Snakes and ladders

Lamia Ziadé’s graphic memoir of a childhood in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, Bye Bye Babylon, came out in French in 2010, and in English translation the following year. I picked up a copy a while back, but I’ve only just had time to read it. I’m glad I did.

Link to Lamia Ziadé's website

The book isn’t a comic-book narrative (unlike Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, for example): it’s an album, almost, of drawings of things, people, and scenes, interspersed with short passages of text. This outlines the situation in Beirut and in Ziadé’s family while the images, snapshot by snapshot, build up a picture of a glossy, cheesy consumerist paradise collapsing into a vicious—but still cheesy—civil war. In the first few pages Bazooka bubble gum, Planter’s peanuts, Kellogg’s Smacks and Libby’s ketchup give way to Slavias and AK47s, Makarov and Tokarev pistols, G3s, FALs, and M16s, machine pistols, sniper rifles, and eventually RPGs and tanks. Later there’ll be pools of blood to echo the bright red pool of ketchup, but the most recurrent visual motif is smoke, rising from burning buildings, burning cars, piles of burning tyres, or from cigarette after cigarette. The first of many dark, billowing plumes of smoke in the book pours up from a fire beneath a billboard advertising Kent cigarettes, and elsewhere in the book we’ll see a gold Cartier lighter (selling for just $2 after rival militias loot the souks), ‘Cannon’ brand matches, cigars, and more packs of Kent. Ziadé’s grandfather smokes as he stands on his balcony after his shop in the souk has been destroyed, and a column of smoke rises from a shelled building over his shoulder; her parents smoke as they listen to news reports on each day’s fighting; her aunt Marcelle smokes as she phones Ziadé’s mother to say that her husband hasn’t come home (he’s been dragged from his car and shot in the head). Presidents Elias Sarkis and Hafiz al-Asad smoke, at the ‘umpteenth Syro-Lebanese summit’.

The cumulative power of the pictures is enormous. They’re bright and simple, like a child’s drawings, a deliberately naïve style that allows Ziadé to cast the same eye on bubblegum and RPGs. To a child’s eye, the symbols of the Phalange or Amal militias are like the logos of Pan Am or Nivea Crème; the Hollywood smiles of Charlie’s Angels are no more or less artificial than the bonhomie of Sadat, Carter and Begin at Camp David. The brands themselves are pulled into the war: as normal life in the city breaks down, Zwan tinned pork or Gandour Lucky 555 biscuits—‘magical food that doesn’t need to be stored in the fridge’—become as important as Valium (‘for those who can’t sleep’) or the Rayovac batteries that keep the small portable Zenith radio going.

“My father will spend fifteen years with a radio stuck to his ear. (The volume on these little radios isn’t very high, and the roar of the shelling is loud…) Even today, twenty years after the end of the war, my father still listens to the news on a radio held to his ear.”

The text is also plain, though as with the pictures the apparent simplicity masks great depths of detailed research, as well as Ziadé’s two decades of adult reflection her own childhood experiences.  Late in the book we see a game of snakes and ladders; the entire country seems to have been playing.

Link to Lamia Ziadé's website

What gives the pictures most force is the wordless juxtaposition of the two worlds. On the one hand, flowers and curtains, statues of the Virgin, tubs of Elizabeth Arden Eight-Hour Cream, and shops full of patisserie or costly fabrics, as well as cinemas that Ziadé knew of but was too young to visit before they were destroyed; on the other, cityscapes riven with shellfire, Maronite Christian gunmen carving crosses between the shoulderblades of their murdered victims, militias of all sides killing their prisoners by dragging them behind cars or dumping mutilated bodies off overpasses. Intabih, says a sign we see blocking streets in a couple of different places, qannâs: ‘Warning, snipers’. Sometimes the two worlds are adjacent but distinct: Ziadé’s first holy communion is on one page, the bullet-riddled Mercedes of Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt (assassinated a few days earlier) on the next. But frequently they force themselves into the same image: ‘Kodak’, says a sign in English and Arabic above a sandbagged position of bazooka-wielding militiamen. Stickers of the Virgin appear twice on the stocks of militiamen’s guns. Hotel after expensive hotel appears with shell-shattered windows and clouds of black smoke obscuring the storey-high letters of its name on the roof. At the heart of the book is a picture of Ziadé’s own terrified nine-year-old face, traumatized by the sound of shells landing or being fired all around her family’s apartment. When the book ends, in 1979, Ziadé is 11. By this time her family have retreated to their house outside the city, where ‘a wide bend in the road above the village offers breathtaking views of Beirut in flames’. This house too would be badly shelled during the war: in 1990, on Ziadé’s 22nd birthday.

I taught a class on the Lebanese civil war a couple of weeks ago, and I wish I’d read this book before it—I wish my class had read it too. It’s a formidable introduction to the first years of the war.

