Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo: A Syrian Tale of War and Exile

By Elise Daniaud Oudeh and Loaay Wattad

“Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo” is an animated film produced by artists Marya Zarif and André Kadi. Its inception traces back to a Canadian TV series for children aired in 2020. Later, it was adapted into a children’s book titled “Dounia and the Magic Seeds[1]“. The film, a collaborative effort between Canadian and French funding, premiered in 2022, with Zarif serving as both writer and director. As the sequel of the film, “Dounia and the Great White North”, will soon be playing at festivals, this article explores the original creative process of Marya Zarif.

Dounia and the princess of Aleppo” introduces us to the life of Dounia, a young Syrian child born and raised in Aleppo. From her birth in an old traditional house, to her departure, hands in hands with her grandparents, as civil unrest and repression start spreading in the country, the viewer follows the daily life of the small family. On vans, buses, boats and planes, Dounia’s trip takes her all the way to Canada, after crossing Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea to reach Greece.

Official poster of Dounia and the princess of Aleppo. Source: https://www.hautetcourt.com/animation/dounia-et-la-princesse-dalep/

The film is built around two central axes: a personal tribute to Levantine culture and lifestyle, and the depiction of the painful ordeal of the Syrian community, coping with war and violence, exile, loneliness and forced disappearances. Through the eyes of a child, Marya Zarif gives a voice to her compatriots, as 14 millions Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, and 5.8 millions are living outside the country.

A critical analysis of the film reveals five interwoven themes that cross the storyline, unveiling the creative odyssey and the tribulations endured by the heroes as they journey from their homeland to Canada. By highlighting these themes, this article combines a film critique with insights from our interview with Marya Zarif, whose words will be quoted later in the piece. Zarif introduces herself as “a Levantine author, writer, painter, and film director who loves to tell stories and tales for adults and children”.

The Art of Cultural Expression

As children in Canada were the original target of the film, Marya Zarif had to work in French. However, given that the story itself is rooted in Arabic culture, the film seamlessly transitions between French and Arabic languages. By including words, stressing consonants as in the Aleppo accent, slightly changing the syntax, emphasising the Levantine structure of the sentences, and hiring voice actors from the region, Zarif moves closer towards her own perception of language, “the one that speaks to the subconscious”. The spoken language is one among others, including “the language of the home, the language of the senses, the language of the heart, and even the language of cooking”.

Throughout the whole film, she skilfully plays with semiotic elements to recreate her perception of the Levantine atmosphere and immerse the viewer into it through sounds and images. A great example of such a technique is the mobilisation of famous traditional songs: The film features a mix of Arabic songs and instrumental pieces. Notably, songs such as “Ya Maryam,” “Ya téra tiri,” and “al Rozana” remain in Arabic, while the director creatively alters the lyrics of “Aala Dalaouna” to present the recipe of “Mamounieh.” This rendition is performed by Dounia’s grandmother, Téta Mouné, who expertly guides viewers through the steps of preparing the renowned semolina dish originating from Aleppo. Therefore, the “language of cooking” penetrates the “language of music”. Through the same process, “Fatoum fatoum fatoume” becomes French-sang “Balançoire, balance-moi” (swing, swing me).

The great variety of traditional food is emphasised through scenes setting the pace of the life of the characters, as Téta Mouné, sometimes with her friend Mrs. Dabouss, Lina and Dounia, prepares the Mamounié, Tresse cheese (jibneh mshallaleh), and  aubergine jam. The seven spices blend, pickled stuffed aubergines (makdouss), pomegranate molasses, and Aleppo pepper are also evoked. As explained by Zarif, “The relation with food that I underline is proper to Aleppo. Aleppo used to be a state characterised by a very old cuisine which penetrated the local poetry, music, and imagination [..] Each dish is surrounded by a story, a phenomenon proper to Aleppo.” Indeed, each recipe involves a little bit of magic, through the enchanted nigellaBarake seeds”, the full moon slowly cooking the aubergines with its light, or the coffee cups, which can predict the future.

A Syrian childhood: Dounia’s early days in the Aleppo family house. Source: https://www.hautetcourt.com/animation/dounia-et-la-princesse-dalep/

Aleppo’s Folklore: Chronotopic transcendence

The film interlaces a group of old and new folkloric stories from various historical epochs of Arab culture, with a particular focus on Syrian heritage, in a mesmerising flow. Within the film, numerous beloved tales spring to life, including the saga of Ay and Choum, the mystical allure of “Barake Seeds”, the legendary folktale of Ishtar, and the captivating narrative of Leila, the Princess of Aleppo. All these folkloric threads unravel within the overarching backdrop of the Syrian war, the devastation of Aleppo and the profound impact on its inhabitants.

