The Middle East through Comics: From the Reconstruction of Memory to Bridges between Civilisations

Álvaro M. Pons

Universidad de Valencia

In the two past decades, the portrayal of the eastern Mediterranean as an area of conflict has attracted special attention from the world of comics through the works of graphic novel artists such as Marjane Satrapi, Zeina Abirached, Riad Satouff, and Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim. The latter two have created their own genre, which we can call “autoethnography”. The language of comics is developed as a tool of a post-memory that reconstructs a Mediterranean imaginary of the conflict to establish bonds and bridges that overcome differences. Indeed, these creators share in common their profound reflections on ethnic, cultural and personal nature and their articulation beyond national and localist considerations in order to find a transnational approach. 

Introduction

In the last two decades, the portrayal of the eastern Mediterranean as an area of conflict has attracted special attention from the world of comics. The publication of Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (L’Association, 2003), established comics as a valid way to reconstruct the past through memory, using the childhood vision as a prior filter that enables a more profound analysis. Satrapi’s basal contribution was followed by new works until creating today a corpus of over fifty that address the Middle East crises from different perspectives, including autobiography, journalism, fiction and even fantasy. 

In this article, we will look at a series of graphic novels characterised by providing an emotional autobiography in which the discourse quickly goes beyond the personal terrain to more deeply explore the social from a unique perspective of space-time distance. In all cases, the works were written in France many years after the events narrated and using a childhood approach. We are faced therefore with a reconstruction based on preconceptions and stereotypes, both learnt in childhood and taken from the West. Once transferred to the intradiegetic space, these become, through drawing, powerful narrative resources to explore post-memory and the reconstruction of memory. 

The aforementioned Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, along with works such as Mourir, partir, revenir, Le jeu des hirondelles (Cambourakis, 2007)and Je me souviens-Beyrouth (Cambourakis, 2009), by Zeina Abirached, L’Arabe du futur (Allary Edition, 2014), by Riad Sattouf, and Coquelicots d’Irak (L’Association, 2016), by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim, define a unique genre within autobiography that can be defined as “autoethnography”, in which the language of comics becomes a key element in the architecture of this reflective approach, fundamental because the textual and visual levels run in parallel to develop a profound relationship with the reader. Drawing offers the personal interpretation of the childhood memory of the artists, who overcome the trauma through a text that refers to their present, achieving an unusual dual level of reflection that entraps the reader, unable to refute the assumption of a personal introversion of this discourse. However, beyond the vindication of memory as a reflection and source of debate on the conflict taking place between the East and West, their work is also established as a foundation for building bonds and bridges between cultures.

Persepolis, the Start of a Path 

The publication of Maus (1986), by Art Spigelman, was an inescapable starting point for portraying collective trauma through comics. The difficulty for words to address the territory of the pain of the trauma is clear; the complexity of portraying the feelings necessary to reconstruct memory and, above all, to express it in a way that can be understood by the reader can establish a difficult border to cross that comics easily surpass. The visual impression of drawing establishes an interpretation that does not involve the meaning of words but that shapes an inner portrayal that directly empathises with basic feelings, building up an exceptional relationship between creator and reader. 

Satrapi’s work exploits the path laid out by Spiegelman to establish a narrative of her childhood memories in Iran, from the end of Mohammed Reza Pahlevi’s regime to the Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. In contrast to Maus, which recreates the Shoa events based on the memory of his father, Persepolis presents the account in the first person, recalling the family space and her relations with her mother and father, her childhood identity. Marji is the lead character both as a child and daughter, and adopts Marianne Hirsh’s thesis that emphasises the importance of the role of daughters in passing on the memory of the trauma. The graphic novel artist also uses a simple naive style that achieves a dual function: on the one hand, that this graphic minimalism emphasises the appearance of the fragility of bodies, of people; and, on the other, to connect with her roots by adopting narrative elements and resources from drawings and paintings of ancient Persia, and creating a context in which the personal and the collective are mixed up.

In her childhood account, Satrapi uses memories to confront the girl’s innocence with the daily violence of war, and to describe an intimate tension between the loss of this innocence and the stamina of the ingenuous gaze. The childhood discourse does not prevent the creator from a faithful description of the exciting beginnings of a revolution that was born with profound social support faced with the Shah’s dictatorial imperialism, and also allows her to describe the disenchantment with the ayatollahs, Islamisation and theocracisation. An evolution that obviated the reality of a revolution that had been based on a movement with profound social demands in which women played an active role, which the graphic novel artist forcefully portrays: the Iranian women at the start of the revolution use the Islamic veil but their reality is very far from the image of the voiceless Muslim woman defined by the stereotype. 

However, Satrapi’s work takes on a new approach when the protagonist moves to Europe: the formation of a stereotype during childhood adopts the status of a constant challenge when the Muslim woman is faced with the European woman, a comparison that in its turn hides another: that of the approach to these differences from the opposite view, the European woman’s perception of the stereotype of the eastern woman faced with the eastern woman’s stereotype of the European woman. In some cases, this contrast becomes a curious, almost naive, focalisation on issues such as sexual freedom, from an approach halfway between envy and rejection instead of freedom and rights.

