Section: Arts

Lebanese memoirist weaves together art and warfare

Zeina Abirached’s most identifiable features are her shock of curly hair and prominent dimples. In her graphic memoir, A Game For Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return, Abirached depicts her younger self with dots for dimples and an unmistakable mass of black swirls for hair. These features are more than ink patterns — they’re manifestations of her identity. Likewise, she imbues her story with a host of authentic details, giving life to the story of her childhood in war-ridden Beirut, Lebanon in the 1980s.

On April 11 in Olin Auditorium, Abirached gave a presentation on her art, discussing how her chaotic childhood became the foundation for her work. She was born in Beirut in the 1980s while the Lebanese Civil War was ravaging the country. She grew up confined to the eastern side of the city — the Christian side, as her book indicates — while her neighborhood doubled as a war zone.

The past seemed so dense to Abirached that she felt she couldn’t possibly assemble it artistically. “I didn’t know how to write a long story with memories,” Abirached said. “And then something happened to me.” By chance, she saw her grandmother in a 1984 documentary about the war.  “‘I think, maybe, nonetheless, we are more or less safe here,’” Abirached quoted her grandmother as saying, describing how jarring the virtual encounter was.
Abirached moved to Paris to pursue her passion, where she spent a year writing her book. However, in her memoir Abirached does not seek to show the terrors and ravages of war.

“There was a way of having a normal life in parallel to the war,” she said. Although her family was confined to the foyer of their apartment and had to dodge snipers when they went outside, they found stability. The child’s point-of-view gives the reader a sense of Abirached’s individual experience, in addition to the broader atrocities of the war.

During her lecture, Abirached recounted how, through a game called “Departure, Arrival,” she learned to recognize the sounds of different bombs. She also managed to find peace in her family’s foyer through an heirloom — a tapestry depicting Moses and the Jews leaving Egypt on a dragon. “I thought that this big dragon could protect us from the outside world,” she said.

The urge to publish this story came from her artistic passion, but even more from the need to tell a story that so many Beirut natives longed to forget. “It was important to publish because of the amnesia … and how we never talk about [the war],” she said.
Her childhood experiences also allowed her to achieve beyond what she believed were limited artistic capabilities. “I didn’t know that I could do it, but I really had this strong urge to express this story with pictures and words,” she said.

The tension in Beirut has not subsided. “Every time there is a political tension … or an attack, … there’s something that comes back in the relationship between people and the city,” Abirached said of modern Beirut. “It’s about the psychological walls. … People still have the reflexes of security.”

Qossay Alsattari ’16 and Sewar Quran ’17, who both attended the talk, commented on the dual benefit of Abirached’s art. They described how, as an artist, she presents a different side of the Middle East to those who are only concerned with its politics. She “put a human face on the struggle,” Alsattari said, discussing how she underscores people’s resilience.

“People don’t know what you had to [go through],” Quran added. They elaborated that Abirached’s work humanizes the turmoil in the Middle East that so many people can’t fathom.
As well as show the chaos of the war, the memoir also helps convey personal struggles and emotions, and portray the courage of those who managed the burdens of war.

The aesthetics of the graphic novel help convey such feelings. Abirached makes deliberate choices with color and space to depict her experience; she only uses black and white, and often leaves sparse room in the pages.

“It’s about the emptiness or the fullness,” she said. For example, she separately uses black and white to express the vast emptiness of Beirut. This stark look also contributes to the sense of evoking memory. “I needed to have an image where I can put a distance between the reader and the memory … and black and white is … very practical to this.” Taken from graffiti she’d seen, her book’s title also bears weight; she intended the allusion to swallows in her memoir title to signify the constant migration and transition of the Lebanese during the war.
Abirached currently is working on a story about a piano invented in Beirut in the 1960s that could play both western- and eastern-style music. This story also evokes the city of a different era: a golden age. “My generation is very nostalgic for this Beirut,” she explained.

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