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.

Ana Maria Matute, Amin Maalouf and Nicanor Parra Finalists for the Principe de Asturias

The Spanish author Ana Maria Matute, the Lebanese Amin Maalouf, and the Chilean Nicanor Parra are the finalists for the Principe de Asturias prize, which will be awarded on Wednesday. El Pais has a run down on the authors. It is interesting that a Lebanese author is listed amongst an otherwise Spanish language prize. As a fan of Matute I would like to see her win.

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.

Elias Khoury’s White Masks – Lebanon and the Civil War

I finished my review of Elias Khoury’s White Masks last week and on the whole I liked it and it is worth reading. I don’t want to say much more until the review comes out, although, I do think Yalo was a bit better book. However, considering it was only his second novel it is pretty good. White Masks is available from Archipelago on April, 20th.

Poster of the Lebanese Left Showing Martyrs

In writing the review I came across two interviews, one I’ve mentioned on the site before and the second I found. They add to the context of the book. Finally, I found a collection of posters at the American University of Lebanon. A quick perusal will give you a good sense of what the posters Khoury mentions in the book might have looked like, especially those of the Lebanese Left, which Khoury was allied with, and the example I have included here.

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.

Samandall – Graphic Novel from Beirut on-line

The blog Arabic Literature (in English) tipped me off to the Beirut based Samandal magazine of “Picture Stories from here and there.” While they don’t require the art to be from Lebanon or in Arabic or French, most of the writers and artists from the first four issues are from that region of the world. You can down load the first four issues of the magazine in pdf format. I looked through some of the issues and there was a wide range of stories and artistic styles that make the magazine a good read. Supposedly you can get issue from Forbidden Planet Comics in NY City, although it is not listed on their website.

Issue 1

Issue 2

Issue 3

Issue 4

New Hanan Al-Shaykh Book, The Locust and the Bird Reviewed at Barnes and Noble

Hanan Al-Shaykh finally has a new work available. It has been sometime since Only in London came out and I was quite excited to hear about the new book. The Barnes and Noble review is mixed, but I will be reading it none the less. The book is part biography and part novel and does sound interesting, especially in view of her complete works in English. As with many foreign language writers she isn’t mentioned too often, but with 6 or 7 books in English now she is one of the best translated Arabic writers.a

The novel’s only significant weakness is its sluggish pace. Inevitably, the poetry-filled yearning characterizing Kamila and Muhammad’s years apart begins to grate after a while. And al-Shaykh’s decision to chronicle Kamila’s countless attacks of jealousy and insecurity proves exasperating, repeatedly miring the story in protracted nothingness. Equally unoriginal is Kamila’s realization that married life with Muhammad is not all bliss, what with children and domestic chores multiplying almost unabated.

Of course, there are exceptions. Occasionally, al-Shaykh will inject a surprisingly powerful element into descriptions of her mother’s long days and quotidian duties, as when she depicts Kamila’s disturbing (and successful) attempts to miscarry, a ghastly homegrown solution to unwanted pregnancy. And after Kamila is widowed, al-Shaykh poignantly has her express her newfound anxiety: “During our marriage, my endless pregnancies and exhaustion had left me isolated from friends and relatives. I’d seen the world through his eyes. After his death, it was as if I started out all over again.”

What really matters, however, is al-Shaykh’s major twofold achievement with The Locust and the Bird. To begin with, she has written a stirring but never hagiographic account of a woman — her mother — who defies almost every major societal and religious stricture governing women’s behavior in her time. Yet al-Shaykh also manages the remarkable feat of unpretentiously capturing a character’s philosophical relationship with art. A close reading of The Locust and the Bird reveals that — perhaps counterintuitively — young Kamila does not in fact live vicariously through film; she pointedly refrains from transmuting her hunger for the real yet elusive man she loves into a complacent satisfaction with the honeyed images of romance flitting before her eyes. Indeed, far from allowing films to become her life, Kamila emerges from the theater spiritually refreshed but further impelled to achieve her dream. And that, aside from being a profound notion al-Shaykh deftly encapsulates in literary form, is probably both the wisest and healthiest approach to art.

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

Yalo – A Review

Elias Khoury

Through torture one can learn—if you are the reader. Elias Khoury’s sometimes tough, sometimes disorienting novel, but always interesting, uses torture as a tool not only to to examine the politics and history of Lebanon, but the lives of Syriac (Maronite) Christians, and more broadly how can one be certain of what one knows in the worst of times.

Daniel Yalo, as we learn, is a veteran and deserter of the civil way who has led a directionless life that has amounted to little. Now imprisoned for planning a bombing the authorities ruthlessly interrogate him for information. Of course, he has little to give and as the sessions continue and become more extreme and degrading, they reduce him physically and mentally to a weakling willing to say or do anything. By novel’s end he barely knows what he has done and hasn’t done. Yalo is a novel where truth shifts and facts are never quite clear. With each torture sessions he finds himself changing his stories to tell the guards what he thinks they want to know. At first he denies he has done anything illegal, but slowly as he is beaten and tortured he begins to admit to things. Most of these crimes, though, don’t have anything to do with the bombing, but instead break apart the self deceit and lies he has told himself over the years. He admits to a series of rapes, not all at once, but in fragments that only make it clear he is not the most redeeming character. He also admits to robberies and affairs. Yet with each admission, with each life story he writes, he contradicts a previous admission so that it is never clear which admission is the truth. By the end of the novel it is obvious that Yalo is anything but a good man, but whether he is a rapist and thief or something lesser it is hard to know.

Along with the admissions of guilt Yalo looks back at his childhood and the war and he tries to explain in his life stories why he is the way he is. It is seldom useful, for the interrogators are seldom interested in the past, but like a fool who never quite understands what is happening to him, he continues to write more and more. Slowly he reveals enough details to piece together a rough, if inaccurate, life story. The illegitimate son of a tailor and the daughter of a Siriac priest, he is raised by his mother and grandfather who he calls his father. The grandfather is a strange man given to going to the seashore to drink sea water in a religious ritual. He is also a servier man incapable of compromise and his harsh character marks the boy.

Now, sir, even as he is suspended between the earth and the sky, the rapture runs through Yalo’s veins when he remembers the difference between a cooked woman and a raw woman. The theory was devised by my grandfather, God rest his soul. No, sir, my grandfather had no women, for he was a man riddled with complexes, but he divided food into two categories: meat and vegetables. After giving up the eating of all variations of meant, he assigned vegetables to three categories: defective, uncertain, and perfect. The defective do not ripen to be fit for consumption until they are cooked over the fire, like zucchini or beans or okra, and so on. The uncertain also ripen by fire even though they can be eaten raw, like eggplant, spinach, fava beans, and chick peas, etc. As to the perfect, they ripen in the sun and need no flame, because they have interior fire. These were all varieties of the finest fruit, grapes, figs, and tomatoes. My grandfather chose the perfect vegetables, and he ended his life eating nothing but raw vegetables. He even gave up eating bread. He began to shrink, he got very thin, his bones grew as porous as clay, and his flesh grew as rough as bone. He died with the intention of becoming a clay figure backed by the sun.

Through the interplay of these memories such as these , Khoury sketches a metaphor for Lebanon where truth is precarious and reflects not only where you come from, but who wants to know and when. Given the precariousness of it all is possible to go forward or they domed to repeat the war where “the Lebanese had dug up the history of all their past wars to justify their madness, which made talking to them impossible.”