I Remember, Beirut (Me acuerdo, Beirut) by Zeina Abirached – A Review

Me acuerdo Beirut (I Remember Beirut)
Zeina Abirached
Sinsentido, 2009

I Remember Beirut (Me acuerdo, Beirut) is a short graphic novel that forms a kind of addendum to Zeina Abirached’s excellent The Swallow’s Game. Where Swallows told a complete story and interspersed the stories of the war, creating a large work that feels complete, large, as if she had captured at least one moment of experience. I Remember Beirut, on the other hand, is brief, a longing for something that no longer exists, or if it does it is out of reach of the author. Compared side by side, the smaller volume feels some how lacking. Perhaps that isn’t fair, but it is hard not to.

I Remember Beirut has new stories, but the characters are familiar if you have read Swallows. Included, are the narrator and her family, the brave taxi cab driver, and Victor the French speaking gentleman. She writes with the same humor, contrasting the dreams of a young girl with those of the war. It isn’t a particularly dark book and has many moments where she remembers how to make a paper boat, what Florence Griffith-Joyner’s finger nails were like, or the fruitless attempts to calm her curly hair. At the same time there are childhood memories that make war seem like a game. For example, her brother collects scraps of artillery shells, she takes a Zodiac ride to the ship evacuating the family from Beirut, the make an impromptu swimming trip where even asking directions uncovers refugees. She also returns to the daily hardships that fill The Swallows Game. It is the man in the horse drawn cart who delivers kerosene because they have no electricity, the explanation of how they stored water and took showers that makes the book intriguing. War is brutal, but how is it that people survive and continue on? That is the interesting question. In one scene towards the end, the narrator shows herself as an adult terrified by a thunderstorm in Paris; the war has a long reach. The best moment of the book comes, though, when the war ends and the family goes for a walk through what had once been no man’s land. There is nothing there, just rubble, but the parents narrate the journey of what had been, pointing out the stores that no longer exist, the street car tracks with out street cars, where the best bakery had been. And when the father is depressed after wards she notes that her brother is so happy, because he had found even more shell casings. Not only has the war divided the past from the present, but it has separated the generations. Beirut has changed and all one can do is remember it.

I Remember, Beirut is a good book, a kind of desert after Swallows. But what I’m also curious about is what is next? Now that her coming of age stories are over, can she go onto something else? It seems that so many graphic novels are based on the coming of age story. Fine, we all have one, but after that? Her skill as an artist is certainly impressive. I’m curious, though, if she has the skills as a story teller to continue on. I Remember Beirut has the slight feel that she used the last of her material. But she’s young, so there is a lot of time to find out.

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