By Carla Calargé and Alexandra Gueydan-Turek
This article looks at the third volume of Barrack Rima’s Beirut. The Trilogy (Plan BEY) and Ma très grande mélancolie arabe by Lamia Ziadé (P.O.L), two Lebanese graphic works published in 2017. Although different in their respective aesthetics, formats, and the nature of the projects that underlie them, we argue that these works undergo a (nostalgic) return to the recent pasts of Lebanon and the Near East. Sometimes implicitly and other times more directly, this return generates a dark commentary on the disappointments and disillusions of the present. While in both cases, the nostalgic narrative refers to a well-defined geographic territory in which is anchored the nostalgic affect of the loss of a certain idea of the homeland, the two authors never subscribe to nationalist or regionalist aspirations, nor do they espouse claims of local identity. Indeed, at all moments, their narrative is open to the world. It deplores the loss of an ideal of humanism and solidarity that opposes and resists hardening and crystallization of identities and refuses to reduce the human to a market value. Through the visual component of these graphic works, melancholia expands out of the individual emotional states to become a relational force. It allows artists to map out a shared sense of loss. Thus, more than a simple motif, nostalgic melancholia becomes an aesthetic, ethical and ontological positioning: it ushers a renewed relation with the audience as it provides readers with an affective experience that they can share, and through which they can stand in solidarity.
Nostalgic Melancholia and the Longing for a Paradise Lost
Reflecting on the parallels that exist between mourning and melancholia, Sigmund Freud writes in a passage from Metapsychology, published in 1915:
In one sort of cases it is evident that melancholia too may be the reaction of the loss of a loved object. Where the exciting causes are different one can recognize that there is a loss of a more ideal kind. The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love […]. In yet other cases one feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either. This, indeed, might be so even if the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia, but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him. (245)
Sometimes, then, melancholia is not necessarily caused by the actual death of a person, but rather by the loss of a beloved object. However, contrary to mourning, melancholia is linked to an unawareness, or even to an ignorance of what is lost: either the loss of the beloved object has not reached the consciousness of the subject, or the melancholic subject is conscious of having lost a beloved object but is incapable of articulating precisely that which was lost by him or her in losing that object. Freud sums up his observation in concluding: “This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious” (245). In the context of this study, we examine the homeland (patria) as an idealized abstraction whose disappearance—real or symbolic, total or partial—generates melancholia. In other words, this article explores how Rima and Ziadé render melancholic feelings brought on by the perceived loss of what Lebanon represented (for them).
The word “patria” refers to the idea of a “father’s country,” a place of origin, or a native soil. The sign mobilizes the image of a concrete territory, an identifiable geographical place and a community which has its own culture and identity. Feelings related to the loss of the homeland are thus often tied to the irrevocable loss of a sense of origin, causing a pain that grinds the subject in the present. Hence, the etymology of the word “nostalgia” is created from the Greek “nostos,” or return to the country/home, and “algia,” (relative to) pain.1 For a long time, nostalgia was part of medical jargon; it designated the illness that afflicted Swiss mercenaries posted far from their native land. During the twentieth century, however, the word gradually lost its connotations to an original home, “coming to refer to the incurably wistful modern condition […], this resulted in a sociolinguistic paradox which semantically deterritorialized the core referent: the home” (Legg 486). Nostalgia is therefore a specific melancholia; one that relates to a desire, that is impossible to satisfy, to return home. To this end, Turner writes that “We can argue that the nostalgic and the melancholic person did not feel comfortable in their world because they experience social reality as mere illusion which could not be grasped by language or practice. For the nostalgic the world is alien” (148-149).
Turner’s definition suggests that the articulation of the nostalgic discourse depends on a narrative that (re)constructs the (ideal) past vis-à-vis the loss that is lived in the nostalgic present. In other words, the past is detached from the lived experience to be retrospectively (re)presented as a moment opposed to the disenchantments, disillusions, and feelings of lack that characterize the present moment. In this sense, and as Susan Stewart explains, “By the narrative process of nostalgic reconstruction the present is denied and the past takes on an authenticity of being, an authenticity which, ironically, it can achieve only through narrative” (23); for in fact, such a past does not exist, and has never existed other than in the form of a nostalgic narrative negating the present. This negation is necessary for the nostalgic subject because it is the result of a way of being haunted by lack (as opposed to fullness), as well as an alienating relation to the world (as opposed to authenticity); a way of being which generally succeeds important historical events and great social upheavals (Legg 487). Yet, since narrative is always ideological, a critical reading of the nostalgic narrative could not only decode the “ideal” elements of the past, but also define the intolerable aspects of the present; those that unconsciously associate with loss, trigger melancholia, and provoke nostalgia.
In what follows, we propose to look at the graphic works of Ziadé and Rima through the lens of these theoretical considerations. Both published in 2017, the two works encapsulate a sensibility and an energy very specific to the 2015-2019 moment in Lebanon: a rather short period of time characterized by frequent and spontaneous mass protests against the political elite. While those mass protests represented moments of hope in possible change, they also could be read, retrospectively, as the final popular attempts of insurrection against the status quo before the inevitable cataclysm that has wrecked the country since. But the 2015-2019 period was also a moment in which signs of the catastrophe-to-come were starting to be apparent. The works we analyze here translate those feelings of desolation and sorrow generated by the apprehension of the magnitude of the loss; hence the nostalgic melancholia that transpires throughout the two narratives and that is caused, we argue, by the realization of the loss of the idea of what Lebanon could have been, in contrast to what it has (and will) become.