Building an Identity from a Distance

A priori, Zeina Abirached’s work may seem a continuation of Satrapi’s famous work. However, her analysis enables us to quickly discard this argument. It is clear that the Lebanese creator uses the teachings of the Iranian but her approach soon achieves a defined personality. Mourir, partir, revenir. Le jeu des hirondelles should not be understood as an isolated work but as part of a tetralogy in which the memory of Lebanon is the lead character. Beyrouth-Catharsis (Ed. Cambourakis, 2006), 38, rue Youssef Semaani (Ed. Cambourakis, 2006) and Je me souviens, Beyrouth (Ed. Cambourakis, 2009) along with Le jeu provide a comprehensive account of experiences that act as real memory, as fragmented traces that make up a memory through small details. The work provides an account of the most traumatic moments of the war that ravaged the country in the 1980s but through a cascade of mixed feelings: fear, terror and the most horrible impressions together with smells, colours and shapes that define the reality of a reconstructed memory. The aesthetic component, fundamental as in Satrapi’s work in the connection with the roots of her culture, also contributes an interesting variation by establishing through the composition, symbolism or diagrammatic representations this necessary natural contradiction of the images of memory. Repeated images, like profound engraved impressions that conceal tiny differences, often mere gestures, fundamental to the story. The title reflects the influence of one of Georges Perec’s works and has an obvious functionality: the inspiration from a mnemotechnic process.

In contrast to the expository and, to some extent, cathartic intentionality of Satrapi’s work, Abirached’s works, although an account of a civil war not yet written, or closed, seek to confront negative memories from the perspective of positive experiences. It is not a re-writing of the past that conceals pain but the search for a private space where the canvas of a memory, which can never be completed in its entirety, has a place for hope. Something that even Abirached explicitly shows in her work through the use of blank sheets, the play with the Arabic calligraphy of her name or the clear difference between the voice of Zeina the narrator, mature, retrospective and reflective, as against the drawn Zeina, the happy protagonist who talks in the present. 

In both cases, the comics start with a narrative act that, in its union of subjectivity and history, creates a story that transcends the local to establish a transnational and transcultural approach and embraces the account of ethnic and cultural identity from a more complex and challenging perspective that eludes assimilation or integration to enter into the construction of a common territory, in search of common ground that approaches and builds bridges between shores. This profound relationship between the host and birth country has its maximum expression in Le piano oriental (Camboraukis, 2016), by Zeina Abirached, where the reflection of this relationship becomes more profound, and constructs a parallelism between language and music as identity factors characteristic of a Mediterranean culture that surpasses the limitation of religious or ethnic borders and barriers.

Another Reading: the Figure of the Father as Hidden Protagonist

The story by Riad Sattouf in L’arabe du futur tells of his childhood in France, Algeria and Syria, at the time of the rise of the regimes of Muammar al-Gaddafi and Hafez al-Assad. In contrast to the works of Satrapi and Abirached, Sattouf constructs the distance with his personal experiences through an apparently simple humour but with a complex foundation based on the contrasts between the stereotype constructed in the West and the testimony of the reality, a technique that had already given him good results in other works such as La vie secrète des jeunes (L’Association, 2007) and Les cahiers d’Esther (Allary Editions, 2015). It is precisely in this comparison that transcultural reflection emerges, which Sattouf underlines in the personal and precise use of colouring.

Meanwhile, the story by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim, Coquelicots d’Irak, is narrated during the rise of Saddam Hussein’s regime, with the particularity that, in this case, the story is not drawn by the protagonist. In contrast to the other works considered, where the protagonists draw their past with their style and exploit their command of technique to give the drawing feelings and sensations that overcome the limitation of words, here the story told in the first person by the Iraqi Findakly is drawn by her husband, who deliberately avoids symbolism and use of composition (also mandatory because of prepublication of the work on a blog) to focus on the story, on memory. 

In both cases, the figure of the father is articulated as the core of the reconstruction of memory. While for Sattouf his father is the reason for leaving France to go to Syria and Algeria, for Findakly the paternal figure determines the decision to leave Iraq to live in France. Two opposing ideas but that reflect the same play of contrasts with different results. Sattouf analyses, with the distance of time, an approach that does not deal with the reality he is experiencing, which establishes its own reality and drags his family into it, a flight from a Europe seen as an imposition towards Arab hope. Findakly represents in her father the opposite vision: the need to flee the country, to find in Europe a way out of the horror. 

The two works emphasise the maintenance of interculturalism through the maternal figure, French in both cases, who is always in a secondary place to the husband’s decisions, showing the path they followed to give up their personal liberties but that is always represented, despite the difficulties, as a self-denying reference to the need to continually maintain the bridges between cultures.  

Conclusions

The works of Satrapi, Abirached, Sattouf, and Findakly and Trondheim go beyond the simple label of a portrayal of the Middle East conflict or the classification as a mechanism of cathartic assimilation of trauma. Beyond these approaches, they are profound reflections on the indissoluble nature of ethnic, cultural and personal identity, and how this is articulated beyond national and localist considerations to find a transnational and transcultural approach that automatically establishes profound relations that overcome differences.