Beirut in 1975 was indeed a powder-keg. Lebanon’s fragile political system, with its institutionalized and gerrymandered sectarianism, would have been unstable even without the presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who’d arrived in 1948 and 1967; when the PLO leadership was forced out of Jordan in ‘Black September’ 1970 and began operating from Lebanon instead, attracting Israeli attacks on the entire south of the country, a couple of legs were kicked out from under it. But at the same time the city was full of money: capital flight from nationalizations elsewhere in the region in the 1950s and 60s and the growing wealth of the Gulf monarchies had made Beirut a centre of banking and hedonism. Lamia Ziadé’s family belonged to the rich, westernized elite that benefited from all this, buying their imported brands at Spinney’s supermarket while refugees driven out of the south by Israeli reprisals—the Lebanese rural poor as well as Palestinians from camps near the border—settled in a ‘poverty belt’ around the city. Beirut was the overinflated capital of a small, divided country between bigger, scarier neighbours.

Link to Lamia Ziadé's website

Reading Bye Bye Babylon made me think of Syria today. The historical contexts of Lebanon in the 1970s and Syria in the 2010s are very different: no ‘oil shock’, no superpower rivalry. Fashions are different too: I don’t think the shabiha have medallions and sideburns (though before the war you could spot a low-grade Alawi tough by his white trainers, Con’s brand blue jeans, and—often—sidearm). But there are parallels too.

I lived in Damascus off and on for a year and a half between 2002 and 2007. These were years of economic liberalization, unaccompanied by any loosening of the Baath party’s political grip, and crony capitalism. When I first went to Syria I took traveller’s cheques to a state bank to change into lira; by the last time I was using my British bank card to get money out of cash machines at private banks. Local ripoffs of global brands—Ugarit cola in the blue and red of Pepsi; Demolino bars, a powdery kind of Twix—were giving way to the Real Thing. The children of the well-connected elite despised Adidas trainers because they were made under license in Syria: they preferred genuinely imported brands. During my last visit a Costa Coffee opened round the corner from the French Institute, where I worked. Supermarkets were opening, even a mall down at Kfar Soussa. Syriatel, the mobile phone company belonging to the president’s cousin Rami Makhluf, was all-conquering: two of my friends worked for it. Sinister businessmen like Makhluf were doing astronomically well thanks to regime connections, but in the cities the merchant class also benefitted as the state gave greater leeway to the private sector, and Syria’s borders increasingly opened to trade.

In Damascus and Aleppo, restored Ottoman town-houses were converted into boutique hotels, or busy restaurants for a local clientele in tottery heels—and foreigners, whether Europeans like me or families from the Gulf. The biggest restaurant I’ve ever been in was an open-air place with an artificial waterfall on the road to the airport, that took its name (‘Damascus Gate’) from a fake monumental entrance: a full-size reproduction of an archway at Palmyra. It seated easily a thousand people, many of them khalijis on holiday from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait: the food was both expensive and dreadful, but that evidently wasn’t the point.

Syrians were making money, or some Syrians were, and money was coming in from elsewhere too: from Iraq, for example, as those who had the means escaped the war. Money also arrived from the renewed hydrocarbon boom in the Gulf, both directly and indirectly: foreign capital investment was liberalized, and Gulf investors stung by post-9/11 restrictions in the West put some of their wealth in Syria’s new private banks, just as Saudi families who might previously have holidayed in Europe came to Syria instead. Syrians working in the Gulf sent remittances, too. A lot of this influx of investment made its way into the property market, and the cost of housing rose rapidly: when I came back to Syria in 2006, the rent on the small flat I’d lived in a year earlier had jumped sharply even though the landlord had taken a chunk of the already small and windowless living room to extend his own flat next door. Adding to the pressure on housing at every level—especially in Damascus—was the arrival of large numbers of Iraqi refugees, from the well-to-do to the desperately impoverished.

Meanwhile, if the partial economic liberalization of Syria created some highly visible winners in the cities, it created very many losers, especially towards the end of the decade as the ‘retreat of the state’ from social provision coincided with serious drought and a depopulation of the countryside. Economic growth was respectable in absolute terms but it barely offset population growth, and was anyway grossly inequitable. Syria’s population growth had slowed steadily over the last two decades, but it reached its peak in the 1980s, and those children were reaching adulthood. I remember reading, while living there, that Syria, a country of barely 20 million inhabitants, would need to find jobs for 400,000 young people leaving the education system each year for the following five years. It didn’t.

Link to Lamia Ziadé's website

Lebanon’s civil war was often presented as simply sectarian at the time, and since. Ziadé’s book uses the child’s-eye view to remind us of some of the deeper causes that made sectarianism a profitable form of politics for militias of all sides. Similarly, the war in Syria has become increasingly sectarian; but that doesn’t mean its origins lie in sectarian divisions.

All images are copyright (lo-res, fair use, etc.) and link to Lamia Ziadé’s website, which contains some art that is not suitable for work.
You can buy the book here, here, or elsewhere.

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