Baddawi (2015) is a coming-of-age graphic novel by Chicago-based artist Leila Abdelrazaq about a boy raised in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon; it’s a poignant tale based on her father’s early life. The eponymous Baddawi is the refugee camp where Ahmad was born after his parents’ expulsion from Palestine in 1948. Just published with a promoted launch next week, it is one of a few graphic novels which attempt to capture the exceptional, uncertain, often surreal, quality of Palestinian lives in chaotic exile as the mundane, everyday tasks demand to be met. Going to school, studying, using the library — activities that require a certain measure of certainty and are dependent upon rules, conventions and institutions — are shaken to the core in the story by questions about handling war, weaponry and national identities. While the certainty of childhood expectations contrasts with the uncertain conditions of war and exile, this contrast is not only jarring but poignant when represented through Abdelrazaq’s simplistic style of illustration that emphasises the juvenilia, childhood memory and adolescence associated with the graphic-novel form.
The lineage of graphic novels depicting Palestine can be traced back to arguably the most well-known work, Joe Sacco’s Palestine (1996), based on his two-month visit to the territory in 1991-1992. Like Abdelrazaq, Sacco’s narrative focuses on the minutiae of the mundane in the occupied territories, revealing everyday tasks transformed into momentous struggles, humiliations and frustrations. Academic Ella Shohat has stated that “maps, borders, checkpoints and the Wall have now become signature icons of the Israeli/Arab conflict.” While these borders appear to be stable, they are overrun by new Jewish settlements within the territories and by the state’s mobile walls, enclosures and “flying checkpoints”. Sacco captures the political strategies of spatial control through illustrating the material realities of the everyday; the home, a bus trip, a walk.
Most of the scenes in his book are conversations between Sacco and Palestinians; his dense, crammed, jumbled panels reveal that the spatial strategies of confinement and contingency are not distant concepts. When Sacco’s avatar is not crossing checkpoints, he is observing events near a wall or fence. Almost every person he meets has been detained by Israeli forces or knows someone who has been in an Israeli jail. The homes that Sacco depicts stretch the definition of “shelter”, as they are subject to attack, demolition and deterioration through the occupation and poverty. He visits his friend Sameh in the Jabalia refugee camp, where the homes, made of corrugated metal and makeshift doors and windows, have the appearance of the temporary, the contingent. At his friend’s house, the roof leaks, and there’s a lamp on the sofa, gaps in the structure of the building and exposed wiring. At the same time, Sacco shows attempts at domesticity, ranging from carpets, plants and paintings, revealing a paradoxical interior aesthetic that struggles between the temporary and permanent.
While Palestine is a sequenced description of events during the Second Intifada, representing a typical graphic-novel linearity, Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza (2009) challenges this aspect of the genre through a mix of panels that alternate between the past and present, as Sacco’s avatar attempts an excavation of events buried in the Palestinian past. The novel focuses on two days in Gaza in 1956 when Palestinians said that hundreds of civilians were killed by Israeli forces. Sacco found almost nothing written in English about these killings, despite UN estimates of nearly 400 deaths in both Rafah and Khan Younis. A broad selection of testimonies are combined with speeches and official documents, but most of the 400 pages are made up of memories of executions, hiding and the aftermath of burials, rendered through Sacco’s emblematically cinematic repertoire of viewpoints within a single page: zooming in for a close-up of a survivor of the massacre as she remembers and vacillates between the past and present; or pulling away from a scene of a mass execution to give perspective on its scale. While testimony of the past prevails in the novel, its resonance in the present compels Sacco to write, “While we feverishly dig away at 1956, daily events are obscuring our finds, making it that much harder for our subjects to focus on the stratum in question.” This text block is set alongside a panel in which an elderly woman lies in a hospital bed, her leg in a cast as a result of injuries wrought by the demolition of her home by Israeli bulldozers.
Like Footnotes in Gaza, Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman (2009), an Israeli filmmaker and former soldier, attempts to reconstruct from shrouded memory traumatic episodes, specifically fighting the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese war in Beirut and an elusive vision of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It is told from the perspective of an Israeli soldier. Originally an animated film, it was adapted later into a graphic novel. While both novels cross space and time fluidly — between memory and the present, dream and lived, waking experience — and provide a street view of events on the ground, Waltz with Bashir has been criticised for rendering Palestinians indistinct and anonymous, lacking individuality and a voice; beyond the collective wails of the victims in the camp, they are excluded from the narrative process. This is in contrast to Sacco whose panels are essentially composed of individual testimonies, with the faces of Palestinians each drawn uniquely, and his own face appearing simply illustrated.
Guy de Lisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City (2012) is a travelogue in graphic-novel form that provides a pavement view of an expat living temporarily in occupied East Jerusalem. The outsider perspective illuminates the inequalities between Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, with their cratered roads, piles of rubbish and lack of a pavement, and the modern and developed streets in Israeli areas.
The Novel of Nonel and Vovel (2009) by Larissa Sansour and Oreet Ashey is an experimental graphic novel that features the creators’ alter egos. The novel takes the issues of narration and composition, with which Sacco also grapples, to an explicitly self-reflexive level when, in a few panels on a single page, the super-hero duo pull back from the action in which they are engaged to question their own narration.
Another film adapted into a graphic novel is Irene Nasser’s Budrus (2013), based on the documentary directed by Julia Bacha. It follows the unarmed protest movement in a village through the eyes of 15-year-old Iltezam Morrar, but so far it only exists in Arabic. France has also produced a variety of (untranslated) graphic novels, such as Gaza, un pavé dans la mer (2009), Les chemins de traverse (2010), , Faire le Mur (2010), and Palestine, dans quel État? (2013) by Maximilien Le Roy, Torture Blanche by Philippe Squarzoni (2004), and Les Amandes Vertes (2011) by Delphine and Anaële Hermans.
Recently, graphic novels have taken more of a hold in Palestine; its first comic-book festival was held last year. The collection West Bank Stories: The Graphic Novel (2010), edited by Rebecca Cox and launched by NGO Project Hope, was composed entirely by Palestinian youth; hopefully, it’s a sign of what’s to come, with more work emerging from Palestine itself. (http://projecthope.ps/organizational-news/west-bank-graphic-novels/)
Before all of this, though, there was Naji Al-Ali, one of the Arab world’s most prominent cartoonists and satirists, displaced several times over, detained, censored, expelled and finally assassinated in 1987. His work is most represented by his iconic Handala, the rumpled, dishevelled, barefoot refugee child of the camps, who stands with arm clasped behind his back and back turned to the reader until he can return to Palestine. This iconic image not only resonates in the character of Ahmed, the child of the refugee camp in Baddawi, but also on the cover where, surrounded by patterns of Palestinian embroidery, we can see his back turned and hands clasped behind his back in a Handala stance refusing to go any way but home.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.