Folk tales emerge as pivotal conduits for addressing psychological trauma, particularly in children subjected to the ordeals of war, displacement, and extreme violence. Rooted in the collective unconscious, they serve as symbolic mirrors reflecting the psychological complexity of emotions and experiences inherent in the psyche of war survivors. By passing down these tales through generations, children find a therapeutic sanctuary as the fantastical realms of folklore offer solace and understanding amidst the chaos surrounding them.

Typical characters in folktales furnish a symbolic lexicon for articulating the ineffable, enabling children to grasp complexities beyond mere verbal expression. It is, for instance, the case when tension arises in the film: the goddess Ishtar grows a magic forest to help Dounia and her family hide from the Turkish guards at the border. Again, the scenes of dance and joyous music within the refugee camp, leading the border guards to let the refugees cross countries, elude rational comprehension. These instances, transcending logical explication, find resolution and a refuge in the imaginative realms familiar to the child through folktales, as Dounia harnesses the Barake seeds in both occurrences.

The film skilfully blends old and new folktales, integrating them into a vibrant Syrian landscape with Aleppo at its core. This dynamic geographical and historical fluidity serves as a transcendent chronotropic[2] perspective on time and place, surpassing conventional boundaries. By situating the tales within the context of Aleppo, a city steeped in history and culture, the film echoes a rich fabric of narratives that resonate across different eras. This approach not only enriches the story with depth and complexity but also underscores the enduring significance of folklore in shaping our understanding of the human experience.

Mesopotamian tales

The first folkloric story introduced in the film corresponds to the characters of Ay and Choum, a stone statue present in Dounia’s house and becoming alive as the situation in Syria gets more threatening. Ay and Choum’s tale is the product of Zarif’s imagination and is inspired by the idols of Tell Brak, an ancient Mesopotamian city in Syria (dated ca. 3700–3500 BC). As the statue comes to life and splits into the two complementary characters, they fulfil a set of symbolic functions. First, those ancient figures introduce a comic element to the story: by commenting on the unfolding events and making sarcastic comments, Ay and Choum introduce a necessary detachment from the gravity of the anxiety-inducing storyline. Second, they help the viewers apprehend the idea of war: the legend that they impersonate explains to children that war has always existed, always comes to an end, and is essential to the story of humanity. Therefore, by creating a mise en abyme of a “tale in the tale”, Marya Zarif brings back ancient Mesopotamia to the world of children to both play down the dramatic elements inherent to her tale, but also to explore deep issues related to the nature of mankind.

In a second time, while passing by the archaeological site of Ain Daraa on their way to Turkey, Dounia and the other travellers have a magical encounter with Ishtar, described by Juan as the “goddess of love and fertility. She is a giant, and when she moves, the ground is shaking, and it tickles the seeds which start sprouting and plants grow everywhere!”. The story of this mythic figure inspired Zarif when meeting an old man in the Jordanian camp “Zaatari”, who was taking care of a small flower.

The Mesopotamian idols Ayn and Choum watching over Dounia as she grows up. Source: https://www.hautetcourt.com/animation/dounia-et-la-princesse-dalep/

Dounia, Leila, and Ishtar: Gender Dynamics

Dounia is a young Muslim girl from Syria who is forced to leave Aleppo at six years old. Like all heroes, she must overcome hardships in a “quest for self”[3], reminding us of the Bakhtinian perception of the self: “The way in which I create myself is by means of a quest: I go out to the other in order to come back with a self”[4]. As explained by Marya Zarif, her creative process “depends on the energy of a character.” Dounia is characterised by her dark hair, “dark as the night and full of stars”’. Her name is also central and symbolic, meaning the world/universe/“terrestrial life” as a metonymy: “Dounia lost everything, but the whole world is hers”. The young girl is surrounded by all types of women: first, her mother, whose husband calls her the “princess of Aleppo”. Téta Mouné and Mrs. Dabouss represent the older generation, while Lina is a young girl of her times, always on her phone. Womanhood also encompasses the goddess Ishtar, and Leila, the Aleppo princess.

Leila puts some dark tones in the story, as she guides Dounia through the crossing of the sea at night, as an initiation ritual leading to the empowering transformation of the young heroine.

Moreover, the name Leila holds significant cultural resonance in Arabic culture. Meaning “night”, it often symbolises the distant beloved, with its historical roots tracing back to Leila, the beloved of Qays, famously known as Majnun. The name’s choice is meaningful throughout the film, as Dounia and her father relay to the late mother, who was taken from them by death, as if she were the goddess Leila herself. Indeed, Dounia’s father calls his wife “the princess of Aleppo” in the first scene of the film. She then appears in the sky midway through the film as a goddess leading the way through darkness, akin to Mufasa’s revelation to his son Simba in The Lion King.

