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Drawing Listening and Reading with a Visual Ear

By Dina A. Mahmoud

Every telling of a story or a testimony is in some way an act of reconstruction. When telling one’s own story, the narrative is recollected from memory, incorporating the sensations that have shaped the story and the temporal perspectives from which it is told. Similarly, when telling the stories and testimonies of others, a storyteller must listen before retelling, reconstructing the other’s narrative from their memory, research, notes, and so on. Storytelling is therefore a cyclical process of reception and creation. In his reflections on the works of Nikolai Leskov, Walter Benjamin lauds the layered narrative style characteristic of the oral storytelling tradition which “permits that slow piling one on top of the other of thin, transparent layers which constitutes the most appropriate picture of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of a variety of retellings” (93). Murabbā wa Laban: Aw Kayfa Aṣbaḥat Ummī Lubnāniya (Jam and Yogurt: Or How My Mother Became Lebanese) by Lena Merhej is a serialized comic that visually recreates this layered retelling of the stories and testimonies of the artist’s mother, Vali, from her life in Germany during WWII (1939-1945) and her experiences as a foreign wife and mother in Lebanon during and after the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).1 The first six chapters were first serialized in Samandal Magazine before being compiled and continued in book form.2 Notably, her mother’s reading of her own story interrupted Merhej’s drawing of the last three chapters of the comic as a book. Therefore, when Vali faces the reader to say, “I also feel like I want to tell my story! (anā kamān baḥiss inī badī iḥkī!)” after reading the first five issues, intertwining some of her testimonies with her daughter’s, the image does not preclude the artist’s creative mediation in her retelling of the mother’s testimony (see fig. 1). 


Fig. 1: Vali’s desire to tell, Murabbā wa Laban 91.

Upon seeing her daughter expressing her testimonies of the Lebanese civil war while narrating the few stories her mother had told her over the years, Vali’s desire to finally “tell [her] story” or “[t]iḥkī” continues and expands Merhej’s creative cycle of listening and retelling. However, her mother’s intent to finally let herself “[t]iḥkī” her own ḥikāya (story) is still mediated by the individual and creative voice and style of the artist. Merhej’s visual illustration of these consecutive processes of listening, drawing, reading, and telling intersperses Vali and Merhej’s narratives, making visible the mediation in the many receptive and creative acts constituting the comic. This layered narrative renders the aural qualities of its creation discernible and encourages its readers to read for the audible and inaudible traces of artistic mediation in its visualization of oral testimony. By tracing this cyclical process that eventually leads to Merhej’s discovery of her mother’s most traumatic memories of the two wars, this article contends that listening to testimonies of trauma do not uncover unrepresentable truths, but instead give rise to simultaneously receptive and creative practices of interpretation that reproduce truthfully recollected traumatic narratives. It becomes evident through Merhej’s growth as a listener that the role of an empathic listener is not to visualize the authentic truth of the speaker’s traumatic experience, but to palpably re-member its narrative threads from her testimony.   

The receptive and creative processes inscribed in Merhej’s visual storytelling are aptly described by the noun ḥikāya, derived from her proclaimed desire to “[t]iḥkī.” The Moroccan scholar, Abdelfattah Kilito, argues that the term ḥikāya was originally used to describe “imitation, reproduction of an action or speech,” i.e., narratives that attempt to authentically reproduce present contemporary reality, because one derivative of the word, ḥāka, means to imitate (263-4). The term ḥikāya thus aptly describes narratives that are created through a re-constructed imitation that requires close attention to the aural, visual, and corporeal authenticity of the conditions that construct the narrative. A ḥikāya is also told by a ḥākin, literally denoting a weaver of narrative, knitting together multiple aural threads to present a creative yet receptive patchwork to an audience. A storyteller thus interweaves the stories she has heard in order to create her woven patchwork or her ḥikāya, whose attentive interweaving invites the reader to listen as well. A ḥikāya as a creative work of literature, then, emerges from an active and receptive act of listening. It attunes to both what is said and what is left unsaid because listening requires attending to the words of the voice, and the (e)motion of the speaking body. 

