Stitching Out a Life in Graphic Memoir

With "Baddawi," Leila Abdelrazaq joins women cartoonists engaged in life writing. Not just Satrapi, but Alison Bechdel, Lynda Barry, and Phoebe Gloeckner.

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq. Just World Books. 128 pages.

LEILA ABDELRAZAQ, a young Palestinian-American cartoonist, has released her debut graphic narrative Baddawi, the story of her father Ahmad, a Palestinian refugee, brought up in Lebanon, shuttling between the book’s eponymous Palestinian refugee camp and Beirut. While Abdelrazaq’s story is about a little boy who manages to grow up and leave Lebanon for America despite a dangerous upbringing in an ever-threatening environment, Abdelrazaq makes it clear that Ahmad’s singular story of survival is entangled in stories that end far more abruptly, in stories that are suspended in uncertainty and not-knowing. Abdelrazaq writes that “the story you are about to read isn’t only about my father […] It is about five million people, born into a life of exile and persecution, indefinitely suspended in statelessness.” As readers we are immediately and unapologetically handed the weight of precarious and absent lives, lives that are nestled against the firm presence of Ahmad’s figure, drawn in bold black and white with a shock of unkempt hair and a stripy T-shirt.

He meets us on the cover of the book, standing with his back to the viewer, surrounded by darkness and tatreez, a traditional form of Palestinian embroidery. With his hands held behind him, Abdelrazaq openly acknowledges that by placing her father in this faceless position she conducts a direct reenactment of the famous Palestinian comic-strip character, Handala. Handala, a 10-year-old boy with tatty clothes and messy hair, is the creation of Naji al-Ali, a prominent Palestinian cartoonist from the 1970s. One never saw Handala’s face, as he stood watching the world erupt around him but, as Abdelrazaq writes, al-Ali “promised that once the Palestinian people were free and allowed to return home, Handala would grow up and the world would see his face.” In 1987, Naji al-Ali was assassinated and Handala still hasn’t turned around. Every time we see Ahmad’s face in Baddawi we are conscious of the faces that are unseen and the circumstances that make so many of those faces unseeable. From the beginning of Baddawi the absent, the nonvisible, the unrecorded voices are acknowledged and given presence.

This acknowledgement and validation, both fierce and moving, recalls Edward Said, in his preface to Joe Sacco’s Palestine (2001), where he writes about his own struggle with Palestinian erasure:

I recall signs carried outside teach-ins and lectures on Palestine in that period [the summer of 1967] blaring “there is no Palestine,” and in 1969 Golda Meir made her famous statement saying that the Palestinians did not exist. Much of my work as a writer and lecturer was concerned with refuting the misrepresentations and dehumanizations of our history, trying at the same time to give the Palestinian narrative — so effectively blotted out by the media and legions of antagonistic polemicists — a presence and a human shape.

Abdelrazaq herself writes in her introduction to Baddawi that “for Palestinians, preservation of the past is an act of resistance.” As such, the telling of her father’s childhood is a vehement archiving, a recording of memory and story that forces open a window into the oft omitted history of Palestinians in Lebanon from 1959 to 1980.

It’s hard not to think of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis when reading Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi, if not because of the similar flat black and white drawings, then certainly because of the amalgamation of an ordinariness of childhood beset by violence, death, and fear. (Persepolis was originally subtitled “Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood” when first syndicated in English in Ms..) As Ahmad goes to school, makes friends, goes on adventures, takes on jobs, and helps his parents and siblings, Abdelrazaq draws in looming shadows of tanks, gunmen, and explosions that emerge out of the nearby Mediterranean waves or from the black framing of the panel, rarely giving Ahmad a moment’s rest. The quiet moments we see are when he studies by candlelight for his classes, when he sits with his books in the tranquility of a nearby garden, or when he discovers the library at the American University of Beirut — viable escapes, his only respite from the chaos.

And perhaps this is why Abdelrazaq’s chosen form, the graphic narrative, is so distinctly important to the story she has to tell. “The force and value of graphic narrative’s intervention,” says Hillary Chute, “on the whole, attaches to how it pushes on conceptions of the unrepresentable […] in contemporary discourse about trauma. Against a valorization of absence and aporia, graphic narrative asserts the value of presence, however complex and contingent.” In other words, Baddawi packs its punch precisely because of its genre. The graphic narrative enables Abdelrazaq to give voice to a history and violence that are often elided in dominant narratives. She engages in what Chute calls the “risk of representation,” using image and language to show us, the readers, something unsayable.

