Saturday, September 22, 2012

How to understand Israel from comic books alone

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I love reading autobiographical comic books that are set in other countries. I don't know much about Israel, but during the past couple of years two interesting graphic memoirs came out about people's experiences in Israel, so, naturally, I bought 'em, read 'em, and learned a thing or two!

The first book is Sarah Glidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less , and the second was Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle.

Glidden's book is a memoir of her Birthright Israel trip, beautifully illustrated with watercolors throughout. First thing I learned: just for being Jewish one can get a free 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Israel!

Glidden's story isn't so much about Israel itself as it was about how young Jewish-American liberals feel about Israel -- also an interesting topic, BTW:

I found the book a little frustrating, though, because she set off with the express intention of confirming her belief in the pure black-hearted villainy of Israel, and her grand epiphany was that it's more complicated than that. Well, duh, it's more complicated than that. If the situation were simple, the conflict would be resolved. Yet, weirdly, she seems taken aback to discover that Israelis have justifications for some of their controversial actions:

Glidden did a lot of interesting research before her trip, and told some great stories about the things she saw matched up with her expectations (or didn't). Yet, there's a limit to how much insight you can gain from a 10-day guided tour, and in the end I was mostly just glad not to have so much emotional baggage around such a complex and important issue. (Of course I'm sure I have equivalent baggage surrounding other equally complex and important issues...)

Delisle, by contrast, spent a year living in Jerusalem where his wife was working for Doctors Without Borders:

Delisle identifies as Christian (he's a francophone Canadian), but he mentions in the story that he doesn't believe in God. (Glidden also mentions in passing that she doesn't believe in God.)

His occupation for that year was a combination of stay-at-home-dad and comic book author/artist -- in particular keeping his eyes open for interesting stories in his surroundings. I had an easier time relating to him since he came upon subject of Israel without a lot of preconceived ideas, just looking to learn what he could. And it was actually kind of fun simply to encounter a story in which a man has to juggle his childcare obligations with trying to find time to do his own projects.

Delisle met tons of fascinating people during his stay, and saw some remarkable things. He taught comic-drawing workshops to a variety of students -- Palestinian as well as Israeli, and the contrast is pretty amazing. He visited Hebron multiple times, guided by people on all different sides of the conflict. He met Bedouins and Samaritans. He met people who were separated from their lands and livelihood by the wall (as mentioned in Glidden's comic above). He watched the Doctors Without Borders mobilize during an armed conflict in Gaza -- and much more! And all of the characters and stories were fascinating and surprising.

ETA: also often entertaining and funny. I hesitated to write that the first time because so many of the situations are serious -- yet the human condition is funny, often even in tragedy.

I have to admit I liked Delisle's book better -- it gave a more extensive and varied portrait of the lives of different people living in Israel and Palestine. But I heartily recommend both of them, not just to learn a thing or two, but as interesting human stories.


kuri said...

The Delisle book sounds interesting. My library has it, so I think I'll read it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Kuri!!!

I would definitely recommend checking it out -- it's really eye-opening.