Comics Take a Candid Look at Refugee Lives

Editors’ Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles on books by or about refugees.

With the refugee crisis in Lebanon grinding on into its seventh year, Solidarités International—a French nongovernmental organization whose main work is providing safe water, hygiene and sanitation systems to settlements of displaced Syrians—found that it needed a new way to tell its story.

As “donor fatigue” set in, the organization saw that the usual forms of aid-agency public relations—press releases, documentary photography or videos—were not enough.

“We needed a new way to tell the story, to sensitize the public and the donors,” said Paul Duke, communications officer at Solidarités International.

The solution was to commission five graphic artists to create a linked sequence of comic strips about the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The result is a work produced in three versions—English, French and Arabic—whose titles (Meantime, En Attendant and Bukra Inshallah) all evoke the anxiousness and uncertainty at the heart of the experience of the stories’ subjects. The book was published online in March, although printed copies have been distributed to refugees.

Comics (also known as graphic novels or “bandes dessinées”) in Arabic have flowered into a vital art form in recent years. The genre has young, talented practitioners all over the region, and the case could be made that it captures better than any other the spirit of the times in Arab countries, especially in the period that began with the 2011 uprisings.

The comics are effective mainly because the artists have opened up new kinds of subject matter that previously were rarely touched by artists in any genre. The public side of life in an Arab country—the state, its ideologies and illusions—is pushed into the background. These new artists are unafraid to show private life, in particular the relations between men and women.

The language in the speech bubbles is usually not standard Arabic (the official language of the state and a pan-Arab ideology that is all but extinct), but the colloquial Arabic of the artist’s country. (See related article, “Arab Comics: Fit for Academic Exploration”)

The stories in Meantime illustrate this more intimate view of Arab family life. In the limbo that refugees face, the relationships between husbands and wives are strained by the disruption or even inversion of the traditional model of family life, in which the husband is the breadwinner and the wife stays at home. In Lebanon, Syrians who have fled their country are not allowed to register as official refugees, which makes it difficult for men in particular to work legally and to move around freely. We learn here that women, on the other hand, have less trouble getting through checkpoints and have better access to the unregulated labor market.

The new Arabic comics are highly imaginative in the way they combine word and image to create narratives that move magically through time and space, yet the subject matter is urgently realistic.

An example of this from Meantime is Kamal Hakim’s extraordinary story, “Aassoun Tower.” Its title refers to a “collective shelter” housing over 50 refugee families. The building itself is an unfinished construction project in the middle of nowhere. It was intended to be a luxury hotel for tourists, topped with a revolving restaurant, until work on the building stopped. Its owner now rents out the unfinished rooms to Syrian families for 35 dollars a month. The building has no electricity and no plumbing; the rooms do not even have doors.

Hakim’s strip shows us the whole story of how he got to know the residents of Aassoun Tower. The conversations he has with the building’s residents, over cups of tea and coffee in their temporary homes, are unexpectedly funny, such as the noisy argument the artist records between an outspoken young mother who complains loudly about everything, and her disapproving, shisha-puffing mother.

The story is nothing like the usual publicity material aid agencies publish—still photographs showing grateful-looking and well-behaved refugees partaking of an aid organization’s beneficence. Meantime offers something better: authentic stories that provide a fresh perspective on the daily lives of Syrians in Lebanon.

Other articles in this series:


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