What are the fundamental differences between telling your own story, telling the story of another, and telling your story about trying to understand someone else’s story?
I’ve been pondering this question since reading The Man Who Built Beirut, Bye Bye Babylon, and Baddawi, three graphic stories that focus on life in Beirut. Individually, these stories account for the experiences of an American traveler, a Lebanese citizen, and a Palestinian refugee, all having lived in Beirut during tumultuous and unsafe moments in the city’s history. Each story is told from a different perspective and each aspires to understand, to remember, and also not to forget.
The Man Who Built Beirut (2013) is an exemplary piece of mini-comic travel journalism—a genre I may have just made up—and a great intro on former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. It’s also a flash overview of Lebanese politics, focusing specifically on the years between 2005-2011. What is most noteworthy is how The Man Who Built Beirut is also a story about the author, who as a character in the comic ventures to understand the complex and chaotic political history in Beirut.
Just sixteen pages long, the mini comic was written and illustrated by Andy Warner, who visited Beirut for the first time in 2005, the same year Hariri was assassinated. Warner actually felt the reverberations from the bomb blast across town that killed Hariri. After that somewhat traumatic moment, he decided he had better learn something about Hariri and Lebanese political history in general.
Hariri was a billionaire by way of highly corrupt business practices, twice the president of Lebanon and widely credited with rebuilding Beirut after the 15-year war that ended in 1990. His murder ignited massive protests across Lebanon, known as the Cedar Revolution, and remains unsolved to this day.
Warner, a white American, said he didn’t know much about the political history of Beirut before he visited. And this is part of why this comic is so powerful—he confides in the reader that he is uninformed and shares his subsequent journey of research and discovery. To the reader, Warner functions as a companion, a guide along the path to understanding and caring about things outside of our own experience.
In this way, the comic isn’t just about Rafic Hariri but about the process of developing empathy. It’s about seeking understanding when the possibility of understanding seems too complicated or too scary or even hopeless, but pushing through and as a result becoming engaged. It’s about an American trying to understand and getting confused and articulating that confusion. And that’s a relatable story for a lot of people, including myself.
The Man Who Built Beirut is available to view as a webcomic here.
Bye Bye Babylon (2012) is a graphic memoir by Lamia Ziadé that recounts her experience of the first four years of Lebanon’s 15-year war from 1975-79. Unlike Warner’s tale, this is not journalism. This is Ziadé’s story of having lived through it.
Ziadé was just seven years old when the war started in 1975 and the first pages of the book reflect that. Saccharine drawings of Bazooka bubblegum, Kraft marshmallows, and Kellogg’s Smacks introduce her as a typical child. Almost immediately she offers the reader a not-so-subtle reality check (this was a Beirut childhood after all) by adding drawings, in the same delightfully sweet style, of various weaponry: Kalashnikov AK 47s, M16s, and RPGs. Further on, she illustrates the fashions and insignias of active militias in Beirut: Amal, Saiqa, the Phalangists, NLP, PLP, SSNP.
The book continues this way. Drawings of consumer objects alternate with objects of war. There are hotel fires and bomb blasts, and then there are Chiclets and bottles of Chivas Regal. Some transitions between the two are more jarring than others. I gagged a little after turning a page of deliciously drawn hamburgers to see a live person tied to the back of a car, bloody like ketchup and being dragged to his death. This interaction of consumer culture and political reality recalls Martha Rosler’s series of photo-collages, “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful,” except that the way Ziadé presents this interaction seems less intellectually constructed. Ziadé’s actual experience of war is the argument that Rosler astutely crafted.
Most noticeably, all of Ziadé’s objects float. They appear without background, without context or landscape. They exist in isolation. They function like the myopic lens of memory: there are holes and disconnections. There are hotel fires, bottles of Valium, and Enid Blyton books in no particular order. But there is no sky, and there definitely is no ground. There are no page numbers. There is only action and objects. There is violence and explosions and there are the objects looked to for distraction.
Bye Bye Babylon literally illustrates that the function of memory and the processing of it doesn’t require both a foreground and a background. That’s the business of cameras. Our minds click on disparate elements that our memories later retrieve and rearrange in the telling of our stories. I suppose Ziadé could have created complete drawings of environments that seamlessly stitched together her experience of the war, but she didn’t. And maybe that’s because she wants you, the reader, to do the stitching.
That’s what is most compelling about this book. Where there are blank spaces, there are unanswered questions. What existed in those spaces surrounding Ziadé’s objects? Was there a table underneath those Kellogg’s Smacks? If that table was omitted, then what else is missing from Ziadé’s story? As readers, we are asked to fill in the blanks, and maybe this means that Ziadé is inviting us to add a little of ourselves to her story. If we are able to do that, are we empathizing more so with her experience?
Baddawi (2015) is a coming-of-age graphic novel about Ahmad, a Palestinian refugee in Beirut. It is written and illustrated by his daughter, Leila Abdelrazaq. She dedicated the book to her grandmother and grandfather, and to “all those children of immigrants who have not forgotten their parents’ stories.” In some ways Baddawi is an unremarkable story, but it’s a vital one. So much of the world sees Palestinians as inhuman or nonexistent, and one reason for this has been the active eradication and suppression of Palestinian culture. Culture, after all, is what identifies us human.
Abdelrazaq’s father Ahmad was born in Baddawi, a refugee camp in Northern Lebanon where he lived with his mother, father, and nine brothers and sisters. Despite his family’s displacement, it seemed that Ahmad experienced certain aspects of a typical childhood—he was mocked by classmates, desired the perfect soccer cleats, played marbles like a champion, and loved cheese sandwiches. He spent time in the mountains gathering thyme, the main ingredient in zaatar, which his mother made.
He had a best friend, Ibrahim. Together they would hang out, do homework, stay up all night talking, and get into all sorts of shenanigans. Like the time they decided to build a boat and Ibrahim floated out to sea with it and disappeared. Hours later, Ahmad found him washed ashore in a garbage dump smelling like, well, a garbage dump.
Quotidian life in Baddawi went on like this until the early 1970s when Israel struck the camp with cluster bombs and a cousin’s wife was killed. After this, Ahmad’s story experienced a series of ups and downs. The family moved out of Baddawi and to Beirut, where a tween-age Ahmad was dazzled by the fancy hotels and the seaside culture. Like many boys his age, he became obsessed with Bruce Lee films and got a job as a grocery delivery boy so he could afford movie tickets at the Piccadilly Theatre.
One day he witnessed the bloody aftermath of the Israeli murder of a PLO leader. On another day he got stuck in traffic after the Phalangists, a militant political party, opened fire on a bus full of Palestinian refugees. This incident was called the “Bus Massacre” and is commonly credited as the beginning of Lebanon’s 15-year war.
Baddawi and Ahmad’s story may not be extraordinary, relatively speaking, but that’s what makes it so heartbreaking. Baddawi is the Palestinian experience of displacement, poverty, inequity and suffering. Emergent in this story is also Abdelrazaq’s commitment to keeping her father’s story alive. Baddawi is not just about Ahmad but about Abdelrazaq’s ambition—as a child of a Palestinian refugee—to not forget, which is much different than trying to remember. Palestinian people are faced with a persistent struggle to not forget because so much of their cultural note taking has been erased. Baddawi is a beautiful addition to that cultural memory
For further transmissions from Beirut:
Samandal Comics is a comic magazine published in Beirut.