Category Archives: Middle East

Review: ‘Ville avoisinant la Terre’ by Jorj A. Mhaya

Our hero

Taking a global view, there’s isn’t a hotter book right now than “Ville avoisinant la Terre,” by Jorj A. Mhaya. It was originally published in Arabic in 2011 by Dar Onboz. And it has been recently translated into French by Éditions Denoël. This is a gorgeous book and it is only a matter of time before there is an English translation. In the meantime, I would encourage you to seek it out now and get ahead of the pack. If you enjoy the convenience of Amazon, you can find it right here. Let’s take a closer look.

The setting: Beirut, Lebanon

Over years, I’ve enjoyed a number of comics in languages I don’t know well or at all. For example, you don’t have to know French to enjoy the artwork of Blutch or Tardi. And so it is with the artwork of Mhaya. He has a wonderfully sensitive and expressive line punctuated by his use of China black ink wash.

A map for some context.

You will get much of the gist of the narrative by simply following along our main character, Farid Tawill, a typical office worker from Beirut. It may be evident from what you see but, just in case, this man’s world has been turned upside down. On his way home from the office, he finds that the apartment building where he lives with his family has disappeared. Further along his search, he finds his whole city as become alien to him. Like a character out of Kafka, or from an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” our hero appears to be in an alternate reality.

Front cover of “Ville avoisinant la Terre” by Jorj A. Mhaya

Alienation is a favorite subject in art. Edvard Munch’s “Scream” series, first begun in 1893, is the most famous example. And it comes as no surprise that, over a hundred years later, we find Munch quite relevant–feel compelled to add more to the discourse on disconnection–and see how the world has forged some pretty heavy links. It’s not lost on Mhaya from his vantage point in Beirut.

Back cover of “Ville avoisinant la Terre” by Jorj A. Mhaya

Mhaya wants you to feel the surreal quality to his homeland. He has stated that he gained a lot of insight from the photojournalism he grew up with: the urgent black & white news photos during the Beirut civil war in the ’70s and ’80s help to inform his moody ink wash artwork.

Page excerpt from VLAT

How much more absurd can life seem to be than to live in a perpetual war zone? No wonder Mhaya has an obese Batman character chasing our hero down the streets.

Page excerpt from VLAT

What Mhaya has done with this book is set up a vehicle upon which to comment upon the absurdity of life, weaving back and forth from the specifics (his own experiences, views, and concepts) and the general human condition. This is what any great novelist, filmmaker, painter, etc. does on some level: set the stage and then perform. It is certainly a process well suited for a graphic novelist.

Page excerpt from VLAT

So, you can see that you can do very well from just reading the images. Yes, you do want the text. In fact, you do need the text. But we can live with just the images. We see the little hooks that motivate the artist: everything from a close-up of a mangy dog to a close-up of a woman’s pretty feet. This or that panel do not just appear out of nowhere. The dog is a symbol of isolation. The feet are a symbol of release.

Page excerpt from VLAT

It appears that our hero is forced to confront his life in every which way possible: philosophical, emotional, sexual, intellectual. He is not just in an alternate reality. He is in a place that forces him to experience a heightened sense of reality. His choices, what he learns, what he survives, will determine his fate.

“Ville avoisinant la Terre” by Jorj A. Mhaya

And here I am commenting up a storm and I’m only relying upon the pictures! Well, it makes total sense that this book went first with a French translation in order to make the natural progression to being part of the prestigious Angoulême Comics Festival. And now English readers can’t wait to join in. The loose translation in English to this book is “City Neighboring the Earth.” I look forward to that title in the near future.

“Ville avoisinant la Terre,” by Jorj A. Mhaya, is an 88-page hardcover, black & white with tones, translated into French by Éditions Denoël. Find it at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Angoulême, Angoulême Comics Festival, Éditions Denoël, Beirut, Comics, France, Franz Kafka, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Jorj A. Mhaya, Lebanon, Middle East

Review: ‘The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir’ by Riad Sattouf

Arab of the Future Riad Sattouf

“The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir,” by Riad Sattouf, is a must-read for anyone interested in a story that helps to illuminate the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. As I was preparing this review this weekend, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran over events that heated the tension between the Sunni majority and the Shitte minority. Brought down to an intimate level, in the spirit of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” Sattouf’s graphic novel takes us into a part of the world many of us would like to understand better.

Riad Sattouf Arab of the Future

Riad Sattouf provides us with a amazing tale spanning his earliest years, from birth up to age six, in this first part to his memoirs. Told from a child’s point of view, it is eye-opening and honest. But it’s also told from a no-holds-barred adult’s point of view. Sattouf was a contributor to the controversial satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo. What this extended narrative helps to do is give some insight into a certain way of seeing and a certain sense of humor that may challenge readers the further away they are from the scene. Sattouf is in a unique position to undertake such a work having been born into a family with a Syrian father and a French mother.

No doubt, this is not a sentimental journey. And, while it is educational, this is not suitable for children. I’d say late teens on up. Above all, this is a fascinating story with a whimsical and surprising energy. We follow little Riad literally from his earliest days as a cute towhead frolicking in innocence. And, little by little, we see that innocence chipped away.

