The Swallows Game (El juego de las golondrinas) by Zeina Abirached – A Review


El juego de las golondrinas
Zeina Abirached
Sinsentido, 2009

I have a rule about what I read in Spanish: no translations. It makes little sense to me to read something translated into Spanish if you can read it in English, especially if it was written in English in the first place. But I have one exception to the rule, too. If the book is not available in English then I will use Spanish as another means to read it. Lamentably, I had to invoke the second rule to read Zeina Abirached’s El juego de las golondrias (The Swallows Game). It is a shame that the English speaking world has to content itself with a few page at Words Without Borders, because The Swallows Game deserves an English edition.

The Swallows Game takes place on one day in 1984 as the war rages all around. The narrator, a girl of 8 at the time, but now an adult, is waiting for her parents to return from a visit to her grandparents. They have made the perilous journey that takes them just a few blocks away, but whose route is filled with snipers, barricades, barbed wire and sandbags. It is a dangerous visit and the girl, her brother and the an old servant who has been with the family for years are waiting nervously for them to return. When they are delayed, the tension mounts as the the family tries to call, which is nearly impossible, and neighbors come by to offer advice and suggestions. During the waiting Abirached adds back story to each of the characters, and explains the difficulties of living in a war zone. The interplay between the waiting and the characters make the story, at once funny and dark.

Abirached’s Beirut is not only a city amidst a war, but the passing of a way of life. The physical manifestations of the world they knew, of course, are the first to go. As the shelling and snipers slowly chip away at the buildings the family moves one by one from each of the rooms in their apartment until they inhabit the one inner room that offers the most protection. Naturally, their possessions also ebb away, until they are left a few keep sakes or precious heirlooms. She also describes the people who belong to a different time, such as Ernest, a dapper man who used to teach french. Always dressed impeccably, he looks like a gentleman from decades earlier. He is a charmer and when she describes him, it is not only the characters like him who have disappeared, but a Beirut that was more cosmopolitan and international. It is also the end of Francaphone Beirut and a man who can recite passages from Cyrano De Bergerac is probably a thing of the past.

Abirached avoids anything graphic or gory about the war. Instead, she focuses on the emptiness of it, accentuating the empty streets and deprivations. At its most stark she will draw empty streets in clear and repetitive detail, avoiding words, and letting the impersonality of peopleless streets say it all. Once in the apartments where the story takes place she describes the privations the residents have to go through, from saving bottles for water and gasoline, to enduring shelling, to at its most extreme having one’s father murdered by a militia at a check point. The brutality and hardship is ever present. And even though The Swallows Game is a child’s story, she never lets the war fade too far into the background.

Artistically, the book has some moments of visual brilliance. The opening sequence of empty streets with barricades, brick walls, and empty oil drums all marked with bullet holes is impressive visual story telling. Abirached likes to use subtle repetition to reinforce a moment or an idea. In addition to the the empty street scenes, she will draw a series of repetitive panels illustrating a conversation. At first it looks like they are the same, but she has made small changes to the eyes or the mouths of the characters. It takes a close read to see the changes, but in those subtle movements you can see the tension, boredom, and youthful energy of the characters come through. Through out the book, she has moments where the visual is as important to the story telling as the text. This isn’t always true in graphic novels and in The Swallows Game it is a welcome addition.

Obviously, the black white drawings are going to draw comparisons to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. While there are certainly similarities, Abirached’s style is different and her art is more interesting and has a stronger visual style. Both are also coming of age stories set against a back drop of political troubles, and they both use humor to tell what could otherwise be dark books. Abirached’s book is not an autobiography since she was born in 1981 and it takes place in 1984, but it does have the feel of so many graphic novels that are autobiographies. While autobiographies can err on the light side, it is a mistake to confuse the reading time (always short with graphic novels) and to mistake a child’s perspective for lack of depth. The power in the story is the contrasting of the children against the war itself. Despite the deprivations going on, the children had a childhood, and it’s the dissipation of the world around them as they grow into the new one that is being formed that makes The Swallows Game interesting. Hopefully, someone will find it interesting enough to translate.

Off the Wall – Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War – A Review

Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War
Zeina Maasri
I. B. Tauris, 168 pg

Every war has its own aesthetic. As bad as it sounds to equate art and style which often had a connotation of beauty and goodness to war, the need to solidify group membership, demonize the other, and provide a vision of the future with its implicit sense of triumph, lend themselves to symbolic interpretation through art. The poster in the modern industrial world is a cheep, quick and disposable medium that has been one of the most common ways to mix art and war. Even if a faction could not afford radio or TV, the poster was available, and that ease of production has left many enduring images that shape the impressions of a war. For Americans, the Uncle Sam I Want You Poster from World War I or Rosie the Riveter from World War II, are as important to the iconography of those wars as a trench scene or raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

It is with these ideas in mind that Zeina Maasri approaches the 150 posters that make up the richly printed collection from the Lebanese Civil War. Maasari finds in the posters reflections of an aesthetic and a politics that were unique to Lebanon. While she notes that the posters may seem at first similar to the propaganda posters of the wars of the 20th century whose goals were to inspire and demonize, the posters in Lebanon, due to the sectional nature of the conflict, were more focused on establishing control and marking territory. Since the lines between combatants were not always marked out clearly, the posters became a means of showing areas of control and describing who was in power. At the same time, the posters performed their traditional role of forging group cohesion. Moreover, Maasari points out that politics in Lebanon for at least the last half of the 20th century was marked by factional dynasties that provided leadership for each group, and whose leaders passed leadership from father to son; thus, the posters often served the dual role of emphasizing the role of the leader as the head of the faction and reminding the view of the faction’s strength. Finally, religion is an important element in many of the posters, especially as the Shiites moved away from the traditionally left leaning parties to the religious.

