Urban Warfare, Resilience and Resistance: Leila Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi (2015)
by Dominic Davies, University of Oxford
How can different kinds of cultural performance and production reconstruct new forms of social cohesion across cities scarred by physical and psychological boundaries? Comics (often known in an academic context as ‘graphic novels’), are becoming an increasingly popular form through which artists and writers working from—or writing and drawing about—cities with particularly divided pasts and/or segregated presents are beginning to express themselves. These include comics from and about cities as diverse and divided as Cape Town, New Orleans, London, Delhi and Beirut.
The comic’s form, which combines visual and narrative mediums, has a unique ability to diagnose, and on occasion to resist, the structural and social violence embedded in the infrastructural layout of cities. This is particularly the case in those cities that are home to large and yet still marginalised populations, including asylum-seekers and refugees.
My research asks: to what extent can comics about these unevenly developed urban spaces and marginalised populations actually reconstruct and reimagine—indeed, maybe even heal—cities marked by violence and division? Can they mobilise forgotten or subaltern histories, and recover often over-looked experiences, in order to look forward to more inclusive urban futures? These are huge questions, of course. Here I briefly look at a recent comic by US-Palestinian artist Leila Abdelrazaq, called Baddawi, which was published in 2015, to begin to explore some provisional examples and offer some tentative answers to these questions.
Baddawi, named after the Palestinian refugee camp located on the outskirts of Tripoli in North Lebanon, is a biography of Abdelrazaq’s father, Ahmad, who spent his childhood growing up in between the urban spaces of Beirut and Baddawi refugee camp in the 1960s and 70s. The narrative is framed by several key—and notably traumatic—historical moments. It begins with the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, when Ahmad’s family were forced to flee from their village, Safsaf, in the Northern-most tip of what is now Israel after a massacre by Israeli forces took place there. Throughout the comic, Ahmad’s childhood continues to be shaped by similarly violent events: the Six Day War of 1967, the Arab-Israeli War of 1972 and, perhaps most pressingly, the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), and especially from 1982 when Israeli forces began to bombard Beirut and surrounding refugee camps more actively with assaults from the air.
Although these wider geopolitical moments provide important cornerstones for the comic’s narrative, Baddawi repeatedly documents the day-to-day lives of Ahmad and his family to reassert the resilient nature of Palestinian refugees as they carve out a life for themselves in spite of the ongoing violence. Abdelrazaq’s depiction of Palestinians’ everyday life in Beirut and Baddawi thus reframes—quite literally, using the framing technique unique to the comics form—the ongoing existence of domestic life to emphasise the resilience of refugee populations, perhaps best encapsulated in the much-used Palestinian slogan: ‘to exist is to resist’.
Indeed, the cover of Baddawi depicts Ahmad from behind with his hands clasped behind his back, visually referencing the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali’s signature character Handala, who represents the dispossessed through the image of the child refugee. In al-Ali’s cartoons, which depict various forms of injustice and wield an indiscriminate satirical gaze, Handala serves both as witness to these geopolitical machinations and as embodiment of this marginalised refugee population. By referencing al-Ali’s work, Abdelrazaq self-consciously positions Baddawi as a contribution to a wider project to narrate a Palestinian historical narrative. The comic becomes a kind of resistance and recovery that functions as an important historical correction to globally (and especially US) hegemonic narratives of the region.
I want to show briefly here that it is the comic’s unique multi-panel form that, through its depiction of both the interiors and exteriors of urban space, allows it to engage in this larger political project.
Abdelrazaq was born in Chicago and has never lived in Beirut herself, and the comic is clearly drawn and written for an American audience in an attempt to inform them of a mostly untold subjective history. This results in certain problematic representational gazes, and yet this geographic orientation is nevertheless of political significance for her comic. Throughout, Abdelrazaq uses minimal tonal effects to render the urban spaces of Beirut and Baddawi refugee camp in starkly contrasting black and white block colours that jar with and against one another. Her single, page-sized frames recall the aesthetics of the photographic images of Beirut during the civil war that circulated globally at the time and through which the period is mostly remembered, at least outside of Lebanon and especially in the West. Notably, these images remain focused, almost obsessively, on the urban exteriors of a city marked by buildings reduced to rubble and walls riddled with bullet holes, overlooking the ongoing and resilient existence of its civilian and refugee inhabitants.