Beyrouth Rewind or the Impossibility of (a Telling of) the Story
Beyrouth Rewind, the third novel in the trilogy from Barrack Rima, combines a thematic overview of issues that he had examined in the first two books2 with an examination of the distressing transformations undergone by the capital city of his country of origin. The graphic novel’s aesthetic echoes that of the two previous volumes: it adopts a similar format (20.5cm x 29cm), with its colored serigraphy cover, black and white drawings, and non-numbered pages (notably, though, this edition has twice the number of pages of either of the first two volumes). The book tells the story of yet another return of the narrator to Beirut; this time, for the publication of his “latest book,” which refers to the second volume of the trilogy. Therefore, the diegetic time of this third volume (situated in August 2015) is anterior to that of the second book that takes place in January 2016. Aside from the narrator’s character, who represents the author himself, the reader can recognize other characters that appear in the first two works: the narrator’s wife, his daughter, the Hakawati-taxi driver, and the street vendor-guardian of the city’s memory. Nevertheless, despite the many similarities and cross references between the three volumes, what distinguishes this third one is the narrator’s effort to inscribe the reality of the city in a larger national and regional historical narrative, to offer clues for its understanding, and to outline a solution to the many problems plaguing it. Therefore, it is possible to argue that the first two books of the trilogy attempt to render the reality of the city (even if, sometimes, in a non-realist way) while the third book concerns itself with analyzing this reality rather than simply describing it.
Very quickly then, and through the visit of his mother’s ghost that he follows into the streets, the narrator leaves the diegetic present and is projected in 1967 Beirut, when his mother was still a college student. The switch to the grey background and the silhouetted representation of the characters alerts the reader to the upcoming flashback, while conversely emphasizing the mother’s words enclosed in white speech balloons that stand out on the darker background (10-11). The first image reminisced from the past is one of old downtown Beirut. The three-strip panel (see fig.1) is crammed with cultural references indexing the Golden Age of the capital city that brims with energy and life: following an initial strip-long frame featuring a busy street with vintage cars and characters in mod fashion, two strips reproduce commercial signs of a hotel and a cabaret, the entrance to the famed Rivoli movie theater, and film posters featuring blockbuster Egyptian stars such as Farid Al-Atrash and Shadia.3 In addition to the many venues of entertainment and tourism, Beirut abounds with all sorts of progressive political movements. In universities as in the streets, a politicized youth demonstrate in support of idealist causes—although not without naïveté, as is indicated in the mother’s bombastic speeches.
Indeed, the fifties and early sixties are a period of great hope in the Near East: in people’s minds, everything is yet to be accomplished. All eyes are on Nasser’s Egypt which embodies the dream of a secular, strong and triumphant pan-Arabism—hence the two close-up panels that reproduce the portrait of the Raïs in the album. The hard-won independence in Algeria, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Cuban Revolution all constitute moments of hope for a future that remains to be imagined in a more just and more equitable way for the wretched of the earth. The youth is energized: a better tomorrow seems a reality within reach. Dynamic lines that obliquely striate the frames in multiple panels—whether electric lines, architectural lines from staircases, or decorations on the political posters (13-16)—mark the continuity between the cultural height of Beirut’s Golden Age and progressive youth political movements and seem to conjure a longing for a time past where young people still believed, without any irony, they could “parcourir le chemin de la gloire à travers de grandes portes” [walk the path of glory through big doors], “abattre le colonialisme” [tear down colonialism], and abolish “les distinction entre les classes et les religions, [ainsi qu’]entre les femmes et les hommes” [distinctions between classes and religions, [as well as] between women and men] (17-18).
However, rather than let the reader revel in this nostalgic imagery of prewar Lebanon, this embodied testimonial is strategically distanced and the past decried as a “mirage” by the mother herself in the very opening of the sequence (11). The very sequencing of the narrative foreshadows the fact that the Revolutionary impulse and Golden Age are doomed to failure: Nasser’s portrait is superimposed on a dead-end sign and the close-up on his smile, which parallels the one on actress Shadia’s mouth in a frame right above, relegates the historical figure to the rank of superficial image, ripe for consumption (13). Similarly, the representation of the mother in an unchanging posture, standing on the foreground and left-hand side of four consecutive strips, as she bears witness to the mass-based student-led protest movement, speaks to the sedimentation of ideologies rather than the coming of age of a revolution (14-16). That is because, in 1967, hope is crushed and the region’s slow and long descent to hell begins. Indeed, in the Arab imaginary, 1967 epitomizes a series of military defeats against Israel that not only signify a profound humiliation for the vanquished but signal the concrete end of the Pan-Arab dream as well. While irreversibly discrediting the secular regimes responsible for the defeat—Nasser’s regime in particular—1967 also highlights the insignificance of those revolutionary discourses, that are imported from the West by the political elite—that same West that remains indifferent to the plight of the Palestinian people and the injustices done to them. The discredit of the Arab regimes will leave thus the door open for new actors to enter the political scene; those actors who, for a few decades now, have denounced from their minarets, the corruption of the jahiliya regimes,4 and preached the rejection of western models (of government) and their replacement by more “authentic” ones that follow religious prescriptions.5