From these elements which Maasri outlines in a series of insightful chapters that mix the history with posters, the reader can understand not only what the posters mean but their context. Providing context is not a simple task when describing the Lebanese Civil war. The shifting allegiances, numerous parties, and different leaders make it difficult to follow the evolution of the war and the posters. However, Maasri provides a brief introduction to each faction (although she might have noted their general tendencies, such as left, right), a chronology of the war, and an in depth discussion of the posters. Her discussion is broken up into four themes, leadership, commemoration, martyrdom, and belonging, each of which is given its Lebanese context. The chapter on leadership is probably the most helpful, since it is difficult to know who all the iconic leaders are. It also helps to understand how the parties were led by dynasties. The chapter on martyrdom probably is of most interest outside of the civil war. While Maasri sticks only to the war, the concept of martyrdom is comes up in the news, and her explanation of how the various parties developed the posters from almost simple funeral announcements for soldiers killed in battle to symbolic representations of the dead, complete with drawings of the act.

Most of the posters are available on-line at the American University of Beirut, but unless you can read Arabic or the occasional French, it will be hard to understand what is going on in the posters. If you are even a bit interested in the subject the book is worth a read. The only draw back of this otherwise well written book is the first chapter which is an example of everything that is wrong with modern academic writing. I read it, but it was painful and, worse, not really needed. Maasri’s analysis of the posters explains her thesis quite well and is much more palatable. You would do well to read the the chapters after the theory section and pay special attention to her detailed analysis of most of the posters. You will come away with a detailed understanding of the symbols of the factions in the civil war, so of which, like those of Hezbollah, still are effective.

Two Lebanese American Novels Reviewed at The New York Review of Books

In Colm Tóibín’s The Anger of Exile at The New York Review of Books he reviews two novels by Lebanese exiles living in the North America. They sound like they have some promise.

About Rabih Alameddine’s book he writes

The Hakawati offers a set of competing narratives, some fabulous, some filled with memory and desire; it allows what we might call geopoetics to flow over geopolitics. By refusing to permit a single perspective or a single story or style to dominate, it offers, almost despite itself, a paradigm of mingling images and rich difference living in a panoramic, harmonic disunity. Alameddine suggests with some subtlety and much exuberance how this tapestry might come to the aid of the very world that the book explores.

About Hag’s novel he writes

In scene after scene our narrator mocks the very idea of the ordered self or the ordered society. He makes racist comments about other immigrants, calling them “welfare dogs” and forcing the reader to side with him or hate him all the more. His deep dislike of a poor émigré Algerian professor is irrational and fierce. He is an affront to all types of decency. The fact that he is writing this in Canada, a country that rightly is proud of its policy on immigration and ethnic diversity, adds a comedy to the book; the sound of the hand that feeds being bitten sharply offers a rhythmic energy to the prose and removes any possibility of easy self-pity from the tone.

Cockroach is all voice, and it depends on the holding and wielding of tone. The problem is that it is also a novel and thus Hage works a number of plotlines through the book, some more convincing than others.

New Book – Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War

The NY Times has a brief review of a new book of posters from the Lebanese Civil War. It sounds fascinating, although there are not too many photos on the web for a preview, just the one cover shot below. The article itself might be of interest if you are interested in  alternative comics such as Mad Magazine.

The visual language of rebellion has a few commonalities that are adapted to individual cultures and countries. The images in Zeina Maasri’s Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (I. B. Tauris/Palgrave Macmillan, paper, $29.95) are stylistically similar to some of the underground comics created in the ’60s. But the messages in Lebanon from the ’70s to the early ’90s were decidedly more serious than those in the United States. Underground comics were concerned with sex and drugs, among other favored themes; the Lebanese activists were concerned with survival and victory. American undergrounders faced nightsticks and Mace when they demonstrated against government policy; the Lebanese factions used lethal weapons.

This is not a picture book per se, although it is well illustrated with black-and-white and color plates. Maasri, an associate professor of graphic design at the American University of Beirut, provides a detailed analysis of the nature of graphic propaganda and of the issues Lebanon faced during its civil war, along with explanations of various symbols and motifs. The book also includes a provocative chapter on martyrdom. Most of the images reproduced here did not break any new design territory — which makes sense. They were meant to function in a cluttered visual environment amid many messages. There are the requisite portraits of martyrs and a few anti-Israel protests (one with the swastika embedded in a Star of David). But there is one poster in particular that caught my eye for its conceptual curiosity. The designer is anonymous, and it is titled “Towards Independence.” It looks pixelated, like a Whitman’s Sampler box, and depicts a figure running with a torch. In the heat of a civil war, such a well-designed composition makes it seem as if the conflict were basically the Olympic Games.

Cover Photo
Cover Photo