A Game for Swallows
Faced with virtually no opportunities to get her personal comics published in Lebanon, Zeina Abirached came to Paris in 2004 and was signed up as the first author of a new publishing house, Editions Cambourakis. Abirached is still haunted by her birthplace, Beirut, which is as much a character as a location in her four acclaimed solo graphic narratives to date. Born in 1981, she grew up never knowing anything other than civil war, but despite the fact that her family lived close to the divided capital’s contested demarcation border, she was somehow cocooned from it.
Abirached recalls: “People learned to live with war. A whole network was organised by the adults to make things seem fairly normal to me. When we had to flee our home, my mother would pretend that we were going on a holiday. It was only after the war stopped that I realised what was really happening. It was only then that I discovered that Beirut was really big. The city had been cut in two and in the eastern part the streets were divided by walls of sandbags; as a naive child I thought that all roads stopped there. When the rest of the city was opened up, I felt I was going into a foreign country.”
From her training in Lebanon as a commercial designer, Abirached brought a striking, decorative approach and inventive graphic solutions to her first black-and-white comics in France in 2006. That same year, while exploring an online television news archive, Abirached came across a report about a 1984 bombing in Beirut that shocked her: “All of a sudden, my grandmother burst out of my computer screen. There she was, being interviewed and saying, ‘I think we are still, perhaps, more or less safe here’. Her phrase questions the notion of space and territoriality, and sums up why many people stayed ‘home’ despite the danger. It became the opening sentence of my next graphic novel.” In A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return, translated and published this year by Lerner Books, Abirached lets us discover through her child-self’s eyes how the people around her constructed a kind of security and normality, staying within their cramped interiors, while in the background, largely unseen but ever-present, the war rages outside. In this two-page extract translated below, she diagrams the “choreography” required to dodge a sniper on the route between her home and her grandparents’ house.
Impressions of today’s transformed Beirut inform her new two-page comic strip for Art Review, ‘Moustache in the Sky with Diamonds’, shown here. “Many men used to proudly wear moustaches as part of their identity, but in the 1990s fashions changed and they vanished. Beirut has experienced something similar, from being beautiful in the 1970s, then destroyed in the 1980s, to being discovered in the 1990s and now rebuilt as a vertical city. Martyrs’ Square was the lungs of the city, with its old souks. Now it no longer exists; you pass through an empty space that’s replaced it, a parking lot between a few reconstructed buildings. It feels like the void left when a moustache is shaved off a face, a gap we can’t help trying to fill, with the stories we were told about Beirut before the war. But it’s too late.”
Posted: January 15, 2012
This Article originally appeared in Art Review magazine.