In the end of the sequence, the cross-generational voyage in the past seems to amount to nothing but another type of flight or “fuite” as the artist’s avatar replaces the figure of the mother in the foreground of the last strip of the sequence to question the necessity of this historical narrative in understanding contemporary events: “Mais est-ce que c’est vraiment mon histoire?” [But is this truly my story?] The circular nature of the narrative negates the dynamic potential of the students’ protests. Indeed, those panels are to be read in contrast with the earlier episode of the Hakawati in which contemporary demonstrations against Solidere’s reconstruction of downtown are represented (3-6). Here too, commercial and political slogans are pervasive as they always appear side by side. In this sequence, Rima’s avatar takes a taxi whose driver embodies the national memory—a metaphor already developed in the second volume of the series. The Hakawati verbally warns against the futility of focusing on past (hi)stories of Lebanon: “Mais moi, je ne vais pas te raconter les légendes d’amour de Qaiss et Laïla…. / Ni les histoires de ‘Beyrouth, perle de l’Orient’ ou ‘Cœur battant de panarabisme’/ ou encore ‘Berceau des révolutions’” [As for me, I won’t tell you about the love legends of Qaiss and Laila… / Nor about ‘Beirut, Jewels of the Orient’ or ‘Beirut, beating heart of Pan Arabism” / nor even about ‘Beirut, cradle of the Revolutions’]. The driver concludes that these symbols of the past have been integrated into larger national fantasies: “toutes ces paroles inutiles” [all those useless stories] (6). In the absence of a national historical narrative that weaves together the conflicting and antagonistic collective memories of the different constituent communities of the country, it is suggested that, like the narrator, the Lebanese people remain “égarés, éparpillés et ahuris” [lost, scattered and bewildered]. Consequently, they are condemned to look back on their country’s past with both nostalgia and detachment, wondering if this is really their story. Moreover, the last panel of the sequence—in which there is a taxi in the downtown neighborhoods built by Solidere—seems to suggest that it is precisely the stranglehold of this company on the city center that renders “inutile” [useless] all past descriptions of the capital. In a 1997 article in which he commented on the company’s plans, Saree Makdisi wrote:
What Solidere offers instead of a redemption of the competing narrative of collective memories or national identity is an emptying-out of those collective claims and memories and the substitution of a “collectivity” defined by a stock-offering, in which a strictly individualized form of participation is regulated and defined by the purchase of stocks rather than in terms of historic or communal/national identities and uncommodified rights. […] Solidere seeks to bypass these discourses in search of a much purer form of intensification that finally has only as much to do with the putative nation as is required by the dictates of marketing techniques and the production of a pastiche nostalgia for something that was never there in the first place, namely, an “authentic, and more importantly, supposedly uncontested narrative of Lebanese national identity […]. (693-694)
In Beyrouth Rewind, the splicing of the plate at the sequence’s opening features three strips that frame the taxi driver-Hakawati from behind (6). While the first strip gives us a close-up on the back of his head and his hand on the wheel, the second and third strips back up to include the rearview mirror and our protagonist in the copilot seat. The speech bubbles, located between the wheel and the rearview mirror, draw one’s sight to the emptiness of that mirror, as if nothing could reflect in it. The double page that follows these strips (see fig.2), in contrast, is then grounded in the here and now.6 The downtown of the contemporary city it depicts is mired by construction crates and separated from the rest of the city, and from the protagonists, by a network of roads. The opposition of the horizontal and vertical lines highlights the sense of the urban landscape’s hostility, and the dense fabric of the modern downtown leaves pedestrians trapped between beltways, constructions and tall buildings.
In opposition to the street level view which plunges the reader in the very nexus of the 1960s Beirut, Rima here privileges a high-angled shot which reduces protesters and pedestrians alike to mere outlines, unknowable. Yet, this double page shows popular resistance to the neoliberal project of packaging the city for transnational capital’s consumption.7 The rallying of the protestors certainly refers to the protests of the summer of 2015 following the garbage crisis. But the drawing clearly shows, in the representation of graffiti, that the protests are not only a popular mobilization around a punctual crisis; rather, they challenge the very project of Solidere’s Beirut.8 For example, on a panel claiming “reconstruction,” someone wrote “De quoi?” [of what?], suggesting that Solidere does not rebuild, but destroys, the architectural and cultural heritage to build new buildings. Similarly, in the middle of the page, the black panel that invites the rich to “access Beirut through its main door” is corrected (?) by slogans that claim power to the people and denounce the corruption of the political elite. Nonetheless, the first plan which depicts traffic suggests a detachment on the part of the observer: the narrator’s physical position on the plate (in the cab on the left-hand corner) is almost identical to his position in the sequence depicting his mother’s past. While attempting to understand what he sees, he is also detached from the popular protest taking place in the background, and is, for now, unable to decipher the demands of the people in the streets—and read the signs they are holding.
In the face of representational difficulties, the books that the narrator reads offer him a lens through which to interpret events: historical texts, anti-capitalist criticism, and censorship reports are piled side-by-side with fictional memoires from authors illustrating the diversity of the region (Chédid, Darwish, Nassib) and comics from Zeina Abirached, Léna Mehrej or Mazen Kerbaj. One, in particular, offers a summary of the resulting infernal cycle of wars and destructions in which the region is henceforth entangled: in a splash panel right after the middle of the graphic novel, Rima lists the major conflicts that wrecked the region as well as their causes. Doing away with the splicing of the panel in individual frames, the page emphasizes adjacency and intersections between each historical moment depicted, rather than a clear-cut chronological explanation. This allows Rima to place “Islamism” and “capitalism” side by side, highlighting the complementary nature of these ideologies and systems, as the logic of the latter regularly breeds upheavals and catastrophes. The three panels devoted to displaced populations show the circularity of such humanitarian crisis in that they are direct consequences of an economic system intertwined with (neo)colonialist endeavors that chronically displace populations and create new refugees. Furthermore, because borders have become increasingly less permeable, those refugees are condemned to the condition of Homo Sacer whose “entire existence is reduced to a bare life stripped of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing homicide; he can save himself only in perpetual flight or a foreign land” (Agamben 183).