Therefore, Merhej’s comic is a ḥikāya that becomes an aural object through its creation. In Writing by Ear, Marília Librandi posits that an aural object can enact what she calls echopoetics, which is a “receptive capacity as an unconditional openness to the outside” (10). This capacity allows the author as listener to speak through repetition, silence and noise, rendering her authorial position subordinate to attentive aural attunement (132). In other words, this echopoetic capacity prevents authorial creativity from overpowering the attentive receptivity from which it ensued. Employing a verbivocovisual approach that integrates the ear into the visual sphere of comics art, Murabbā wa Laban works as an aural object, a sound-related art that by no means privileges one sense but creates a “site of resonances as an expanded object” (Librandi 62). Comics of witness like Murabbā wa Laban—which “find testimonial form in comics or acts of bearing witness to the experiences of others in comics” without laying a visual claim to transparency—are therefore aural objects created through an intentional act of listening (Chute, Disaster Drawn 29). The creative visual rendition of the mediated narrative through the artist’s receptive ear, in turn, reveals the challenges of listening to testimony. 

In recognizing the representational and interpretive limits of witnessing a testimony, the comic performs empathic listening through its awareness of its own limitations, inviting its readers to recognize the mediation of their own act of reading, regardless of how attentive it may be. In this sense, the comic prompts readers to listen empathically to what they are shown. Listening to images, as Tina Campt proposes, is a way of looking beyond what one sees in an image and attuning one’s senses to the multiple sensorial resonances of the image (Campt, Listening 3-11). In her analysis of the photographs of diasporic and incarcerated black subjects, she posits that listening to images provides a way of engaging with the photographs “as deeply affective objects that implicate and leave impressions upon us through multiple forms of contact: visual contact (seeing), physical contact (touching), psychic contact (feeling), and, most counterintuitively of all, the sonic contact … described as a frequency that requires us to listen to as well as view images” (72). In other words, Campt’s theory offers an ethical shift in engaging with images of oppressed, marginalized, and traumatized yet resisting subjects, by critically considering the sensorial frequencies that have shaped the production of these images. By recognizing the limits of what images show and engaging with the different sensorial contacts with these images, a reader listens to images by becoming aware of the visual, aural, and haptic conditions of their production. Such an act of listening is empathic in its intentional attunement to what the text evokes, visually and aurally, while simultaneously recognizing the mediation inherent in this actively receptive stance. 

Murabbā wa Laban illustrates Vali’s testimony through Merhej’s eyes and ears. In so doing, the comic encourages empathic listening to the testimony of the mother. Although Vali declares her desire to tell her ḥikāya, she is never shown actually telling any of her testimonies throughout the comic. They are narrated through the captions by the artist herself. In illustrating the artist’s listening practices, the comic becomes an empathic portrayal of listening that is necessarily aware of the mediation of the artist, as a witness to her mother’s testimony. This visual text of witness thereby stages attunement to what and how the reconstructed and retold ḥikāya speaks, whether spoken loudly, quietly, or silently.

This article explores the relationship between the mother’s oral transmission of narratives of trauma and the visual transformation and juxtaposition of those narratives with Lena’s own traumatic experiences. In spite of the mother’s initial reticence, the encounter between the voice, the body, the ear, and the pen engenders an aural visuality, a visual aesthetics that renders the artist’s act of listening to the mother’s testimony visible. Upon reading the comic, the mother’s recognition of this empathic listening gradually diminishes her often reluctant narration and encourages the sustained release of narrative in the form of oral witnessing (what is called in trauma studies the desire to tell). These different acts of witnessing are cyclical, in that they continue to excavate traumatic memories and expedite the processing of collective trauma. They thereby accentuate the importance of ongoing processes of listening in excavating and working through traumatic memories. The artist’s enactment of empathy through aural visuality encourages its readers to view it with a visual ear, which is to read the comic with attunement to the voice and the body of the mother while at the same time being wary of the mediation of Merhej as she listens to and illustrates Vali’s ḥikāya. Murabbā wa Laban therefore illustrates how comics of witness can generate a visual aesthetics of empathy that invites readers-as-witnesses to listen empathetically to the visualization of Vali’s testimonies. 

