Travelling on the night train from Gothenburg to Abisco Polar station has a mutable dreamlike quality.
Sitting in the warm, cosy coocon of the train carriage, a figura watches, through the windows,the landscape passes by, with endless lonely pine forests silhouetted in the distance.
Staring out of the window into the blackness, one is mirrored in the window, with reflections, layer upon layer, distorting and confusing perceptions of reality, suspended between two places.
This is Khaled’s journey into the vast icy whiteness of the Arctic Circle.
Khaled makes himself comfortable in his sleeper car, with its bunk beds, and settles down for the night. Looking out of the window, he reflects on how the journey is an opportunity to sit with himself. “Many things come to your mind, it can bring you closer to yourself,” he says. “By travelling alone on a train, the happy and the sad memories come; they are part of my personality and my past – they are all me.”
As he travels through the darkness, he thinks about where this journey began, where he has come from, how he is suspended between two places. He has been forced to leave his country, his family, his life.
“As soon as I left my country, I found a new self, someone else who was also me. You start to know yourself as a new person. To see my country collapse, to lose my mother, my uncle, my aunt, a lot of friends, and our house, I feel like someone else was dealing with this, not me. I became two people: someone who wants to survive and someone who is dealing with all this drama and tragedy in my country.”
The long journey through the Swedish night reminds Khaled of when he escaped from Syria and, eventually, arrived in Sweden: “As soon as I entered the train, I remembered the camp where asylum seekers wait for their papers. It’s a special building in the middle of nowhere in the forest. The long narrow corridors of the train, the many different people, faces, families, children, the small rooms with bunk beds – it’s really very similar to the camp, and the people are waiting for something…”
As the train ploughs northwards, Khaled chats to his sister on the phone for a while. Then he begins to contemplate the journey to come and his plans to meet fellow refugees and Sámi people from northern Sweden. He notes his thoughts. Khaled is a writer. As such, he has a special interest in climate change, displacement and identity and this journey is a new project. It is also an inner journey: an opportunity for him to confront his feelings, as each encounter on his journey sheds new light on challenges they have in common.
The train rocks and rolls as it pushes onwards through the constantly shifting landscape. Every so often it passes through a tunnel and lights flash brightly from outside to in. Passing through the villages and towns en route the landscape outside is suddenly illuminated.
Khaled is excited to be sleeping in the train, it is a new experience. Sleep does not come easily at the best of times; the train fights the elements and sways, waking Khaled occasionally who is fearful of being thrown from his bunk. “I was moving like a fish in the bed all night trying to find a way to sleep,” he says. As the train advances into the Arctic, the swaying rhythms and the sound of the wheels on the tracks eventually lull him into sleep.
He’s woken by the warm morning sunshine on his face and the smell of coffee from the bistro car. It is a new world. In daylight, he can see his partial reflection in the windows; outside, the passing villages, bridges and endless trees form a barrier that protects the silence of the forest. The train, serpent-like, breaks through the misty landscape of the early morning. The temperature is -1 ºC, 10 degrees warmer than normal, and the deep snow normally expected at this time of year is replaced by a layer of frost and ice.
Khaled grabs a coffee and sits down to write. Trains inspire him to write.
Twelve hours after leaving Stockholm Khaled arrives in Boden and rolls off the train. He’s going to explore the fortress and meet Osama, a Syrian refugee who spends his days fishing by the river….