Sattouf depicts his father as both bookish/academic and crude/uncouth. His mother he depicts as refined but ultimately subservient to her husband. And Sattouf cannot help but dwell on the backwardness and the darkness he believes he may have witnessed in the Middle East at such a young age. He regularly describes the Arabs he comes in contact with in terms of the sweat he smells from them. While that is more of the child’s-eye at play, it speaks to a special tension the author is dealing with. Sattouf sees himself, like Marjane Satrapi, as an ultimate outsider. As the book’s title ironically states, it is little Riad who is in conflict with the idea of being the Arab of the future.

Aside from the portrait of young Riad, the portraits of Libya under Gaddafi and Syria under Assad are quite interesting. We get a firsthand look at Gaddafi’s attempt at creating a utopia with free housing for everyone. There’s only one catch: you can’t lock your home. So, if someone else comes by in need of a home, and you’re not around, they can take it over. Assad’s Syria, during a relatively peaceful time, looks like a war zone.

Sattouf’s father, full of idealism and for his own selfish reasons, brings his family to live in very challenging conditions in Libya and Syria. To make it worse, Sattouf would be moved back and forth so he had life in Paris to factor in as well. It was to be a life layered in conflict on many levels. Which brings us back to Sattouf’s connection with Charlie Hebdo and its controversy and tragedy. The biggest problem that a provocative one panel gag cartoon has is that it is a provocative one panel gag cartoon. However, with a graphic novel, you have a much better chance to deal with a myriad of thoughts and emotions running a lifetime, running generations. So, yes, this book will provoke. You should know that. But it is definitely worth reading.

“The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir” is a 160-page trade paperback published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. For more details, visit the book’s site right here.

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Filed under Charlie Hebdo, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Middle East

Review: MIKE’S PLACE, published by First Second

Mikes-Place-First-Second

Jack is a journalist in search of a story. It’s 2003 and Iraq is grabbing all the headlines. However, a set of circumstances finds him considering a story set in the Middle East that does not involve conflict. Enter Mike’s Place, a haven for the young and young-at-heart to unwind and enjoy good spirits and great rhythm and blues right off the beach in Tel Aviv. It will be a decidedly odd twist of fate that places Jack in what proves a most compelling story of conflict, and unbridled optimism.

Building upon their work on the documentary, “Blues by the Beach,” Jack Baxter and Joshua Faudem have taken what they placed on the screen and reworked it for the comics medium. Along with the thoughtful and energetic art of Koren Shadmi, you have a narrative that naturally flows with a life of its own. Shadmi has carefully developed believable characters that the reader hooks into. This is a story, as the cover makes clear, about a bombing. But not only about a bombing.

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With countless acts of violence and terror in the world, it can all seem a blur. As the characters in this story often say, you have to create your own way of coping amid terror. Throughout, the regulars at Mike’s Place are being interviewed for a documentary exploring the real Israel. One standout is Dominique, a beautiful and lively waitress. Her story, on and off camera, is pivotal. When asked about how she copes with bombings, she says that you need short-term memory as an “immune system.” You deal with it at the time and then move on. She proudly states, “That’s the Israeli way.”

But, how then do you make sense of it all if you’re constantly moving on? Well, you don’t completely forget. It seems that a story like the one about Mike’s Place becomes more powerful with each revisit. It seems that Baxter and Faudem had to process what they experienced and recorded into two separate mediums, as a documentary and then as a graphic novel. You sift through the details and sharpen the focus. What happens, once you have a graphic novel of this caliber, is that you find a greater truth.

You have here a straightforward cadence as the story is presented in comics. The layout foundation on the page is two panels on three rows with variations as needed. This is classic comics storytelling and it works quite well. You don’t need much else in many cases. For this story, this framework sort of mimics the camera in a documentary and evokes reportage in general. In fact, you don’t really notice the panel structure as you are immersed into action. Again, Shadmi does a remarkable job with bringing to life these characters. And, as you’ll see yourself, this graphic novel does a remarkable job of clearing away the clutter and getting to the heart of the matter.

You see here Mike’s Place become the center of conflict. A happy-go-lucky gathering spot, seemingly existing out of time and place, comes crashing down. This is the story of such a place. And how people come together once the unthinkable has happened.

“Mikes’ Place” is a 192-page hardcover published by First Second Books. For more details, visit our friends at First Second right here. You can also find this book here, here, and here.

If you are in the Seattle area, be sure to stop by Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery this Saturday, June 13, and meet the book’s cartoonist, Koren Shadmi. This will be a fun event which includes the debut of a new book by local cartoonist, Greg Stump, “Disillusioned Illusions,” published by Fantagraphics. For more details, go right here.