The Quiet Subjects of Testimonial Comics

Many Lebanese novels engage with the impacts of civil war in order to recover and reconcile personal and collective memories of the war, and to counter state-sponsored collective amnesia.3 The technical and visual features of the medium used by Merhej, however, enable the comic of witness to become an object of memory that still requires the reader to listen attentively to the resonances of the testimonies in the voices and bodies of the characters they inhabit. The ability of a storyteller to achieve, through her narrative, “an amplitude that information lacks” is a quality also called for by Benjamin (89). Yet, this amplitude is not limited to stories that reproduce gathered experiences, nor does it elude self-reflective novels. A comic, or a graphic novel, could also offer a nuanced understanding of narrative and oral storytelling as a weaving of personal and collective knowledge and experiences. This woven artistic object reconstitutes individual and collective memory from multiple sources and their different experiences, namely, the storyteller, the creative witness to the ḥikāya, and the reader and/or listener to the literary object of witness.

We can see one example of this aural weaving in Zeina Abirached’s Le Jeu Des Hirondelles: Mourir, Partir, Revenir (A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return). Abirached narrates the numbing and debilitating monotony of a typical yet eventful night during the Lebanese Civil War when the artist and her brother had to wait for their parents to return from their grandmother’s house, located on the other side of the demarcation line, as the bombing continued and forced their neighbors to seek shelter in their family’s cramped living room. One by one, the characters slowly crowd the repeated panel that shows the only part of the living room not in the line of fire. By fixing the domestic space of shelter, Abirached invites the readers to find differences across panels, prompting them to discern what the bodies and faces evoke. Although the artist and her brother as children remain silent throughout most of the comic, Abirached attends to the slightest movements and changes in her surroundings: the characters’ smoking speed, their nervous movements, and the constant checking of the clock (see fig. 2). This slightly changing panel is repeated thrice on each page across five pages as the worried characters wait for the children’s parents to return home. Khaled, the fourth figure from the left, puffs frequently on his cigarette; Ramzi, the third figure from the right, seems to be endlessly inhaling the smoke from his cigarette; while Ernest, the last figure on the right, awaits impatiently for Choukri’s return. The slow and continuous crowding of the visually loud “tick-tocks,” clustered above Choukri’s empty chair, amplifies the concern across the repeated panels. These varying visual, aural, and temporal signs—all the creation of the artist—collaborate to show the characters’ helpless anxiety. Thus, while the artist is able to illustrate the characters’ personal testimonies by listening in on adult conversations, her awareness also enables her to evoke the quiet corporeal frequencies of the characters’ nervous, fearful, or hopeful moments. 

Fig. 2: Waiting for the parents and Choukri, Le Jeu des Hirondelles 149-150.

Listening to the sounds in these images recalls Tina Campt’s understanding of sound as frequency. It is a “felt sound,” not merely an audible one, “an inherently embodied modality constituted by vibration and contact” capable of touching and moving its recipients (Listening 6-7). Listening to these quiet (but not silent) images entails looking beyond what is visible and “attuning our senses to the other affective frequencies through which [images] register. It is a haptic encounter that foregrounds the frequencies of images and how they move, touch, and connect us to the event of the photo” (9). The above-mentioned panels in Abirached’s comic cue the reader to listen to this quiet portrayal of the claustrophobic experience of being trapped in a small space under a daily drone of warfare, even if in the company of friends and loved ones. To listen to the quiet images, the reader imagines the event of the image and the conveyed speaking and listening subjects. This reconstruction of the event, verbally incomplete and graphically rendered, is an attempt to connect to the event around the image, not just what the image directly shows. 

As a serialized comic, Merhej’s Murabbā wa Laban depicts not only this attunement to the connection between what testimonies show and how they resonate but also portrays the potential impact of this attentive listening on both the oral witness and her listener. The comic showcases a cycle of listening and reading that allows both mother and daughter to come to understand each other by sharing their traumatic experiences. However, the mother’s stories are rarely voiced by Vali herself in the comic. Like Abirached, Merhej creates quiet images that require the reader to listen more attentively in their own interpretive re-weaving of the depicted events. These quiet images also signal the artist’s self-reflection on her mediation in the shaping of her mother’s testimony.