Much of how Abdelrazaq achieves the representation of war, trauma, and violence has to do with her deftness of hand. In the short chapter “Cluster Bombs,” Ahmad’s cousin’s wife kneads bread as Ahmad, outside, wonders why the incoming airplanes are flying so low. The two narratives, situated vertically side by side, are separated by a gutter which has been filled with tatreez. A slow-motion movement fills the pages as we are shown Ahmad’s eyes widening, next to his cousin’s wife unheedingly engaged in her everyday activity. Before this instance, Abdelrazaq uses the embroidery patterns as background and as framing devices, often protecting the boxes from the gutter. When Ahmad dreams of what Palestine must look like, his dream is outlined in embroidery; when Ahmad visits his grandfather in a neighboring camp who continues to live as a shepherd despite the meagerness of his three-sheep flock, the pastoral scene looks like it’s been woven into the page. The occurrences of the embroidery patterns in these wistful, peaceful moments connect them to a softness that alleviates the steel bars and crooked houses of the illustrated Baddawi camp. But against the vicious reality of the bombings, the tatreez is useless. It sits in the gutter unattached to the panels, unable to convincingly frame the idyllic moment. Ahmad’s family member is killed, thrown into the oven by the impact of the explosion. “To kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths,” writes Scott McCloud, who has written about what he calls “the limbo of the gutter” and the “kind of magic” that can happen there. The tatreez transforms into a recording of the gutter’s horror, of a thousand deaths in the making.

After that chapter, the embroidery patterns rarely appear again, but I begin to see them in Abdelrazaq’s drawings regardless: the way a tree trunk wraps around a frame, the shapes of rockets and tanks emerging against the serenity of the sea, the repeated pattern of the sun rising and setting, often giving hope against a desperate scene. It is a reminder not of the old cliché that storytellers are weavers, but that Abdelrazaq’s cartooning is a form of bequeathed needlework — a conscious reformulating of her heritage that reflects and reverberates along gendered lines, using embroidery to identify herself as part of a women’s lineage of recording and archiving through craftwork. “The embroideries that Palestinian women create [are] silent speaking, a self-elected non vocal form of expression of self-representation, identity, and collective memory,” writes Laila Farah of tatreez, explaining how important the embroidery pattern is to the women refugees in Lebanon’s camps, who use it to identify the areas they have fled, each pattern corresponding to specific villages and regions. Tatreez itself is an archiving of history just as it is a reproduction of home, more strongly so when made in camps — locations that consistently displace time and permanence. The women view their work “as a deliberate refusal to stop living, to stop documenting their continued existence regardless of how fragile it may be.”

Abdelrazaq’s graphic narrative is a calling out for home too, a newly formed tatreez adorning the printed page.

Abdelrazaq’s craftwork situates her on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, but her choice of genre speaks to the rise of Western women cartoonists engaged in life writing. Not just Satrapi (who lives in Paris), but writers like Alison Bechdel, Lynda Barry, and Phoebe Gloeckner, too — all of whom are documented in Chute’s Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. For Chute, the graphic narratives of the last decade and a half, especially those written by women, are using the comics medium to represent trauma “productively and ethically,” in the tradition of Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Joe Sacco (Palestine). These women cartoonists “return to events to literally re-view them, and in so doing, they productively point to the female subject as both an object of looking and a creator of looking and sight.” Bechdel, Barry, and Gloeckner write autobiographies, unlike Abdelrazaq, who has almost no visual presence in her narrative. Yet she is nonetheless very much involved in revisiting and re-picturing a difficult, trauma-filled past. In choosing comics as her form, Abdelrazaq acknowledges her own home, America, and the point where Ahmad’s story ends: his one-way departure to the USA.