Thus, it is only after the narrator has completed his readings and has returned to the present-time (Beirut 2015), that he is able to explain the 2015 protests to the readers: while the narrative he offers grounds the current crisis in a continuum of political dysfunction, endemic corruption, and indifference towards environmental degradation, the panels are drawn at street level view allowing for the detailed faces of protesters and the readability of the signs they hold. However, clarity and resistance might be short-lived as another sequence with the same hakawati-taxi driver (see fig. 3) duplicates, almost identically, the first encounter. This time, once the narrator is in the taxi, darkness invades the panels and the driver concludes: “On est où là? Je ne vois plus rien… / Ah les salauds! Ils ont coupé la lumière pour mieux charger les manifestants” [Where are we? I can’t see anything… / Those bastards! They turned off the lights to better charge at the protesters]. On a literal level, this explanation refers to military strategies used to control crowd movements and repress popular dissent. Nonetheless, on a metaphorical level, this encroaching darkness suggests a representational aporia, the great difficulty to render legible contemporary issues and articulate them in a coherent grand explanation, in a postmodern era fraught with suspicions vis-à-vis totalizing narratives, and in a country in which it has been impossible to write a national historical account of the recent past.
Ma très grande mélancolie arabe: Making Up for Forgotten Stories
Rather than a graphic novel, Ma très grande mélancolie arabe can be considered an illustrated book with a spatial infrastructure resembling the genre of the travelogue. It examines the Near East’s descent into chaos and the resulting feelings of disillusionment caused by shattered dreams and ideals. Here too, the author identifies the 1967 defeat as a turning point in the contemporary history of the region; she traces the origins of current disasters and connects them back to three great causes whose effects combined and reinforced one another, leading to the catastrophic consequences that we know now. Western imperialisms are first on the list since their eagerness to exploit the oil resources kept the region for a long time in a state of underdevelopment. Later, western powers worked to slow down the developmental efforts of the nationalists; or simply supported authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that collaborated with them. The second cause identified by Ziadé links the creation of the state of Israel, the Palestinian tragedy, and all subsequent armed conflicts; conflicts that not only economically weakened countries with newly acquired independence, but also destabilized them politically (as is the case in Lebanon), demographically, and socially. And finally, the last factor identified by the author is that of the rise in power of the Gulf countries; Saudi Arabia in particular, which, after the two oil crises of 1973 and 1979, exported, thanks to its petrodollars, a retrograde and intolerant vision of Islam. Indeed, and as Georges Corm asserts, the sharp rise in the price of a barrel of oil allowed Saudi Arabia to become “le plus grand marché de travaux publics du monde, mais aussi l’arbitre suprême des équilibres régionaux et internationaux fragiles au Moyen-Orient […]” [the biggest market of public works in the world but also the supreme referee for fragile regional and international balances in the Middle East] (Corm, L’Europe et l’Orient 276-7) in countries where religious, confessional and linguistic diversity had been for centuries one of the founding principles of collective identity and the societal way of life.
Nevertheless, the Middle East did not comply with these changes willingly nor without resistance and it is precisely in the cemeteries, Ziadé seems to suggest, that we ought to seek the evidence and the memory of this struggle that current leaders have hurried to stifle. Moreover, it is in the cemeteries that we must (re)discover the meaning of the fight that led to all these deaths, so that the restitution of the immediate realities of Ziadé’s trip—to the South, then her return to Beirut—fade continually in favor of a poetics of remembrance turned towards the past, which marks each of the visited places. The past thus resurfaces continually to encumber the present like an obsessive rehashing.9 From the first entry of the journey log, entitled “La route du Sud,” the narrative deviates from the traditional codes of the genre to announce that the reader is to expect here as much of a physical as a symbolic displacement: a “voyage dans le deuil et la destruction” [a voyage into grief and destruction] (11): “la mélancolie des cimetières” [the melancholy of cemeteries” (11)—and the idea(l)s that are burried there—permeates the entire album. Following Ziadé’s investigation of the conflicts that have plagued the region since 1967, the narrator takes us from Egypt to Iran. On the way, she shows the reader the “le cimetière paradis” of Tyr [the paradise cemetery] (43-49) and the cemetery of Chatila (238-244) in Lebanon, “le plus grand cimetière du monde,” [the largest cemetery in the world] Wadi el-Salam, in Iraq (108), as well as many tombs, mausoleums, and mass graves. To the images of these places typically “marked” by death, Ziadé adds innumerable reproductions of portraits of the deceased, posters honoring the Palestinian martyrs or objects dear to the deceased, and other material traces.
Omnipresent in the album, death is almost always violent; moreover, it often comes through means of transportation which, diverted from their initial use, no longer refer to mobility, encounter, or modernity but lead rather to the imprisonment and powerlessness of the survivors. For example, airplanes are mentioned in stories of hostage-taking (203), physical disappearances of political leaders (183), or bombings of civilian populations (153). Boats are reported in stories related to armed conflict; those, for example, of Israeli commandos assassinating PLO leaders, or the evacuation of the feda’yin from Beirut following the 1982 war. Cars, as well, are evoked in horrific episodes related to wars (345) or political assassinations (350, 366, 296-7, etc.). Although also used for acts of resistance to military occupation (24, 27), the recourse to car bombs is no less deadly and contributes to the stigmatization of the resistance fighters who are accused of terrorism in Western media.
As cemeteries are filled with “martyrs” who have fallen in all sorts of expressions of violence, it is the death of almost all the idea(l)s of the Middle East that the reader witnesses: the death of tolerance and coexistence, the death of the progressive pan-Arab dream, of the non-aligned movement, of the Palestinian cause, but also, the physical death of intellectuals and thinkers—killed for having imagined, fought for, if not simply incarnated, a Middle-East which contradicts the dominant discourse that represents the region only through signifiers related to violence, oppression, and reaction. Imam Moussa Sader is one of those missing, the great writer Ghassan Kanafani, the translator Wael Zwaiter, the thinker Samir Kassir, the photographer Georges Semerjian, etc. The list is long. The book thus becomes a kind of memorial site [or a lieu de mémoire] for this other Middle East which few still remember, and which began to disappear in 1967. Melancholia is combined here with a careful remembrance work that seeks to preserve the memory of a forward-thinking, militant, and modern past that political elites have actively worked to erase for decades.