If the plurality of womanhood echoes the long tradition of matriarchy in the region, the film’s figures also include a variety of male profiles, including “Jeddo”, representing the Syrian spirit, the father of Dounia, who dearly loves his wife and daughter while longing for freedom, Sami, the childhood friend, Juan, the Kurdish musician, and Abdo, the spices’ seller. For Marya Zarif, the broad variety of characters representations fight the lack of understanding, the marginalisation, and the stereotypification of Arabness, and contribute to the “dignity of the Arab”. As she explains, “I live my humanity, and I like to say that I defend the humanity of the people I love. Who are the people I love? These are the people who raised me. In particular, my family, and more generally, the Eastern society in which I grew up.”

Dounia surrounded by the feminine figures of her life: Téta Mouné, Mrs. Dabouss and Lina. Source: https://www.hautetcourt.com/animation/dounia-et-la-princesse-dalep/

Facing Realities: Tragedy, war, and exile in Children’s Media

The question of whether a movie centred around war is suitable for children is a complex one. “Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo” delves into the harsh realities of war and exile, particularly focusing on the conflict in Syria and the journey of refugees, with a special emphasis on the people of Aleppo. The film portrays the effects of war on families and the psychological impact it has on their children.

In an ideal world, children should not be exposed to the horrors of war. However, we do not live in such a world and children all over the world, and in particular in the MENA region, are often exposed to the realities of extreme violence, either directly or indirectly, and they may need avenues to process and understand these difficult experiences.

Through cinema, theatre, literature, and art made for children, there is an opportunity to engage them in meaningful conversations about war and its consequences. Zarif’s film does this by incorporating elements of storytelling and folk culture rooted in Aleppo’s heritage. By showcasing the resilience of characters like Dounia, who draws upon her cultural background to navigate through adversity, the film offers a lens through which children can explore their own heritage and find strength in their identities.

While the theme of war may not be traditionally associated with children’s entertainment, it can serve as a means for young viewers to empathise with those affected by conflict and to foster a deeper connection to their own cultural roots. Indeed, in our contemporary world, many children like Dounia dream of a house and of a passport. Ultimately, the suitability of such a film for children depends on various factors, including the age and maturity of the audience, as well as the context in which the film is presented and discussed.

Everyday life in the refugee camp: Juan plays the oud to warm people’s hearts. Source: https://www.hautetcourt.com/animation/dounia-et-la-princesse-dalep/

References

[1] Zarif, M. (2021). Dounia and the magic seeds, Owlkids, 32 p.

[2] Bakhtin’s concept of chronotop refers to the fusion of time and space within literary or cultural contexts, emphasizing how these elements interact to shape meaning and narrative structure.

[3] Clark, K., & Holquist, M. (1984). Mikhail bakhtin. Harvard University Press.‏ pp 78.

[4] Ibid. pp 78.


About the Authors

Elise Daniaud Oudeh is a researcher and PhD candidate in Politics at LUISS University, Italy. She graduated in Slavic studies from Bordeaux University, France, and Political science from Saint Joseph University, Lebanon. She specialises in Russian history of ideas, Arab political thought, and the political discourse of Syria and Russia. She is a contributor to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East policy. Through her professional experience, she worked closely with Russian and Syrian civil societies and is part of a citizen network supporting Syrian activists. She is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic. In the academic year 2023/24, Elise is an affiliated EUME Fellow.

Loaay Wattad is a Lecturer at the Department of Sociology and the School of Cultural Studies at Tel Aviv University, focusing on the sociology of Palestinian children’s literature in Palestine. His dissertation, Minor Literature for Minor Readers, offers a comparative analysis of Palestinian children’s literature. He has conducted extensive research in this field and built a unique database covering the past century. Loaay also completed his MA in the cultural studies department at Tel-Aviv University, focusing on analyzing Palestinian adaptations of the classic tale Little Red Riding Hood as political narratives for subversive resistance. In addition to his academic pursuits, Loaay is a translator and an active member of the Maktoob translators’ circle, dedicated to translating various literary works from Arabic to Hebrew. Furthermore, Loaay is the editor-in-chief of the Hkaya journal, which specifically concentrates on Arabic children’s and young adult literature. In the academic year 2023/24, he is a EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.


Citation: Elise Daniaud Oudeh; Loaay Wattad, Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo: A Syrian Tale of War and Exile, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.03.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50760



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 14. März). Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo: A Syrian Tale of War and Exile. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/w0r4

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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