I’ve long been fascinated by stories that take place in the Middle East and as a bande dessinée fanatic, when I come across a French graphic memoir that tackles the subject, I often can’t resist obtaining a copy. Such was the case last month when I discovered the French-Lebanese author and illustrator Zeina Abirached. Abirached was born and raised in Beirut in the 1980s, smack dab in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War. A brief bio of this award-winning artist intrigued me. So, I decided to get to know her work, starting with her first superhit, a memoir titled Mourir Partir Revenir, Le Jeu des Hirondelles.
An Unexpected Sighting
In 2006, now living in Paris, Abirached was browsing a French national website that archives all audiovisual materials produced for French radio and television. A story filmed in Beirut in 1984, three years after her birth, caught her eye. She watched with interest as journalists interviewed residents of a street located near the Green Line—a band of demarcation that separated Muslim neighborhoods, predominantly located in West Beirut, from those of Christians, predominantly located in the eastern part of the city. Abirached writes in the preface to her story:
Une femme, bloquée par les bombardements dans l’entrée de son appartement, a dit une phrase qui m’a bouleversée.
« Vous savez, je pense qu’on est quand même, peut-être, plus ou moins, en sécurité, ici. »
Cette femme, c’était ma grand-mère.
A woman, obstructed by rubble in the entrance to her apartment, said something that overwhelmed me.
“You know, I think that we are anyway, perhaps, more or less, safe here.”
That woman was my grandmother.
The experience provoked unexpected memories from what Abirached describes as a happy childhood and led to Le Jeu des Hirondelles. In 2012, the book became the first graphic novel to receive the FACE French Voices Grant, awarded by the PEN American Center and the French Embassy, resulting in the English edition titled A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return.
A Day in the Life
Le Jeu des Hirondelles describes a single day from its author’s childhood. Zeina and her brother live with their parents in the ground-floor apartment of a multi-story building in East Beirut. Over time, the war has rendered nearly every room of their spacious flat uninhabitable and the family now lives in the safest room of their home, the entry hall. Indeed, this small refuge is the safest space in the entire apartment building. So, when the sounds of shells and mortars can be heard outside its walls, the other residents descend and are welcomed inside the family’s cramped quarters to wait out the conflict.
The story unfolds on a day when fighting breaks out after Zeina’s parents have left to visit Zeina’s grandmother who lives less than three blocks from their home. The route between the two dwellings is peppered with hazards, including a sniper who fires at random passersby and has become a regular fixture of the neighborhood. Even on a normal day, the trip to grandma’s must be conducted with the utmost caution. But, on a day when bombs are exploding, the trajectory is impossible.
Cut off from their children the parents try to call their apartment—not only to check on their kids but to inform adults in the household that they are okay. However, phone lines across the city have been extraordinarily compromised. It’s hard to establish a connection and even after doing so, interference on the line hampers all communication. Happily, Zeina and her brother are only vaguely aware of the danger as each adult neighbor that enters their family’s sanctuary provides a new distraction to occupy their thoughts.
Life in a War Zone
What I love about Le Jeu des hirondelles is its unwavering focus on the human spirit. Without explicitly revealing her characters’ intentions, Abirached’s illustrations show how each neighborly grown-up takes an interest in entertaining the children, shielding them from the peril that could penetrate the deteriorating walls at any moment. Each individual has their own colorful backstory, a bar owner, a French teacher, a cab driver, a former beauty queen, a nanny that helped raise three generations of the same family…
The book is apolitical, never taking issue with a particular side or the meddling foreign interests that fueled many of the hostilities in the region. Abirached masterfully arranges an uplifting tale of childhood merriment, occasionally inlaying a looming indication of danger, like a massive chandelier located on an upper floor that tinkles with every distant blast.
The war is ever-present but the expressions on the characters’ faces, aside from sideways glances exchanged between adults, remain largely carefree and commonplace. Toward the end of the story, I had the feeling that the children were (unknowingly) protecting the psyches of the adults as much as the adults were protecting theirs.
A Satrapi Look Alike?
Some of Abirached’s critics have written that her work lacks originality, following far too closely in the same artistic and literary footsteps of Marjane Satrapi, the Franco-Iranian author of Persepolis. I have to admit to having similar reservations before reading Le Jeu des Hirondelles. Upon first glance, Abirached’s black-and-white, block-print style is quite similar to Satrapi’s.
I’m a huge fan of Satrapi. So, before I began reading, I wondered if Abirached’s book would end up feeling somewhat plagiarized. It did not. To paraphrase a line from the movie Wonder Boys, great writers make great choices. I’m very familiar with Satrapi’s work and found that the choices that Abirached made in telling her own story, both in images and in words, were very different than the ones I’ve come to expect from Satrapi. In my opinion, Abirached is a gifted artist in her own right with a unique perspective and distinctive joie de vivre.