However, this duty to remember [devoir de mémoire] is not devoid of nostalgia for the times and places that preceded the conflicts. Since the opening of the graphic novel, the narrator confesses that she travels to Tyr to capture a certain “magic” that a stranger described to her:
Tu vas donc vérifier que rien n’a bougé, que le charme est toujours là, dans ces ruines. Mais c’est surtout parce que tu voudrais photographier certain cimetière que tu te diriges vers le sud. (11) [Thus, you will verify that nothing has moved, that the charm is still there, in those ruins. But it is mainly because you want to take pictures of a certain cemetery that you head South].
Juxtaposing “la douceur des ruines” [the softness of the ruins] (50) of the Phoenician and Roman necropolises to the graves of victims killed during the bombings of 1978, 1982 and 2006, the descriptions of the Tyr cemetery seem to abolish any temporal separation between the present and the past, but also between melancholia and nostalgia. The words describing the luxuriant nature as well as the shimmering colors of the gouaches, evoke a majestic landscape worthy of postcards, a cemetery-become-paradise-garden inviting one for a stroll more than for contemplation:
Dans ce jardin, un paradis terrestre peuplé de morts, les oiseaux gazouillent, les papillons volettent et on entend les grillons et le bruit de la mer. […]
Tu te balades entre les tombes… Dans la continuité du cimetière s’étend la voie romaine à la fameuse colonnade […] Ce décor de ruines antiques ajoute au côté paradisiaque de l’endroit…[…] Un jeune homme s’approche de toi avec une casquette Hezbollah. Le doigt pointé vers le rivage, il dit avec un grand sourire, anticipant la question que tu es en train de te poser : “C’est après cette pointe rocheuse que commence la Palestine.” (43-45) (see fig. 4)
[In this garden, an earthly paradise populated with dead people, birds are singing, butterflies are flying and one can hear the crickets and the sound of the sea. You take a stroll between the tombs… In the continuity of the cemetery, the Roman road stretches up to the famous colonnade […] This décor of antique ruins add to the heavenly side of the place … […] A young man with a Hezbollah cap approaches you. He says with a big smile, his finger pointed to the shore, and anticipating the question that you are asking yourself: “It is after this rocky point that Palestine begins].
If the voluptuousness of the landscapes sometimes seems to erase the massacres, the traveler is quickly reminded of the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the history of these places; their delight is, thus, quite short. This tension between loss and melancholia on the one hand, and the fantasy of a place that one could fully inhabit on the other, is found in the arrangement of paintings in the text; the abundance of the tombs represented, as well as the prayers and funerary poems inscribed on the stelae, forbid rêverie. The narrative apparatus which allows Ziadé-the narrator to address—a posteriori and in the second person—her alter ego Ziadé-the traveler encourages the reader to distance themselves from this impulse. The narrator thus “teases” her first expectations when she employs, in the above mentioned passage, words semantically related to nature in order to describe the tombs that “fleurissent” [flowering] and families “fauchées” [mown down] (11), as if they were part and parcel of the scenery.
Within the narrative economy, this invite to distancing from the nostalgic temptation is reinforced by the degradation that cemeteries and mausoleums seem to undergo over the course of the trip. Indeed, towards the end of the book and after finishing her visit to Beirut, the narrator recalls her last stay in the “ville qui est la plus célèbre pour ses tombeaux” [the city most famous for its graves]—Cairo (381). She mentions her disappointment when visiting the dusty and abandoned tomb of the great Egyptian singer, Oum Kalthoum (386-389). The last painting dedicated to the tomb is that of a wall covered with detritus. The rubbish that replaces the ruins serves as a motif for this last halt in Cairo (see fig.5). Taken aback by what she sees, the narrator notices the destruction of all the places that hold the memory of a different Middle East: in their place now stand hotels, shopping centers, and parking lots. Here, the juxtaposition of illustrations of garbage cans obstructing the streets speaks to the rejection of a pseudo-progress according to western norms. In the neoliberal transformation of the city, it is suggested that the pursuit of money succeeds to political mobilization, and indifference replaces solidarity: “le temps des astres est fini… tout le monde a oublié…” [the time/era of stars is over… everybody has forgotten…” (391), Ziadé exclaims darkly, and this amnesia that accompanies the disappearance of sites of memory, razed to serve the (monetary and political) interests of some, is the very one on which ends the (hi)story of an Orient that goes up in smoke.
In fact, it seems that the bankruptcy of those political ideals and positive objectives giving meaning to the struggle (social or armed), is what constitutes the source of the nostalgic melancholia of the narrator. In an interview published in Libération in 2008, Danièle Hervieu-Léger explains that in the case of the war deaths, and especially in the case of soldiers’s death, “la mort ne peut se comprendre—elle ne prend son sens que si elle est inscrite dans un grand récit” because “Dès lors qu’on s’engage dans la guerre, il faut un horizon utopique pour donner sens à la perte de la vie de ces jeunes gens” [death cannot be understood—it only acquire a meaning if it is inscribed in a grand narrative [because] the minute one is involved in a war, one needs a utopian horizon to give a meaning to the loss of lives of the youth.” The sociologist’s comments relate to the deaths of French soldiers in Afghanistan, but they remain valid in other contexts, particularly that of Lebanon where the consensus “ni vainqueurs ni vaincus” [neither winners nor vanquished] found at the end of the war, the stranglehold on the country by the Former militia leaders, and the state-sponsored amnesia relative to the recent past have consecrated the absence of a “horizon utopique” and a grand narrative explaining the tens of thousands of deaths caused by this long conflict (1975-1990). At the level of the Middle East too, the loss of the political ideals of the 50s and 60s has rendered obsolete, if not useless, all the deaths caused by the various armed conflicts which have bloodied the region. A feeling of great rampage thus develops throughout the book as Ziadé notes the absence of commemorative sites of the (recent) past and its ideals. “Le temps des astres” (391) then becomes a game of homophony for the time (of) disaster [le temps désastre].