By referencing these images, the multi-frame construction of the comic and the addition of explanatory and narrative text allows it to build up a more complex picture of this urban conflict, as it recovers the individual stories of the city’s inhabitants not participant in, but still vulnerable to, the war’s ongoing violence. In an early splash-page map of divided Beirut, Abdelrazaq achieves this by positioning a giant-sized image of the comic’s protagonist, Ahmad, tentatively creeping over its various segregated zones. The comic dramatises spatially the receding urbanity of Beirut, as movement through it becomes increasingly restricted by spatial boundaries symbolic of sectarian division.
However, the multiple frames that follow reconstruct the ongoing day-to-day lives of Ahmad, his family and friends. Although they are not directly engaging in that urban conflict, they become increasingly resourceful in spite of its spiralling urban violence. The everyday interactions that Baddawi documents thus reclaims the urbanity of Beirut and the refugee camps by constructing forgotten narratives of cross-cultural and cross-religious communication that continued in the face of—and perhaps even as an act of resistance against—an increasingly aggressive sectarian conflict.
Abdelrazaq’s starkly contrasting juxtaposition of colour highlights not only the recovery of a traumatic and oft-untold history, but also the jarring relationship between day-to-day domestic life and the urban warfare and air attacks to which refugee populations were subject. In a chapter entitled ‘The Cluster Bombs’, we see Ahmad’s mother baking bread, a domestic task, before the silhouetted shape of the bread dough transforms into, and is then echoed by, the shape of the cluster bombs that fall on the refugee camp. This conflation of images emphasises the ongoing everyday lives of refugees as they attempt to survive the violence of wider geopolitically motivated urban destruction.
A similar technique is used in a short chapter entitled ‘Chess’. This begins, symbolically as well as actually, with the retreat of her protagonists during an Israeli bombing raid from the violent urban exterior to the safety of the basement, notably an unseen urban interior. However, rather than reproduce a marked division between these two spaces, Abdelrazaq reveals the extent to which they are connected. The comic shifts from her semi-abstract, blocked city-space, into the metaphorical black and white blocks of the chess board, a domestic game that Ahmad plays in order to pass the time whilst sheltering from the Israeli bombs. Chess, a complex strategy game that might be read as a metaphor for the military strategies of Israeli and other warring factions, as the games played by the children sheltering from the bombs in the basement literally bleed into the civil war and the assaults by Israel on the PLO that rage outside. In so doing, the comic encourages readers to view Ahmad’s day-to-day existence as a politically resilient, if not resistant, act.
Returning once more to Abdelrazaq’s striking map of Beirut, her capitalised emphasis on ‘THE GREEN LINE’ takes on a specifically resistant resonance because of the fact that it was so-called after another ‘green line’—the line that had carved up West and East Jerusalem in 1949 and that Israeli military forces had disregarded in 1967. Through this visual reference, which is given its symbolic weight by the comic’s ability to create powerful imagistic cues through its recurrent black-and-white aesthetic, Abdelrazaq references another, perhaps slower although equally violent and ongoing urban conflict: Israel’s continuing settlement expansions and other encroaching colonial movements into the West Bank in blatant disregard of the 1949 green line.
Indeed, whilst this is Abdelrazaq’s first long-form comic, she has used her skills as a comic artist for an explicitly transnational political activism, producing pamphlets available to download for free from her website that explain the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (or BDS) campaign against Israel and the Occupation of the Palestinian Territories. These again appear in a vividly stark black-and-white artistic style, and are deployed to depict the violence of the notably urban infrastructure projects of the Israeli occupation, as well as the destruction of Palestinian infrastructures, urban spaces and homes.
By connecting the urban warfare in Beirut and Baddawi with that in the West Bank through the distinctive visual style of her drawings, Abdelrazaq highlights the historical connections between the two primary traumatic events depicted in the comic: the Nakba (the original moment of Palestinian displacement) and the civil war (the ongoing violence inflicted on that displaced population). This is encapsulated in the repetition of a symbolic but also literally physical line or scar: the green line itself.
Baddawi self-consciously shows not only how the violent division of urban space is connected to much larger and ongoing historical narratives, but also how its own depiction of everyday resistance to those divided urban spaces can itself be mobilised as a way to reconstruct an alternate historical narrative that recovers the ongoing resilience of the Palestinian refugee. In this way, Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi is an excellent example of the way in which the unique, visual-narrative form of the comic might be particularly capable of imagining more inclusive urban futures, foregrounding the day-to-day lives of refugees the world over to encourage a more just treatment of some of the world’s most marginalised people.