In one of the few ink-filled pages of the comic, her mother is shown as a storyteller for the first of a handful of times, even though the story itself is still narrated by Merhej herself (figure 3).4 More specifically, the mother does not ‘tell’ the story. The first page of this double-page sequence (read right to left) features one speech bubble repeated across and shared by four different scenarios. In these different settings, the mother narrates the same story to friends, family members, and students. However, the story itself unfolds through visual cues rather than words. The first two tiers in the inclusive speech bubble illustrate the backstory to the main anecdote on the last single-paneled tier: as soon as they made their way back to Turkey, Lena and her siblings were so hungry that they sat on the pavement devouring unwashed fruits from the street. Merhej’s insistence on showing the mother telling the story without actually verbalizing it is reinforced on the opposite page. The mother explains in the last panel of the second tier, “I’ve told his story many times (akhbartu hadhihi al-qiṣṣa mirāran)” but the panel where she would have been shown telling that story is blackened out, matching the background of the last silent panel on the same page as well as the large speech bubble on the previous one (Merhej 51). The verbal interpretation of the story only appears in the form of captions, ascribed to the artist, rather than the mother’s own words. 

Fig. 3: Lena’s quiet retelling of Vali’s story, Murabbā wa Laban 50-51 (right-to-left).

Through Merhej’s constant enactment of the role of the monstrator, Vali becomes a quiet subject whose ḥikāya can only be implied through the affective frequencies of a quiet visualization of the events of listening. Thierry Groensteen differentiates between the narrative functions of the monstrator and the recitatnt in the comics medium; the monstrative function is “rendering into drawn form of the story” (Comics 86), while the recitative function is the verbal rendition of the narrative through captions and speech bubbles (Comics 86, 92). In this two-page spread, Vali is depicted narrating the story from her own perspective. Yet, her role as a recitant is merely suggested, while the visual perspective of Merhej as the monstrator is foregrounded. In other words, this sequence underscores Merhej’s role as the monstrator, showing the story as she recalls it from her memories and imagination of her mother’s ḥikāya, while Vali’s verbal recitation of her ḥikāya is omitted. 

Merhej’s omission of the mother’s recitative function in these pages is an empathic gesture that recognizes the limits of listening to and retelling Vali’s ḥikāya. She presents aural visuality as simultaneously receptive and interpretive, thereby rendering her unable to adequately recreate the mother’s oral storytelling. In fact, the visible contrast in size between the visualized narrative of the mother on the first page and Lena’s attempt at its exegesis in the adjacent one confirms how the artist’s narrative capacity is limited in its visual rendering of the mother’s voice. The monstration of the mother’s ḥikāya reflects Merhej’s “attunement to [its] sonic frequencies of affect and impact… [to the] ensemble of seeing, feeling, being affected, contacted, and moved beyond the distance of sight and observer” (Campt, Listening 42). In so doing, the double-page spread encourages the reader to fill the voices, moods, and feelings of the depicted characters whose verbal quietness challenges the imposition of a fixed ḥikāya told in her mother’s presumed storytelling style. Nonetheless, Merhej’s choice to fill these pages in with ink, rather than using watercolor like in most of the other pages in the first five chapters, suggests a rare visual neatness that does not transpire often in the comic. As the primary storyteller whose ḥikāya is retold by her daughter, Vali appears a more adept and lucid storyteller than Merhej herself. Thus, the visual texture of the page evokes the persistent and careful insistence on the artist’s belief in her mother’s role in inspiring her imaginative skills without attempting to mimic her mother’s storytelling.

As a visual storyteller, Merhej listens to her mother’s ḥikāya and, in retelling it in sequential images, preserves it by transforming her into a quiet subject of testimony. As Marília Librandi suggests, “real speaking always occurs only in relation to hearing – above all, to having been heard” (178). Murabbā wa Laban is thus characterized by an aural visuality in its emphasis on receptivity and self-reflectivity. The aural in Merhej’s work is a portrayal of receptive listening that, in turn, creates a plurivocal object, a conversation between the daughter and the mother as monstrator and recitant, and artist and reader. This process in turn invites readers to listen empathically to the events that have produced the images before them. The comic text can then be perceived as a visual rendering of an aural affect. 