“You want to go all the way to America?” Ahmad is asked by Manal, his study partner and potential romantic interest. “Yes. Is there something wrong with that?” responds Ahmad uncertainly. “No! … I mean it just seems really far away, huh?” says Manal. “Yeah, it does …” replies Ahmad as a whole page is given to these three words, Ahmad sitting alone at the bottom center of the panel looking right at us. Behind him and above him are two intermingled scenes divided by a white picket fence. Below the fence are the now-familiar shadows of trigger-happy soldiers and war-torn buildings, while above the fence is an imagining of a house with a porch shaded by a tree, white-capped mountains reaching up to a glorious sun. Next to a parked car stand four people. One is recognizably Ahmad in his stripy sweater and in his arms are a faceless wife, daughter, and son. It is in this brief moment that the author herself appears, but only as a dream of a past Ahmad fantasizing about what America might hold for his future. Manal’s words, “far away,” now reverberate differently across this panel, articulating the dream that Ahmad could move far away from his trapped displacement in Lebanon. America could offer a home, a family, the safety of an ordinary white picket fence.

The Levant is in chaos during Ahmad’s formative years and Abdelrazaq doesn’t shy away from drawing some of the most infamous and harrowing events that occur in Lebanon during that time, always filtering it through Ahmad’s lived experience. Naksa day, or the Six-Day War, abruptly ends the Baddawi-living Palestinians’ certainty that they are about to return home; we are shown the freeing of the Palestinian refugee camps from Lebanese military rule in 1969 through Ahmad and his young friends’ amazement that the military’s on-site headquarters are emptied and that they are free to walk in and out of them; the massacre of a busload of refugees by the Phalangist militia that launched Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1975 causes a traffic jam that Ahmad finds himself stuck in, right after acing an important exam for 10th grade. On one particularly hair-raising occasion, three notable Palestinian leaders are shot and killed in their homes by Israeli Mossad agents (known as operation “Spring of Youth”) and in a moment of macabre curiosity so often found in teenagers, Ahmad and his friend sneak into one of the homes while skiving off work to see the bloody aftermath of the murders. The violence is inked across the page in black silhouettes of death.

There is undoubtedly a selectiveness of memory in Abdelrazaq’s narrative and it is not clear if it is hers or her father’s. The events she frames are usually the ones where Palestinians are the victims, never those where they are the perpetrators. Nor is there any acknowledgement of some of the victims’ own violent misdeeds which may have provoked (occasionally exponentially worse) retaliations. The closest she gets to conceding both sides of the story is when describing the Spring of Youth operation: she writes that “its supposed purpose was to exact revenge for an attack in the 1972 Olympics which killed 11 Israeli athletes.” The perpetrators of that crime, a terrifying kidnapping and murder operation which is now known as the Munich massacre, are left ambiguous, but even a quick Wikipedia search would tell you that the Mossad agents purposefully targeted the men involved in their countrymen’s deaths. Sure, Baddawi isn’t the place for a long list of the gruesome tit-for-tat killings that have tortured and terrorized an entire region of peoples. Nor is it necessary for Abdelrazaq to take on the role of mediator, critic, or apologist. Baddawi is, after all, the memoir of a childhood and Ahmad is not seen supporting PLO militants or being overtly political in other ways. His story is ultimately one of survival and eventual departure. His violent circumstances kept him perpetually terrified, slowly learning to endure that terror: “He slept with a knife under his pillow,” Abdelrazaq tells us after one particularly devastating bombing. Nonetheless, Abdelrazaq risks falling into the trap she rails against: omitting historical narratives even as she writes a narrative that itself is too often omitted from the historical record. There is a fine line between debunking dominant images and narratives of history and simply ignoring those dominant narratives under the alibi of memoir.

Having said that, I am inclined to approach Baddawi broad-mindedly. The focus is on the “presence and human shape” of Ahmad and his story is a stark reminder that being a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, then and now, is to deal with fear, helplessness, and loss day in and day out. A state of suspension many of us are simply unable to fathom and one that Adbelrazaq visualizes for us through both the funny anecdotes of Ahmad’s day-to-day living and through its searing jolts. Baddawi holds Ahmad’s story tightly and in doing so holds the stories of others like him. Consequently his story becomes a tatreez in itself, an intricate and personalized pattern of home and memory in the face of displacement and forgetting: a textured document of survival.


Alex Mangles lives in the Levant and writes about genre literature you might not have heard of.

LARB Contributor

Alex Mangles lives in the Levant and writes about genre literature you might not have heard of.


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