A Game for Swallows
I read a lot of books and watch a lot of films about war. Perhaps it was just happenstance, but Le Jeu des hirondelles moved me in ways that few accounts do. I almost never shed a tear but when I reached the end of this book, I had to fetch a box of Kleenex. I wasn’t feeling sorry for Abirached or her brother or others that lived in her building. In my mind, the story is about mankind’s resilience and propensity for optimism. What got to me were the countless tragedies obscured from view—the pointless decades of destruction that Abirached’s narrative gracefully evades.
The book’s title is based on graffiti that Abirached noticed scrawled on a wall separating East and West Beirut. In an afterword to the 2020 edition, Abirached describes how she tried to track down the rebellious spirit behind the spray paint who had signed only as Florian. Several candidates presented themselves but the identity of this poetic agitator remains unclear.
Aujourd’hui, les murs de Beyrouth ont repris la parole.
Depuis le 17 octobre 2019, les mots sont à nouveau dans la rue, échangés sur les places, peints sur les banderoles et sur les murs.
L’espace public autrefois confisqué est petit à petit réapproprié par les citoyens.
Nos territories, quadrillés par la guerre et la politique de reconstruction sont, mètre par mètre, réinvestis.
Today, the walls of Beirut are again speaking up.
Since October 17, 2019, words are once more in the streets, exchanged in the public squares, painted on banners and on walls. [Referring to protests that have led to reforms.]
Public spaces previously confiscated are little by little being taken back by the citizens.
Our lands, divided by war and the politics of reconstruction are, meter by meter, being re-established.
Let’s hope for lasting peace.
More from cas d’intérêt on war and the Middle East
- Two Graphic Novels, Illuminating Memoirs from the Middle East that are Fun to Read
- Kobane Calling, Captivating Account of Kurdish Struggle in Syria
- Contradictory Paths Out of a Casablanca Slum, Sidi Moumen
- War in Afghanistan, Life of the Combat Soldier
- The real frontline in the battle against Muslim fundamentalism
- Review of Le Photographe, French photojournalist’s travels in Afghanistan
- The Miseries of War, 400-Year-Old Portrayal of Treachery
On a visit to Paris last year, I came upon a series of BD called “The Rabbi’s Cat” — because parts of it had been made into a musical. https://operasandcycling.com/the-rabbis-cat/
I know of the book and film that you refer to by Joann Sfar. He is very popular. I’ve read excerpts while standing in the bookstore but I’ve never managed to find used or softcover copies of Le Chat du rabbin, which would be less expensive. If memory serves, his books are only available in hardcover. Looks like a delightful series. One of these days I’ll have to dive in.
There are various editions, but they’re all quite expensive. My younger son and his wife have borrowed most of them (in French) from the Munich public library.
Oddly enough, my public library has this in English but not in French.
That made me think of l’Arabe du futur, that I’ll be soon reading with one of my French students, and then I realized you have already presented it!
The Lebanese had to maintain their sanity and optimism through years of a situation hardly imaginable to Americans. Their resilience is formidable.
It was a wise decision by Abirached to avoid getting into the politics and causes of a stupid and pointless religious war. It’s told from a child’s viewpoint, and children are not good at understanding nonsense. It takes years of indoctrination and conditioning to achieve that ability.
At least Lebanon has managed to return to peace, and rebuild. It’s too bad that a similar and even more savage war is now raging right next door, in Syria.
Love your lines: “children are not good at understanding nonsense. It takes years of indoctrination and conditioning to achieve that ability.”
And sadly I agree that Syria’s situation is even worse.
It sounds really good. Thanks for the tip.
You’re welcome Caroline. This seems like the kind of story you would appreciate. Serious subject matter but upbeat nonetheless and then there’s the art…
That sounds very interesting. We had many Lebanese friends when we were in Africa. Had some here in Mexico too. Lovely people.
I was in Beyrouth once. Long time ago. For a few days. before the war…
I also coined the phrase “The Beyrouth effect” for a client once. To explain how people manage how to survive in the worst possible conditions. Civil war. there are snipers. Yes. But I have to go out to the bakery and buy bread…
(Client was Coca-Cola.) And Lebanese are wonderful people…
Thanks for weighing in Brieuc. I enjoy hearing about all the places you have traveled to. Have you ever counted up the total number of countries you’ve visited?
Glad you do. Number? I’d resisted and resisted. Until another friend “pushed” me. 39 countries. Not counting stopovers. (Otherwise I could put China. LOL)