Murabbā wa Laban therefore calls attention to the receptive monstration of listening to the audible and inaudible frequencies of testimony within the comic medium rather than emphasizing the role of the artist as primarily a creator of visual narrative. Indeed, comics of witness are always constructed through an act of listening and/or reading, and their aurality arises from how they illustrate the artist’s receptivity to the testimonial retelling in its creative recreation. The comparatist and memory theorist, Marianne Hirsch, examines the aural quality of graphic biographies in her analysis of Art Spiegleman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. She explores the juxtaposition of the visual and the aural particularly through the “visual and aural dimensions of the word ‘tale’—when we see it, we know it means ‘story,’ but when we hear it after hearing ‘mouse’ we might think that it is spelled t-a-i-l” (11). She posits that this defines two key features of Spiegelman’s text from the outset, the visual and the aural. She also points out how the occasional visibility of the tape recorder creates dissonance between the authenticity of Vladek’s aural testimony, and Art’s visual interpretations of this narrative (12). Furthermore, Siegelman further draws attention to this dissonance through his fictionalized transformation of human characters into animals. Even though Maus is a nonfictional biographical narrative, the artist gives away his creative mediation in the act of listening through this blurring of the boundaries between the fictional and the nonfictional. Murabbā wa Laban also makes the act of listening visible through its visual and verbal construction. Yet, Merhej exposes her receptive and creative involvement as the monstrator of the comic through her reconstruction of Vali’s orally delivered ḥikāya, as conveyed by her visual use of silence and coloring. Thus, drawing listening in its different manifestations does not conceal the presence of a listener; instead, their creative mediation in the retelling is always visibly discernible.

Hirsch’s article also suggests that Spiegelman’s foregrounding of his own experience of listening and retelling a history of the Holocaust intimates the historicity of the medium. Hilary Chute further contends that “the most important graphic narratives explore the conflicted boundaries of what can be said and what can be shown at the intersection of collective histories and life stories” (“Comics as Literature?” 459). Although Chute’s claim prompts a reconsideration of the limits of listening visually conveyed through biographical graphic narratives, it should be noted that both fictional and nonfictional comics are capable of drawing attention to these boundaries. Building on Lispector notion of an “ear-oriented author,” an ear-oriented comics artist as such is one who is “informed by lyricism, and the text’s message is less the result of an individual quest and more the buzz or pulsar of a collective voice” (32). That is to say, an artist who creates by ear makes the artificiality of her creative object manifest as she “seeks to express, rhythmically and ideophonically, that which resides behind thought … or that which rests on the hither or thither side of language: sensations, pulsations, reverberations, and timbres” (Librandi 43). Comics are thereby aural objects that are able to visually reconstitute their artists’ reception of the felt sounds and bodies around them. An ethical practice of listening thus considers both the receptive and the creative stance of the artists in their creation of fictional and nonfictional comic texts.

Listening as Noisy Mediation

Merhej’s portrayal of her mother’s experience of loss encourages us to attend to the images as visual traces of psychological effects of the traumas conveyed in her testimonies. Rather than presenting the mother narrating the loss of her first husband and her mother in 1974 and 1977 respectively, Merhej uses captions to signpost the dates of the losses of her mother’s loved ones while the images themselves evoke the sonic frequencies of the mother’s (e)motional suffering (see fig. 4). Merhej’s act of listening to her mother’s voice and body in her recollections of these difficult times allows her to imagine the mother’s memories in a way that pays heed to her emotional state. The first two panels on the page show the mother standing by the deathbeds of her loved ones in parallel images. The darkness emanating from the beds intensifies and seeps through the panels. This darkness also looms over the last two panels on the page, where the mother finds herself alone with her children. This page’s composition evokes a tension between two emotional states: the deaths literally weigh the page down from above and threaten to dim her inner light, which radiates from the bottom of the page upwards and attempts to push the murkiness away. Vali’s visible emotional and mental conflicts remain unresolved; the love of her children counterbalances the loss of loved ones, but there is always the danger (as well as the hope) that one will overpower the other. 

Fig. 4: Vali losing her parents, Murabbā wa Laban 44.