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Filed under Comics, Documentaries, First Second, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Israel, Middle East

Review: THE REALIST by Asaf Hanuka

Hanuka-The-Realist

For the last four years, Asaf Hanuka has been doing auto-biographical webcomics about his life in Tel Aviv, Israel, entitled, “The Realist.” In many ways, this is a pretty straightforward narrative but, as in any life, things can gain, at any moment, a razor-sharp specificity and intensity. This is, after all, one of the most watched war-torn areas in the world.

So, when a morning can simply consist of a father goading his little boy to eat his toast, that already carries potentially more weight than a similar moment somewhere else. That said, Hanuka seems to carry himself like a man on a mission wherever he might live. The Realist has now been collected for the first time in English as a graphic novel, published by Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios.

The-Realist-Hanuka

Comparable to the work of R. Crumb and Daniel Clowes, Hanuka has a keen sense for depictions of everyday life. What really matters is that he’s FUNNY!

I actually laughed out loud from reading his comics. He wears his version of the average Joe quite well. There’s one strip where we follow Hanuka throughout his day, as if following the daily routine of a computer from start up to sleep mode. At each point of the day, he has options to choose: engage or ignore the bus driver, the neighbor, the co-worker, his son, his wife. End. Repeat the next day. It strikes close to home, and it’s hilarious.

They say that if if you try to call attention to your merits, people will gladly ignore you. However, if you revel in self-deprecation, suddenly you have a following. Well, Hanuka definitely has a following. But it’s more than having readers relate to your problems. Hanuka has an engaging style with his artwork. It’s a crisp rendering of his life that you can’t help but want to know more about.

“The Realist” is an original 192-page hardcover graphic novel, priced at $24.99, arriving in comic shops from Archaia on April 22nd with a cover by creator Asaf Hanuka. For more details, visit our friends at Boom! Studios right here.

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Filed under Archaia Entertainment, Asaf Hanuka, Boom! Studios, Comics, Family, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Israel, Middle East, War, Webcomics

Interview: Matthew “Griff” Griffin, Combat Flip Flops, and the Process of Rebuilding

An Afghan Special Forces policeman walks through a poppy field as he searches for Taliban fighters in the village of Sanjaray in Zhari district early April 26, 2008. (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

An Afghan Special Forces policeman walks through a poppy field as he searches for Taliban fighters in the village of Sanjaray in Zhari district early April 26, 2008. (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

It all began with the idea of combining the combat boot with the flip flop, a sort of yin and yang. More precisely, it was about finding peaceful alternatives to war.

One thing that I look forward to once the weather warms up is getting back into flip flops. They can be a haven from the world. But the flip flops that I’m wearing right now face the world head-on. These are Combat Flip Flops. They are more true to their name than you might imagine. And they represent an inspiring story about rebuilding where only chaos and destruction once existed.

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Yep, the above flip flops would do anyone proud in terms of style and comfort. But there’s a lot more going on here. Every item created at Combat Flip Flops was made by people from a region that has known extreme conflict.

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These fashion-forward sandals shown above are made in Bogota, Columbia. This is one of the newest items available from this most enterprising company.

Combat-Flip-FlopsThe story of Combat Flip Flops began in Afghanistan when Army Rangers Matthew “Griff” Griffin and Donald Lee had an epiphany. After serving multiple deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, they knew they could do more to help people in war-torn countries. Initially, the focus was to transform a boot factory in Afghanistan into a viable flip flop business. But, that specific plan did not work out the first time out and meant reworking one’s way back with a different product that fit that region’s particular economic base. It just meant that one initial setback led down another path. And this process has led to a venture with a wider, and ever-growing, scope.

Matthew "Griff" Griffin models The Cashmagh

Matthew “Griff” Griffin models The Cashmagh

Support Business, Not Bullets

I got a chance to talk with co-founder Matthew Griffin, who goes by Griff, and he proved to be very confident and enthusiastic about the future of Combat Flip Flops. At one point in our conversation, I noted the arrival of spring and how everyone is ready to venture out in flip flops. Griff’s thoughts went back to the arena of combat. It’s spring that marks the beginning of renewed conflict. And, with that in mind, Combat Flip Flops has been doubling its charitable efforts to war-torn regions all through the month of March. And you could say it has been doubling its efforts in more ways than one. What you find here is a direct link back to helping those in great need. You can listen to my interview with Griff by clicking the link below:

Do visit the Combat Flip Flops site and view the assortment of products offered like The Cashmagh:

The Cashmagh
They say you can leave Afghanistan, but it it never leaves you. Over multiple combat deployments, the shemagh became a necessary tool for shade, warmth, cover, and style. It never left the toolbox. Typically made from cotton or polyester, the standard shemagh didn’t meet our standards for a world class product. So we made one. This 100% Afghan Cashmere Shemagh was born in the mountains of Afghanistan. Produced from the finest cashmere in the world, this endlessly functional accessory shows your global perspective, open mind, and willingness to do what others won’t—support business, not bullets. Lightweight, supple, and functional, this performance cashmere shemagh is fitting from the battlefield to the boardroom. We prefer the latter.

Visit our friends at Combat Flip Flops right here.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Business, Combat Flip Flops, Entrepreneurship, Fashion, flip flops, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Iraq, Middle East, Peace, War