", which had its first appearance in German (Der Traum Von Olympia) when it was serialised in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2015.

Following its publication in English and French, the Egyptian Sefsafa Publishing House brought out an Arabic edition in January of 2017. It was this that prompted the Goethe Institute in Sudan to invite Reinhard Kleist to Khartoum to present his book in person, in conversation with an audience.

New generation of Arab comic book illustrators

As is the case with most visits by German guests, the artist from Berlin spent some time in the days prior to this event, getting to know some of the Sudanese writers and illustrators who also publish their stories for children or adults in comic book form. In both Sudan and Egypt, recent years have seen the rise of a younger generation of comic illustrators, who, without the advantages of art college training, teach themselves the necessary skills, learning their craft through the study of comics on the Internet or from watching animated films.

The three-day workshop with Reinhard Kleist provided the young comic book illustrators with a wonderful opportunity to exchange ideas and produce new sketches: Yousif Elamin, for example, who publishes his drawings and videos on his Facebook page ′Yakam Dudes′ and is one of the most active artists in the "Sudanese Association for Comics and Games", wanted to learn more about developing exciting storylines, creating more believable characters and diversifying layouts. The evocative black and white sketches inspired by Samia's odyssey were of course perfectly suited to the purpose and the first copies of the Arabic edition, with a personal dedication from the author, sold out completely on the evening of the launch!

After the workshop, the participants and Reinhard Kleist worked together to set up a new Facebook page that will allow them to continue sharing ideas. The Goethe Institutes in Egypt and Sudan, along with their colleagues at the French cultural institutes, are also planning to publish a comic book soon that will feature the best new stories and be part of the French exhibit when France becomes Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair this autumn.

Not only will this ensure that the story of Samia Yusuf Omar as graphic novel is made available to an Arab readership, but also that the latest stories from the comic producers of Egypt and Sudan reach a wider audience. As for Reinhard Kleist, he was every bit as enthusiastic about his stay in Sudan as he was about his earlier visit to Egypt – and he would be more than happy to return for more workshops!

Manfred Ewel

© Goethe-Institut 2017

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Manfred Ewel is the director of Goethe-Institut Sudan.