Merhej’s monstration of the mother’s emotional state illustrates her attention to Vali’s oral witnessing. Merhej’s visual reconstruction of the mother’s narrative epitomizes what Robert Jay Lifton calls “a double witness.” In his interview with Cathy Caruth, Lifton argues that witnessing traumatic events (i.e., being able to reproduce them imaginatively or verbally) requires a visualization that simultaneously relies on and disrupts prior visual knowledge of similar events (Caruth, “Giving” 9). The first witness, which is the mother in the case of the Murabbā wa Laban, can only find insight in a preceding visualization of the event. Lifton notes:

The insight begins with the shattering of prior forms. Because forms have to be shattered for there to be insight. In that sense, it is a shattering of form but it is also a new dimension of experience…. Here the assumption is that … we never receive anything nakedly; we must recreate it in our own minds, and that’s what the cortex is for. In creating, in recreating experience, we need some prior imagery in order to do that work, in order to carry through the process. (9)

Lifton suggests that the lack of prior form of the event renders the narration of traumatic events difficult because survivors would have rarely experienced an equally disastrous event. Accordingly, witnessing traumatic events requires the survivor’s reconstruction of a prior visualization of the event, which can be facilitated by the therapist, or more broadly, the listener. In discussing the therapist’s role when listening to patients, Lifton designates him/her a “double witness” who must

take in their stories and to form imagery in my own mind about what they’re saying. And as one forms that imagery, one is forming a narrative about their story. And the narrative involves elements of their pain, the causation of their conflicts, and also the source of their knowledge, the nature of their experience. It’s all forming itself or being reconstructed, recreated in the symbolizing process of the therapist. (17) 

Hence, an attentive listener visually reconstructs the verbalized trauma and recognizes the act of double witnessing as a recreated mental imagination of the traumatic event. The double witness’s act of listening is thereby doubly removed from the witnessed event: the survivor’s verbal reconstruction of the event and the listener’s mental recreation of the reconstructed event. Lifton’s analysis also intimates that a witness is one who has the ability to at least imaginatively reconstruct a traumatic event, while the act of witnessing itself is the expression, verbal, visual or otherwise of this event, of which the level of removal from first-hand experience varies.

This demonstrates that a witness—in the broadest sense of the word—is either a narrator of or a listener to traumatic narrative through her imagined or conveyed reconstruction of the event.

In this respect, Merhej acts as the double witness to her mother’s testimony by visualizing the mother’s pains and conflicts in the aural reworking of her ḥikāya. The mother’s initial reticence may suggest an absence of prior forms from which she can take insight. Lena’s doubly mediated imagination of the wars and the mother’s ḥikāya hence prompts Vali to mentally reconstruct her traumatic testimonies and put them into words. The founder of Narrative Medicine, Rita Charon, notes that people tell their personal narratives to seek out the clarity made available through language “to eavesdrop on oneself” (70-2). Vali’s narrative is not, however, only heard by her own ears, but also given visual form through her daughter’s aural reception. Merhej’s visual recreation of the mother’s testimony therefore conveys to Vali her daughter’s “curiosity… patience… ability to tolerate [her] own inexperience and lack of knowledge” and her adoption of “a stance not of passive hearing but of active attending, enabling the [mother] to articulate that which has been latent and corrosive for years” (Charon 80). Therefore, Merhej’s role as the only monstrator of Vali’s testimonies, which are shown from the perspective of the double witness, is an instance of the artist’s enactment of empathy through her use of aural visuality. 

Through her use of focalization, Merhej illustrates her growing empathy towards her mother as she continues to listen to her testimony. At the beginning of the comic, the mother appears as a domineering figure seen from a low angle, underscoring the fear Merhej felt as a child towards her mother. However, as the comic progresses, even when it refers to Merhej as a child, the perspective moves to a straight angle, setting grown-up Merhej on the same visual plane as her mother. Even in Merhej’s portrayal of the mother’s anger, the reader sees eye-to-eye with the mother. Accordingly, the reader sees both sides of her character: the harsh mother worried about her children and her family, and the caring mother who cannot stand to see her children sad or hurt (81-2). Vali’s angry eyes slowly soften as the comic progresses while Merhej discovers that the “monster (waḥsh)” she has been trying to uncover through this process is actually her very own shadow (85). Attentive listening thus becomes a means through which Merhej can learn more about herself as her empathy towards her mother grows.