As in Rima’s work, peregrination is thus a privileged modality for translating the artistic project in terms of a quest; the motif of the taxi (103) in which we often find the narrator (since the first page of the graphic novel), chatting with the driver or recluse in his thoughts, relays the design of a work that questions popular memory—or rather, its deficiency. As Dominic Davies suggests in his earlier analysis of Ziadé’s prior graphic work Bye Bye Babylon (2011), said lacuna is further emphasized through the pages’ spatial layout which features “no borders, panels or visibly demarcated gutters.” According to Davies, this organizational infrastructure evokes the dislocation of the subject, with its memory, its identity (and their materialization on the page) in a state of flux (235-6). Yet, if the alter ego of the artist cannot be completely preserved from this affect—nostalgic melancholia—while traveling, the artist manages to detach themselves from it through their art. Ziadé invites us to do the same when she stages the very ambiguity of her creative gesture. For example, upon her arrival to Chatila, she does not allow us to visualize the camp and prefers the decorations of Ramadan that light up the streets. She also narrates the episode of a photo taken of “une peinture mal tendue mais très attractive” of a young martyr (188-189) that could have led to a tragedy, but rather ends in an amusing way when the brother of the martyr correctly replaces the painting on the wall. The narrative then takes on a self-reflexive dimension: photographing—and by extension graphing—certain memorial objects can prove difficult when one does not want to hurt any party (190), suggesting that ethos must take precedence over aesthetics. This reflection in which the project of the visual artist engages is, moreover, emphasized through the cartography of the appendix. The map of Beirut, reproduced as a double page in the appendix (see fig. 6), marks the cultural highlights of the capital—the old lighthouse, the Rivoli cinema, the Saint-George hotel, or the American university of Beirut, Martyr square, etc. Symbolically, the author inscribes herself as well as her project at the heart of this cartography when she signals her presence by marker “16 l’appartement,” located near a well-known religious site and the place of an assassination.
Beyond Nostalgic Melancholia: A Compensatory Graphic Work
It follows that the graphic works of Ziadé and Rima materialize a trace of the past for the publication, the archive. In this sense, the witnessing in Rima’s and Ziadé’s oeuvres skirt the line between a cathartic emotional recuperation and a material intervention into (the lack of) mainstream representations. They speak to collective memory where a politics of amnesia has been implemented, a maneuver that Paul Ricœur calls the “manipulation concertée de la mémoire et de l’oubli par les détenteurs du pouvoir” [the concerted manipulation of memory and forgetting by the power that be] (97). If Rima’s work is more concerned with the Lebanese question, Ziadé stresses that memorial obliteration is not unique to her native country and highlights the religious and political tensions that punctuate the region. The entry entitled “La Mecque et Médine ou le désastre et la déraison” (114-122) retraces the “actes de barbarie et de massacre culturel” [acts of barbarism and cultural massacre] (115) that were the systematic destructions by the House of Saud of mausoleums, Ottoman porticoes surrounding the Kaaba, the house of the Prophet, and other sacred and historical places of Islam. Ziadé alternates on the left and right sides of the pages the representations of holy places before their dismantling, with images of the sites after bulldozers and excavators were called in. The Al Baqi cemetery, with which Ziadé closes the sequence, offers a striking vision of the monumental cultural crime that was committed. The images of the old graves spread over three consecutive pages are juxtaposed here with a page composed of two shots of the cemetery which became a desert landscape after it was razed. The emptiness of the site is amplified by the high-angled shot, the field’s depth, and the composition of the landscape where a foreground devoid of details is superimposed on a skyline of urban-space sprawling (see fig.7). The “symphonic effect” (Spiegelman cited in Chute 86)—the overview of the page on which the panels10 are drawn—dramatizes the changes of scenography.
Yet, while it is true that recording memory traces makes it possible to reinscribe what has been erased, these two artists are not just interested in addressing the gaps of/in collective memory; they offer a visual language designed to mobilize various experiences of historical loss in order to articulate a site of shared subjectivities. Indeed, the narratives of both Ziadé and Rima point to an awareness that it is the responsibility of the graphic work, with its visual dynamism, to palliate this lack, whether through Ziadé’s investigation of the Shahids or in Rima’s pursuit of the mother’s ghost and the various Beiruti mirages. In so doing, they echo Hillary Chute’s repeated assertion that comics are singularly suitable to express trauma due to their visual and material intervention, the “retracing” on the page of key difficult moments intervening against the so-called unrepresentability and ineffability of trauma (Graphic Women2; Disaster Drawn 178).
The existential suffering generated by this deficit becomes productive as the work articulates a discourse of collective resistance to the loss of historical memory. As per Jonathan Flatley’s argument, melancholia does not systematically produce depression (1); the dwelling on the loss of someone or something can be transformed—especially through works of art—into a “locus of psychic life of power […] the site in which the society of origins of our emotional lives can be mapped out and from which we can see the other personas who share our losses and are subject to the same social forces” (3). In other words, according to Flatley, when melancholia is marked by politics, it expands out of the individual emotional state and becomes a relational force. It allows artists to map out a shared sense of loss. As such, Rima’s and Ziadé’s affective dwellings offer an alternative form of territory, a kind of “meta-nation” that takes the shape of an affective geography. Said geography can then be encompassed within the national borders, as is the case with Rima, or can move beyond the national borders, as is the case with Ziadé. More than a simple motif, nostalgic melancholia becomes, for the two Lebanese visual artists, an aesthetic, an ethical and an ontological positioning. Furthermore, it weaves a renewed relation with its audience in that it offers its readers with an affective experience in which they can share, and with which they can stand in solidarity.
