The Wild, Noisy, Genre-Bending Graphic Novels of Beirut
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Mazen Kerbaj’s Beirut Won’t Cry, set for release this August, joins a growing throng of graphic novels and graphic-novel hybrids by Beiruti artists. The prolific Kerbaj, born in 1975, has produced more than a half dozen comics and graphic novels, mostly in French. Beirut Won’t Cry marks the artist’s long-awaited arrival in English. Produced by Fantagraphics, Kerbaj’s self-designed and self-translated memoir comes with an introduction by graphic-novel luminary Joe Sacco.
The book, subtitled Lebanon’s July War: A Visual Diary, chronicles Kerbaj’s experience of the 2006 Israeli bombardment of Lebanon. France's well-known comics publisher, L'Association, released the book in 2007 entitled simply Beyrouth, Juillet et Août 2006 (Beirut, July-August 2006). The text and drawings were originally posted on Kerbaj’s blog, which he maintained throughout and after the war. The book version preserves the daily-blog feel—complete with casual grammar and misspellings—and thus keeps the intensity of daily postings from under siege.
Lebanon’s 34-day “July War” began on July 12, with a cross-border raid by Hezbollah that led to the deaths of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of three more. Israel responded with mass bombardments of Lebanese targets starting July 13, causing the destruction of buildings, roads, bridges, and the country’s main airport. During the month-plus conflict, more than a thousand Lebanese civilians were killed; forty-four Israeli civilians lost their lives.
Kerbaj starts the book by thanking Israel for ending his “2 years of laziness before starting this blog.”
But while the blog was fodder for many political debates, Kerbaj insists throughout that Beirut Won’t Cry isn’t political, indeed that he “VOMITS ON ANYTHING CALLED POLITICS.” By this, Kerbaj doesn’t mean to avoid commenting on the human condition. Instead, he is clearly reacting against the dogmatic and doctrinaire, particularly where they appear in blog’s comments.
The book maintains not just the text and imagery Kerbaj posted online in the summer of 2006, but also the mentions of other blogs, and his responses to comments—although thankfully we don’t get the comments themselves. The one thing readers of the book miss out on is the song Kerbaj posted, “Starry Night,” in which Kerbaj plays the trumpet accompanied by the falling bombs. For this, Kerbajophiles will still have to go online.
Yet Kerbaj’s drawings do evoke the soundscape of a Beirut under siege. The emotional, sometimes satirical drawings take the author’s anxieties, hopes, drunkenness, anger, playfulness, exhaustion, and hyper-caffeination and transmute them into human and humanesque figures.
This book neither promises nor delivers a broader view of Lebanon, Israel, nor the historic relationship between them. Instead, it gives us vivid art from a terrifying summer, when Kerbaj struggled to make himself heard by the international community and fretted about what, exactly, that meant.
Eleven years later, this echo of a shout into the darkness appears in English. It is a little strange to have an urgent appeal arrive in your hands more than a decade too late. Yet perhaps it also serves as a link to all the other urgent appeals coming from around the world, both now and in the future.
Nine more from Beirut’s hybrid graphic-novel scene:
Laure Ghorayeb’s 33 Jours. Throughout Kerbaj’s Beirut Won’t Cry, we hear of another blog Kerbaj is keeping. This one featured work by his mother, the acclaimed artist Laure Ghorayeb, who also appears as a character in Beirut Won’t Cry. Ghorayeb’s book is not available in English, but her art from the summer of 2006 needs no translation.
The ground-breaking Samandal magazine, founded in 2007, is still going strong despite government censors’ protracted and expensive case against the publication. The graphic-novel collective has sparked many others around the region, including Egypt’s popular TokTok. Kerbaj will have a new story, co-authored and designed with Hatem Imam, called “The Adventures of Walter Ego in the Two Cities of B,” in Samandal’s next issue.
The graphic novelist and artist Lena Merhej is also a powerful force in the Beirut graphic-noveling scene, and is one of the founders of Samandal. Indeed, her evocative art was at the center of the court case against the magazine. Merhej’s biography of her mother, Laban et confiture ou comment ma mère et devenue libanaise is not yet available in English, but it is reputedly the first graphic novel translated from Arabic into French.
Stories of Lebanon’s refugees in graphic-novel form have made a powerful addition to graphic-novel nonfiction. Merhej was one of five artist-storytellers who participated in the project “Meantime,” sponsored by a French NGO and launched in the spring of 2016. The five artists interviewed Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon to create five graphic stories, which have been posted online in French, Arabic, and English.
The Mahmoud Kahil Awards for comics, cartoons, and illustrations launched in 2015 out of the American University in Beirut, which is also the home of the new Mu'taz and Rada Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative. This award, along with major graphic-novel prizes in Cairo and Algiers, has helped provide encouragement and support not just for Beiruti artists, storytellers, and illustrators, but for those in the wider region.
There are a number of graphic-novel zines popping up across Beirut, including the women-dominated Zeez, co-founded by Rawand Issa, author of the delightful Not from Mars. Zeez launched its first issue June 10.
The 2006 bombardment of Lebanon isn’t the only of its conflicts to be chronicled in graphic novel or graphic-novel hybrid format. Three other books are must-reads for those interested in graphic novels or experimental storytelling:
Lamia Ziadé’s Bye Bye Babylon, trans. Olivia Snaije. This crazy pop-art exploration of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War takes the author back to her childhood in Beirut. Ziadé narrates her memoir through the lens of what items were being bought and sold in Lebanon in the late 1970s (Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks, Kalashnikovs, RPGs), creating an intense kaleidoscope of the political, human, and commercial aspects of war.
Zeina Abirached’s A Game for Swallows, trans. Edward Gauvin. This is a quieter, more traditional graphic novel, targeted at younger readers ages nine and up. It focuses on Abirached and her little brother during Lebanon’s civil war, and takes young readers through the fears, anxieties, hopes and banalities of armed conflict. It features Abirached’s beautiful, dense black-and-white illustrations.
Hilal Chouman’s Limbo Beirut, trans. Anna Ziajka Stanton. In crafting this hybrid work, Chouman was inspired, he said, by the illustrations in old Naguib Mahfouz novels. Yet Limbo Beirut takes the idea of an illustrated novel in a different direction. Chouman engaged with four talented young designers and comix artists, based in Beirut and Cairo, and gave them license to interpret his text however they chose. The novel’s interlinked stories are set during Beirut in 2008, when it seemed the city might once be on the brink of a civil war. Artists Jana Traboulsi, Barrack Rima, Mohamed Gaber, and Fadi Adleh each take one or two of the book’s interlinked stories, interrupting the words with their evocative and startling imagery.