Leila Abdelrazaq adapted her father's stories of his youth into a powerful and compelling book about coming of age in a region defined by conflict.
Leila Abdelrazaq was only a freshman at DePaul University in Chicago when she began turning anecdotes from her father's life inside a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon into a webcomic. Four years later, Baddawi has evolved into a 128-page graphic novel told from the perspective of a young Palestinian boy living amid the backdrops of the geopolitical drama of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Lebanese civil war. Tales of schoolyard games of marbles and high school crushes are sandwiched between anecdotes about military raids by the Israeli and Lebanese armies and acts of insurrection against both governments.
Just World Books released the graphic novel last spring, and Abdelrazaq has just come back from London, where she was promoting it at the Palestine Literature Festival. The book has received praise from many, including VICE contributor Molly Crabapple, who compared it in style to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and wrote that Abdelrazaq "transforms the style, infusing it with design elements from Palestinian embroidery."
VICE spoke to Abdelrazaq about her book, the situation of Palestinian refugees, and how telling stories can be an act of resistance.
VICE: The book is a graphic retelling of your Palestinian father's life in a Lebanese refugee camp. How was it conceived?
Leila Abdelrazaq: When I started working on it, it was just a web comic and I really didn't mean to write a book. That's just something that happened later. I was just writing anecdotes from my dad's childhood, like the kinds of stories that your parents tell you until you're sick of hearing them. I just wanted to share those stories because they were stories that people outside of the Palestinian community didn't necessarily hear very often.
I was also using it as a way to inform people on the Palestinian refugee issue. I was posting the anecdotes—the serialized comic strips—to my blog and to my Facebook page, and somebody from Just World Books saw the comics and they reached and said, "Would you have any interest in turning this into a graphic novel?" I, being 19 years old, was like, "Hell yeah, I'm going to turn it into a graphic novel!" It took three years.
How did your dad react to the web series and the book?
He was so nervous. There was a while where he was like, "You have to use a pseudonym! I have to have a pseudonym! Everyone in this book has to have a pseudonym!" He was extremely nervous, partially because you spend your whole life with the stigma of being a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon and having to hide who you are and hide that part of your identity. So I understood where he was coming from.
There were also stories in the book about a crush he had in high school. That was the most sensitive material. The girl's name was the only one in the book I changed.
Within the specific Palestinian narrative, what can image communicate that language has failed to convey?
People open up to stuff visually that they normally wouldn't engage with. Even if you're not necessarily predisposed to reading a book about [Palestine], the comics and images make it more accessible to people. You can use comics to break down ideas or subjects that might seem complicated or hard to understand. It's not this weird distant thing.
You deploy Palestinian embroidery, or tatreez, throughout the book, sometimes as chapter markers and sometimes in between panels, in the gutters. Why did you choose to invoke that traditional imagery?
Part of it was a resistance to cultural appropriation, laying claim to certain elements of Palestinian culture. I wanted to intentionally elements of traditional Palestinian culture. The tatreez was just one way. But it was also an aesthetic choice.
You use other Palestinian iconography as well, prominently on the front of the book, which is a reinterpretation of Naji Al-Ali's famous Handala image . Why did you choose that reference?
Handala is a symbol of the Palestinian refugee child, and I wanted to pay homage to Naji Al-Ali. I used his drawing as a primary source. Making that connection to Handala was asserting that this was not just my dad's story, it's also bigger than that. But I wasn't saying, "This is the story of every Palestinian." I wasn't trying to be reductive. I was just trying to emphasize that it's not a standalone story.
How do you think the current debates on refugees leave out or include Palestinians?
If you think about what the contemporary conversations are around Palestine, refugee issues often get left out of the conversation. On the flip side of that, when people are talking about refugees, they almost never mention Palestinian refugees. I don't know why. Maybe because Palestinian refugees aren't handled by UNHCR. They have their own organization. I've seen so many articles that don't even mention Palestinian refugees because they're using UNHCR numbers.
In the introduction on Baddawi, you talk about preserving the past in order to reinforce the existence of Palestine, especially in the absence of a recognized state. Were you conscious of that mission while writing the book?
One thing I thought about was this idea of Palestinian history. When you talk about the history of Palestine—shit, Palestinians live all over the world. The civil war in Lebanon was hugely impacted by the presence of Palestinian refugees in the country. Who's to say that aspects of what happened in the Lebanese civil war are not part of Palestinian history? That's something that I was thinking about a lot, how Palestinian history transcends borders in that way and transcends the construct of the state.
To read more excerpts from Baddawi, as well as order a copy, visit the graphic novel's website here.
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