In many respects, the creative model proposed here recalls the episode of the mosaic of the good pastor mentioned in the entry “L’émir Maurice Chéhab et le Musée national” (Ziadé 66-67). At the end of the civil war that saw the theft and destruction of many cultural heritage artifacts, it was decided that one of the mosaics of the fifth century, sealed to the wall of the national museum would not be restored “en mémoire des années sombres” [in memory of the dark years] (66). The damaged wall, which served, during the war, as a hideout for snipers, is now considered an integral part of the mosaic’s composition; today, it “offre une vue imprenable sur l’agitation de la place et des rues alentour” [offers an impregnable view on the agitation of the surrounding place and streets] (66). Thus, the work of art, marked by the traces of violence, could offer a privileged point of view for those who stop there and are willing to take a moment to reflect on the realities of war. It transforms and sublimates the wounds that war inflicts and works like a palimpsest that allows for a transcendence of the absurdity of the armed conflict through the sublimation of art. From this perspective, the many other volumes and mise en abyme creations of the graphic works could be interpreted as a tribute to the strength, resilience, and persistence of artistic and intellectual creation.
Similarly, the third volume of Barrack Rima’s Beyrouth trilogy, which celebrates the novels, comics, and historical and political studies that help the artist’s alter ego return from his mother’s past in contemporary Beirut, pays tribute to the power of creation and its necessity. Beyrouth Rewind (2017) breaks away from the previous volume which stages a bibliocaust alluding to the censorship of the collective Samandal (12) and shows, in the final double page, the memory of the city in the process of burning (17). In the sequence immediately following the mother’s visit and the 1967 protests, Rima’s alter ego asks the Hakawati: “Comment faire pour retourner au présent? / Facile ! Il suffit de grimper dans les livres. Et Hop!” [How can one return to the present? / Easy! Just jump into the books. And Hop!” (17-18). The second panel of the sequence is a close-up on the titles within the cart: one finds there at the side of the Rapport 2017 sur la censure au Liban and a volume on the urban politics of Solidere, the novels of Andrée Chédid, Mahmoud Darwish and Sélim Nassib, as well as a selection of comics and graphic novels best known in Lebanon in Arabic and French: Min Beirut from Jad’s atelier11, Murraba wa Laban by Lena Merhej, Beyrouth juillet-août 2006 by Mazen Kerbaj, Je me souviens Beyrouth by Zeina Abirached, 33 Jours by Laure Ghorayeb and Samandal of course. The Hakawati stresses the need to “trier, ranger, digérer cette mémoire douloureuse” [sort, tidy, and digest this painful memory] through reading, while the creative act becomes the only way out for the the refugees encountered on the way: “Ma seule issue? Transformer mon exil en récit…” [My only exit? Transform my exile into a narrative] (24). In Ma très grande mélancolie arabe, Ziadé draw the image of the pages of La petite lanterne, the book that Ghassan Kanafani composed for his niece (251-253) before he was killed. This work appears among the portraits of the writer as a significant element that survives its creator. Perhaps, we also should mention again Wael Zwaiter’s whose translation project of Mille et une nuits into Italian (266) allowed him to break away from his best known translations of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu. Here too, the unfinished creation which, at first glance, could be the site of a melancholic reading (since it points to the premature disappearance of the author), allows for its simultaneous reading as a voice from beyond the grave, so that the reproduction of these creations within the graphic work participate to a poetics of resuscitation of the cultural heritage.
Art, more than any other field of production, seems to be able to provide a way out of melancholy, a form of sublimation. In “La traversée de la mélancolie” (2001), Julia Kristeva notes the paradox at the heart of artistic and literary creation that is both founded on melancholia and opposed to it: “le bel objet […] revient inlassablement après les destructions et les guerres pour témoigner qu’il existe une survivance à la mort” [the beautiful object […] tirelessly returns after wars and destructions to testify that there is a survival to death” (20). Born out of melancholia, artistic creation undertakes a function that moves beyond the recuperative and representational to enter the curative sphere. Indeed, by voicing one’s suffering—that of the creator and/or an unnamed collectivity to which the reader might belong—the creative endeavor allows the artist and their readers to confront this negative affect and to find its translations and symbolic sublimation onto the page (19-23) . This dialogical vision of artistic creation is all the more relevant for the graphic narrative that by nature, and as Marshall McLuhan explains, is “highly participational” (cited in , Disaster Drawn 23). As Scott McCloud and many following him have established, sequential art heavily relies on the active participation of the audience in the co-production of meaning to a degree unequaled by other artforms. The process known as “closure,” a process unique to comics which necessitates the reader to fill in the gaps in order to build a unified reality from fragmented stills, creates the unparalleled ability to affect readers (McCloud 66-68). In revealing the problems plaguing Lebanon (and the MENA region) and in materializing them on the page, Rima and Ziadé generate a particularly strong ethical engagements in their audience.
Thus, although melancholic, these works do not enjoin us to despair. The graphic narrative itself offers a means to sublimate the melancholia surrounding memories of the Middle East’s past, or at least allows us to consider a productive outcome. That is perhaps one of the factors that contributes to the exciting Lebanese contemporary graphic production. “La fuite n’est pas la solution” [Fleeing is not the solution], asserts Barrack Rima in the preface to the full edition of his trilogy! Even though artists have since produced from abroad,12 their works testify, denounce, and call for change. The unavoidable presence, in the graphic work, of the figures of the artists through their alter egos reveals how they cannot “flee” and strives again and again to confront the crisis of meaning [crise de sense]. Rima concludes his trilogy by calling to a “révolte,” contestation through indignation, “désobéissance civile” [civil disobedience], and “résistance non violente” [non-violent resistance] (37). “Moi, je vais leur dire!” [I will tell them myself] claims defiantly the child, a symbol of a future generation of storytellers who will, in turn, refuse the status quo and stand up in revolt (39, 40).
