Reviewed by Tom Little
Lebanon’s civil war may have ended over twenty years ago, but its effects are still felt profoundly in all aspects of life in the country: Beirut’s skyline, to take a particularly obvious example, is dotted by the shells of buildings gutted by fighting, while Lebanese politics are still very much in thrall to the war’s bitter legacy.
Yet, nowhere is the legacy of the war more evident than on the Lebanese cultural scene, where artists, writers and filmmakers have been trying for decades to make sense of the brutal sectarian civil war that wrought the country from 1975-1990.
Even as the conflict was rumbling on, Lebanon’s artistic community were finding ways of incorporating the war into their work and, down the years, the steady trickle of fiction, film and art about the civil war has swollen steadily into a torrent. Writers such as Elias Khoury, Rawi Hage and Rabih Alameddine (to name but a few) have brought the literature of the civil war to the world stage in their novels, and films about the era, such as 2010’s Incendies, have been shown in cinemas across the world.
With Bye Bye Babylon, Lamia Ziadé joins the long list of Lebanese artists to deal with the war in her work. But Ziadé , who is an established painter, must be the first to use the graphic novel to do so. The author, who currently resides in Paris, grew up in Beirut as the country descended into bloodshed and violence. Bye Bye Babylon is her moving record of the early years of Lebanon’s civil war.
When the civil war broke out in Lebanon in April 1975, Beirut was known as a playground to the rich and famous, a city of casinos, swanky bars, plush hotels and glitzy beach clubs. Celebrities (a young Sean Connery was said to be a particularly ardent admirer of Beirut’s nightlife) regularly headed to the Lebanese capital for a weekend in the sun, and the city became known as the “Paris of the Middle East”. However, away from the eyes of the world’s media, Lebanon was seething with discontent, and tensions between the conservative Christian population and Palestinian refugees were simmering hatefully away.
Ziadé grew up in an affluent Christian family, and her tragic graphic memoir shows the contradictions in 1970s Beirut of her youth – the Babylon of the title – as the civil war broke out.
Bye Bye Babylon eschews the traditional storyboard approach, and is instead sparsely narrated by a few lines of text here and there: Ziadé tells the story of Lebanon’s collapse into war through the images of her childhood – pictures of her favourite sweets and comics rub shoulders with drawings of the militiamen and the guns that played an equally prominent part in her youth.
With her esoteric and highly distinctive style, Ziadé beautifully illustrates the contrasts and contradictions of the Lebanese civil war in a way that is both deeply moving, while entertaining too.
Her eye for detail vividly brings to life pre-war Beirut in all its minutia, subtly highlighting that, for all the talk of the “Paris of the Middle East”, Lebanon could not see that it was tilting towards the abyss. As Ziadé herself concludes: “From the café terraces of Raouche or Ain Mreisseh, where we would sometimes go for a banana split, we couldn’t see the Shiite ghettoes or the Palestinian camps. And when we wear sunglasses, we can’t spot all the dirt either.”