Thursday 24 November 2011

'a veritable powder keg'

Bye Bye Babylon
by Lamia Ziadé

When I was growing up I remember the news frequently made mention of Beirut and Lebanon accompanied by pictures of a city almost entirely devastated by shelling, rocket attacks and gunfire. I never had any real inkling of what the conflict was about or where it was happening, just that it seemed to be unresolvable and endless. This may be because the civil war in Lebanon  began in the same year I did and continued almost until I left home and in any conflict that lasts that long, and that so devastates a region, it is easy to forget that Beirut was once a thriving and prosperous capital city. Lamia Ziadé was born in Lebanon seven years before the conflict began and moved to Paris at the age of eighteen where she became a fabric designer for fashion houses like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake as well as an artist and illustrator of everything from children's books to album covers. In this hybrid book, described as 'part artist's sketchbook, part travel notebook and part family album', Ziadé shows us Beirut in the first four years of the civil war through the eyes of a child seeing her city and family torn apart.

In 1975 I was seven years old and loved the Bazookas my mother bought for Walid and me at Spinney's in the Ramlet al-Baida neighbourhood.
Ziadé uses bright watercolours infused with a Pop Art sensibility, perfect in the opening pages to highlight the obsessions of a young girl in thrall to 'the best of what the Western world can offer' in Spinney's supermarket. Trolleys, escalators, marshmallows and Kellog's cereals are all lovingly recreated in their garish glory but just as we might be falling for the lure of nostalgia an upended bottle of blood-red ketchup heralds the beginning of violence and the pages of consumer goods turn into  several pages of munitions, each described with the same verve, as if the allure of these weapons provoked the same feeling in the various militias around Beirut as the sugary sweetness of processed food did to Ziadé.
This feeling is important because what came before violence was the fervour of arming oneself up, the joy of getting more and more hardware, and the inevitability of violence when groups of men are fully equipped and dying to give it a go. The sheer number of different groups and their conflicting interests and aims may excuse in some part my immense confusion at the time this was all happening. And this is also the reason why Ziadé's account is so accessible, because she, as a child in that same period, was as confused as I was. Living as part of the Christian community, her father a lawyer, her grandfather the owner of a fabric shop in the Muslim area, she goes from living somewhere where two cultures seem to mix to a place divided along simple lines but with several factions fighting their own battles. At one point when she asks her father whether the Palestinians are indeed, as she has been told by her nanny, scum she gets a response which in its attempt at clarity only goes to illustrate the impossibility of that aim
He closes the door and right then and there I get a short, age-appropriate geopolitical class on the Middle East. Palestine, the English bastards, Balfour, Zionism, Jerusalem, the King David Hotel, David Ben-Gurion, the state of Israel, refugees, the Israeli bastards, the settlers, the camps, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan, the Yom Kippur War, Hussein of Jordan, Black September, the PLO, the American bastards, terrorism, armed struggle, the weakness of Lebanon, the mistakes the Palestinians made, the Christian fears, the beginning of the war...
The various factions of the struggle are illustrated with characteristic colour, as are important objects from a period that involved virtual siege within one's home. So radios, batteries, camping stoves and Enid Blyton paperback's are all accorded the same iconic status in Ziadé's mind as the supposed icons of the struggle. The various leaders tend to be represented in far more muted tones for these are the villains of the piece, in fact Ziadé even goes as far as to develop their portraits into something far more sinister when comparing the heroes of her dreams to the serpent-tongued, bloody-clawed politicians. It isn't all naïveté though, some of the violence, especially in the head-rush of the early period is pretty gruesome and there is a telling moment when Ziadé considers the veracity of what she hears.

In Lebanon, the violence takes on legendary status...Torture and mutilations are common practice...The Phalangists carve crosses into their victim's skin while their opponents commit murder with axes...Walid and I hear these stories and other similar ones from Tamar, our nanny; from Salim, the grocer; or from neighbours gossiping in the kitchen. But I think they're wrong, as neither my mother nor my father ever talk about this sort of thing. I conclude that this information must fall into the category of tofnis, fabrications, and I don't dare speak to my parents about what I hear for fear of making a fool of myself.
We need to protect ourselves as children of course, perhaps I can use that as excuse for my own ignorance too, and whilst that means that this is an account that barely scratches the surface of the conflict (and lacks the kind of easy insight that makes Joe Sacco's work so indispensible) it is also the reason for the book's charm and appeal.


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