In this piece, the first of three chapters, Tahmineh Hooshyar Emami takes us down the Rabbit Hole in a re-imagination of the classic children’s story Alice in Wonderland, told this time from the perspective of Alice the refugee. Torn from her homeland by conflict and war, Alice embarks on the long journey across Europe. This is a story of exile, loss and hope – a fictional retelling of an all too real story. Tahmineh’s piece demonstrates some of the ways in which storytelling can be deployed as an alternative way of understanding conflict and displacement. You can follow Tahmineh on @TahminehEmami.

Alice’s Alternative Wonderland: Chapter One

By Tahmineh Hooshyar Emami, University College London


In 2009, Syria was advertised as an oasis of peace and relaxation in the conflict-stricken Middle East and was embracing an increasing culture of tourism. This was just before the war and bombings made their way into people’s lives, driving them from their homes.

The following piece is a supposition on what happens to refugee children during and after their journey. A lost generation who will grow up in new homes, juxtaposing their memories of the route in improbable combinations, fracturing the scenes and sceneries they have collected along the way, distorting the reality of their experiences on a subconscious level. This is the story of Alice’s collection, or re-collection, of memories along the refugee route and the reconstruction of a home using fractured pieces of the tragic journey.

Alice’s Alternative Wonderland is the fictitious account of a child’s experiences on the European refugee trail and of events as they unfold along her journey. The tale is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, a political allegory in fiction which as a literary work, transposed objects and events from the real sociopolitical tableaux of Victorian Britain into a perplexing world of criticism and satire. A selection of news articles and extracts of real-life events form the backbone to this fictional story as an exploratory form of research into the role of fiction, storytelling and illustration in the context of refuge and asylum.



Figure 1.jpg

Her previous attempts to go back to normality had been proven improbable. Having moved to Lebanon a year after the start of war, she had realized there would be no escape in any of the neighbouring areas: war was expanding fast and had reached this city soon after. She had been trying to learn the laws and practices of the new country but soon she was to find out that safety lay somewhere away from these lands, beyond the borders of Middle Eastern lands.

She soon set on her way on a trail that thousands had traversed before her. Along the way, she looked down for remnants of her precedents and their experience to take with her, portals, a makeshift fireplace, a mirror that distorted reality. She carefully stepped into the trail that they had crossed years ago, walking through sea, crop fields and deserts, examining the wasteland of memories from above.


She now found herself confined in a long, low hall with locked doors all around, she walked out of one door leaving the familiar environment of Lebanon behind and had stepped into a hostile, warring zone. The only easy escape to normality and safety was a small door which was half open. The door led into the loveliest garden you ever saw; oh, how she longed to get out of that dark hall and wander amongst those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains. But the door was too small for her to get through and the garden which was full of promises of hope and life, seemed too unreachable.

Beyond a red door, at the heart of the garden, lived a mother, called mutti. She was the hope of travellers who had left their homes, caring and protective, she would offer refuge to those who fled war. For this exact reason, she was often said to be gambling with the stakes to either keep her stature as the queen of our story, or lose it.

Alice’s second attempt was to escape to Egypt in search of a new home, but that proved to be an impossible escape from the nightmare she had been facing back home. She dreamt of the lemon tree they so cherished in their garden and longed for her friends, for the cool evenings of Damascus, refreshing mint tea, brewing on the kettle.

She set off on a journey on the trail of travellers through to the promised-land, picking up remnants and memories of places they had left behind. She re-told her journey a second time. This time, Alice was the teller. Her head was clear and she could see things from a different perspective, like a bird flying above, detached from the tragic journey she had once left behind.


She knew of a family who had walked across Syria to Jordan, through the desert, without food or water, collecting the orphaned children from ruined cities. Resting in broken buildings and bombed homes, amongst misery and death; the group of four that had set on their way, had now increased to seven. They told us tales of sounds of guns and artillery, of the smell of blood and dust.

Alice had been to see them. When she entered through the door of their humble temporary refuge, the children had begun to stir from their warm nooks and quickly sat up, bewildered by the sight of the stranger. This part of the story is the tale of a father weeping for children that were not even his own, for a life and a home that had been buried forever.

Figure 2.jpg


She had heard of a route through Turkey which avoided the Aegean Sea, now a pool of tears. Some men had walked through to Turkey and then crossed into Georgia, reaching the gates at the border of Russia, others had walked to Lebanon and been flown out from Beirut to Moscow, taking trains to the Murmansk border. Along the road, they had crossed treacherous paths through mountains and woods, coming across unreliable guides and frozen lakes to traverse. These polar borders had not been friendly to those men and neither had the locals. Laws were morphing and new rules revealing themselves from every corner of the land, this was the land of impermanence and confusion.

The lucky few who had reached the polar border were forbidden to walk or be driven across. Suddenly they found themselves on small children’s bicycles moving towards the entrance, the woods had vanished and the frozen lakes could no longer be seen.

The door was shrinking as they approached until it became uncomfortably small and the men could only cross one after the other, bending their heads to go through. Beyond the door, a graveyard of bicycles revealed itself with heaps of brand new children’s bikes, with the plastic covers still on, a ‘boosting’ local economy. Soon, locals would come and pick up the barely used bicycles and sell them as new in the nearby cities.

This route was faster and safer, but at a great cost that many could not afford. Others like Alice had been forced to go through dangerous routes over the Aegean, confronting tumultuous waters, freezing temperatures and unscrupulous police forces.


Read Chapters Two and Three, in addition to the author’s reflection on the process of writing this three-part fictional account.


Featured Image: Artwork (c) T. Emami




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