Kobane Calling, a new graphic novel by Italian cartoonist, Zerocalcare, provides a riveting account of the author’s humanitarian trips into war-torn Syria. Enlightening as well as entertaining, the book is fascinating on many levels and well worth your time and/or money. Originally written in Italian, a French version appeared last summer. As a result, the author (actual name Michel Rech) earned a place among the official selections for album of the year, at the 2017 Angoulême International Comics Festival. When I checked earlier this year, I found the French version was only available on Kindle in the U.S. There is also an English version that came out in October.
This spellbinding novel documents two of the author’s trips to Syria. Each time, he traveled under the wing of the humanitarian organization called Rojava Calling. This group seeks to aid Kurdish people living and fighting in Northern Syria. If you only vaguely know what’s been happening in Syria, especially as it relates to Kurdish people in the region, after reading Kobane Calling, you’ll have a much better idea. The story provides historical information as well as maps that establish a coherent picture of what many of us assume to be a tangled and confusing quagmire.
Better than Fiction
Kobane Calling is a real-life adventure story. Each trip begins in Turkey, which, as it turns out, is not at all supportive of any mission that claims to aid the Kurds. Before the author ever steps foot into a war zone, he is terrorized by the thought of being discovered by Turkish authorities and indefinitely thrown behind bars. He relies on Kurdish guides, operating clandestinely, to lead him into Syria. The group must traverse regions recently held by ISIS but now deemed safe. However, the reliability of all information is suspect, further degraded by several levels of translation. An eyewitness account may have been passed through several envoys by word-of-mouth before reaching the author’s guides. A story originally recounted in Persian, may have been translated into English, then Kurdish, and finally relayed to the author in broken Italian. This multi-layered transmission and translation of messages adds to the precarious nature and imposing danger of the mission.
The storytelling in this book is captivating. Undoubtedly, the narrative of a graphic novel is constrained by the physical limitations of speech bubbles and description blocks. Like all comic authors, Zerocalcare relies heavily on images and his prose is extraordinarily concise. Yet, somehow the book carries the richness of a full-length novel. While the cartoonist’s drawings tend to be on the simpler side, the expressions Zerocalcare outlines on his characters’ faces are priceless—especially those that he places on his own caricature. How he is able to express such a breadth of emotion with relatively few strokes of a pen is a mystery.
Humorous and Human
Zerocalcare has written a hair-raising and sometimes horrifying story about people living with unimaginable loss, hardship, and, at times, terror. Yet, the book is humorous. This may sound cold, but the graphic novel doesn’t come off that way. The author depicts the people he meets as quirky, charming, courageous, tenacious, and generally well-balanced. They are as normal, and as far afield, as the people we meet in our every day, privileged, western lives. He sometimes questions his characters’ desires, viewpoints, and objectives but at the same time, he never seems to judge them. An underlying tone of respect and objectivity pervades the story. As such, the book illustrates those aspects of the human condition that remain constant and bind us together, even when we live worlds apart.
Read Kobane Calling for Free
The book is divided into two parts—each part describing one of the author’s trips into Syria. Part one is currently available for free. You can find the French version online here, and the English version for Kindle here (no longer available). For francophiles, I highly recommend the French version. You will encounter a good deal of entertaining vocabulary that you didn’t learn in French class.
Note: To learn about other graphic memoirs centered in the Middle East, also available in both French and English, check out my post from August 2020.