In the end, affective solidarities as they are conceived of by the two artists may be slightly idealistic as they rely on the encounter between the works and the receiving audience. This encounter depends on, and suffers from the structural weaknesses of the editorial field, and the unequal commercialization that plagues “francophone” (i.e, non-Hexagonal/non-Belgian) peripheral comics (Gueydan-Turek 46-49). Yet, as we have argued elsewhere, even when affective solidarities remain unfulfilled, they speak to the larger revolutionary aesthetics and progressive activism inherent to contemporary Lebanese comix. The cyclical, fragmented, and hybrid graphic narratives of Barrack Rima and Lamia Ziadé reflect both the impossibility of articulating an intelligible landscape of the situation and the call for a renewal of the discourse, far from pan-Arab or nationalist myths as well as preconceived and negative ideas disseminated on the Arab world. And although not overtly political, these revolutionary aesthetics and progressive activism are a fundamental (if understated) quality of contemporary Lebanese graphic productions. From Lena Merhej to Jorj Abou Mhaya, graphic artists participate in a larger discourse to raise awareness and mobilize part of civil society into a refusal to accept the dictates of the ruling class (Calargé and Gueydan-Turek 69).
 Those panels are most likely drawn after photos from that period. One sees similar drawings in Zeina Abirached’s Le Piano oriental for example. In Lebanon, such photos along with postcards from the same time-period have come to embody a collective nostalgia for the lost paradise of prewar Beirut. On the pervasiveness of such feelings of nostalgia in the general population, see War and Memory in Lebanon in which Sune Haugbolle distinguishes between “nostalgia of memory and nostalgia of history. Whereas the latter celebrates Lebanese traditionalism, the former celebrates Beiruti modernity” which took place in the 1950-60s. Thus, “nostalgia for the 1960s conjures up more emotionally charged memories” (119) given that a segment of the war generation has known that era and still remembers it. On the same topic, see also Saree Makdisi “Beirut, a City without History”.
 Jahiliya commonly refers to the period predating Islam. Muslim radicals use it to refer to contemporary political regimes suggesting that they strayed from the teachings of the Prophet by living in societies whose absence of moral values is remindful of the era before the Revelation. The Jahiliya is mentioned in Rima’s second book, Beyrouth bye bye…, in the splash evoking the censorship of Samandal.
statut d’auxiliaire par rapport aux logomachies en vogue: progressisme, anti-impérialisme, socialisme, neutralisme positif etc. Cette situation durera jusqu’au traumatisme de la défaite militaire totale face à Israël, en juin 1967, qui, tel un révélateur, précipitera la crise des sociétés arabes indépendances dans leur ensemble et, en bouleversant les règles du jeu idéologique, ouvrira la voie aux contestations islamistes (La Revanche de Dieu 25) [an auxiliary status to the fashionable logomachies : progressivism, anti-imperialism, socialism, positive neutralism, etc.This situation will remain unchanged until the trauma of the total military defeat against Israel, in June of 1967 that […] will precipitate the crisis of Arab independent societies in the whole, and, in changing the rules of the ideological game, will open the way to Islamic contestations].
A similar argument is made by Joseph Massad in “Political Realists or Comprador Intelligentsia:”
The Arab defeat in the 1967 war announced the retreat of the period of secular revolutionary thinking, with the Camp David accords of 1978 and 1979 dealing it a final coup de grace, giving way to a new crop of thinkers: Islamists and realist-pragmatists. Whereas the Islamists continue the quest of combining their modern reading of an Islamic past with the Western technological present, the realist-pragmatists on the rise in the 1980s and 1990s nominally are calling for an abandonment of the dream that Arab civilization will rise again, and are calling for the adoption of the Western formula of modernization wholesale, as a way to join the “modern” world as followers of Europe […] (23).
 The Hakawati’s taxi first appears in a framed titled in the upper left corner “ هنا” [here] (p. 4), while all cars’ license plates read “الآن” [now] in the double spread depicting the city (p. 7-8).
 In the foreground of the page, on the drawing of the van one can read “Liban plastique. Toutes sortes d’emballages” [Plastic Lebanon. All sorts of packaging] which suggests an artificial packaging of the country for various modes of consumption. The word plastic, “written” on the sign, behind the van reinforces this idea while also suggesting—in the context of the protests the page depicts — the drowning of the country in plastic and trash during the trash crisis of 2015 and in the absence of recycling efforts spearheaded by the government.
 For more on the so-called reconstruction project, see, among other readings, Baumann’s Citizen Hariri, Khalaf’s Reclaiming the Bourj, Calargé’s Liban. Mémoires fragmentées d’une guerre obsédante, cooke’s “Beirut Reborn: the Political Aesthetics of Auto-Destruction”.
 During her visit to the musée des souvenirs [sic] (216-222), (216-222), the narrator describes what she first considers as “un amas de vieilleries” and expresses her disappointment: “….Tu t’attendais à quelque chose de plus captivant…” (218) [you expected something more captivating]. Objects that are intrinsically insignificant, and lend themselves little to the aesthetic matter, nevertheless cause a flood of emotions once highlighted by the words of the Doctor, guardian of the premises. His comments are not included in the narration; thus the reader is invited to imagine their meaning as the contiguity that links these disparate objects to the past and the idea of loss is reinforced.
 It must be noted that many cultural producers work and publish abroad for material and structural reasons. The editorial field of Lebanese BD, in this case, was, until 2020 booming. It remained nonetheless in the peripheries of the Franco Belgian, American or Japanese.
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