Lebanese illustrator creates picture book for adults to highlight mental health struggles

Rafik El Hariri on why he needed to write his second book 'I Found A Heart'

Lebanese illustrator Rafik El Hariri tackles mental health in his first picture book for young adults. Rafik El Hariri
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We have all had those nights: it's 3am and you're lying wide awake in your bed thinking about life and reflecting on the world. For Lebanese illustrator Rafik El Hariri, it's exactly those recurring thoughts and contemplations that he's decided to compile and turn into a picture book for young adults.

While the idea for the book had been in the works for some time, the young illustrator was finally able to dedicate the time to create it last year when Lebanon, like the rest of the world, went into lockdown at the start of the pandemic. "It was a side project that I kept revisiting," El Hariri tells The National. "I didn't really want to let go of it."

It was also a time in the young illustrator's life when a lot of doors were closing in his face and he needed a project that could keep him going. It was a rough time both mentally and emotionally, he says.

"Over the past couple of years, no one was prepared for what was about to happen, whether the pandemic on a global level or the crisis on a Lebanese level... at a certain time, I felt I was stuck. [I thought] 'this is it. Maybe I won't have a chance to travel, or seek better living conditions.'"

But El Hariri kept himself busy with this project and is now preparing for the launch of I Found A Heart in his home city of Tripoli in August. The book, which he is self-publishing, is the second for the author and illustrator; the first was a children's book called Indigo that follows the story of a young boy with hair the colour of indigo.

While love is a big concept in I Found A Heart, it also focuses on the theme of mental health – both of these themes draw from El Hariri's personal experience. "I Found a Heart is not really about a heart, but an essence, something that I lost and I'm trying to reclaim it, whether it really is a broken heart, or I struggled with my mental health or whether I felt at one point I don't know who I am or what my identity is," he explains.

Through the book, which is written in English, the illustrator, aged 27, tries to deliver a universal message: "It's OK to face whatever it is that you are going through. It's OK to go through brokenness. It's OK to struggle with your mental health."

He also hopes I Found A Heart will resonate with young readers and comfort them in the same way it has him. The book even has an element of interactivity wherein readers can write down their own thoughts, which is El Hariri's way of allowing them to own, or author, a part of the book, too.

El Hariri's illustrations are also comforting. The images illustrate a magical world that is dreamy, poetic and soft with its colours. There are simple repeated elements such as birds, the crescent and human anatomy. It's a style that El Hariri has been developing since he first started drawing in 2014.

"It took around two years to figure out that there are repetitions and consistencies [in my work] and all of a sudden I found my style. Actually, the style found me."

While his work has always been a form of escapism, El Hariri says that over the past couple of years he has been shifting gears to focus on social issues, fusing his imaginary magical world with a very real and difficult one.

He isn't fazed by launching his book during an economic crisis, either. Instead, he is filled with a sense of achievement and is delighted to produce a passion project that he felt he needed to finish. Not only does he hope the book will help others who are struggling during these difficult times to know they are not alone, but that it will also be a page-turner for his career.

I Found A Heart is released in Lebanon on Saturday

Updated: August 18, 2021, 6:24 AM