This subjective rendering of the artist’s practice of listening, i.e., her representation of listening to the mother’s ḥikāya, intimates the mediation in the visual witnessing of testimony, muffling its direct transmission. Its visibility through those moments of self-reflection and the quiet imagination of the mother’s direct narrative establishes an actively receptive stance as a potential source of noise precluding claims to narrative authority. Employing a predominantly psychological sequencing, Murabbā wa Laban presents the narrative in the order in which it impressed itself upon the artist’s mind (Mikkonen 48). It therefore reflects Merhej’s experience of the mother’s testimony as it releases itself in durational time, an “always-present past that in testimony becomes a presented past, for the witness more precisely a re-presented past, and then, in narrative forms other than testimony, a represented past” (Langer 15). Her attentiveness to preserving the episodic nature of the mother’s narrative emphasizes the artist’s reluctance to allow the creative to overpower the receptive in order to produce a more logical or more legible narrative. Moreover, this sequencing enables Merhej to intersperse her own memories and ruminations within the flow of narrative, further disrupting the linear progression of the ḥikāya and drawing attention to the mediation of the mother’s testimony and the aural and imaginative noises inscribed in its visualization. Interestingly, the representational aesthetics of empathic listening within the comic takes the form of visual noise. The comic conspicuously draws attention to the artist’s process of weaving received threads in a way that allows the enduring flow of testimony. In this regard, while attentive listening to testimony requires careful attunement to the quiet (e)motions of the speaker’s body, the visual translation of this form of active listening necessarily betrays the loud intensity of the listener’s interpretive noise.

Reading Visualized Aural Empathy

Merhej’s illustration of empathic listening through her position as double witness eventually allows the cycle of testimony to continue. Upon reading the first five chapters of the serialized comic, the mother’s anger at her daughter’s decision to tell her story transforms into pride and joy. She boasts of her daughter’s publication to friends and asks for copies to include in her school’s library (86, 88). In the sixth chapter, which depicts the mother after she has read her own story in the comic, the artist explains that her mother encouraged her to seek an imaginative outlet for her psychological troubles. Yet Merhej’s desire to heal not only exhorted her desire to listen and draw, but it also prompted her mother to tell her most traumatic memories in the forthcoming and final chapter. Thus, Chapter Six, “How My Mother Read Her Story (Kayfa Qara’at ’ummī Qiṣṣatahā),” marks a discernible shift, a more pronounced visual echo that reverberates in the last two chapters of the comic, particularly through the stylistic shift to a more predominantly charcoal coloring style. The last two chapters that present the mother’s reading of Mehrej’s comic and the subsequent release of more repressed traumas are almost exclusively drawn in charcoal. The charcoal evokes a degree of depth and force that the water-colored and ink-filled pages do not. It also leaves more conspicuous and untidy traces that echo the inheritance of intergenerational trauma depicted in the last two chapters. While creating this comic, Merhej attends a conference on family secrets where she learns that “family secrets pile up for generations and with them mental health issues, unless one of the generations records them, studies them and understand them (asrār al-ʿā’ilāt tatarākam ʿabr al-’ajyāl wa tatarākam maʿahum al-’amrāḍ al-nafsiya,in lam yarṣudhā aḥad al-’ajyal, wa yadrisuhā, wa yafhamuhā)” (106). This “familial echo (ṣadā ʿā’ilī),” which is fittingly the title of the last chapter, is visually amplified through the traces of charcoal that subtly braid the comic’s first cycle of telling, listening, and reading with the second.5

The visual echoes first appear when Merhej’s own desire to tell by going to a therapist is paralleled two pages later when the mother acts as the double witness to Merhej’s own trauma (see figs. 5 and 6). The background painting in the two panels remains the same as the foregrounded character of the double witness changes. The mother unseats the therapist on the right, while Merhej appears more visually distraught. Merhej’s iconographic transformation reflects the mental impact of the unravelling of memories. Her disheveled hair, downcast eyes, and distorted mouth reflect the continued unraveling of traumatic testimonies, doubling the “blah, blah, blah” in the first panel (89). This portrayal of her emotional state comes about when the mother listens to Merhej’s own testimonies, emphasizing that this cycle is more of a conversation than a one-way monologue to an attentive therapist. The cyclicality of the oral, the aural, and the ocular reveals intergenerational testimonies of trauma and their affective impact. This also works as a visual metaphor of the mother’s reading of the comic; the first aural reception of Merhej’s testimony performed by the therapist is mirrored by the mother’s ocular witnessing of the daughter’s traumas. Reading her daughter’s testimony interspersed with her own memories puts the mother in the position of the double witness. Reading this visual act of aural empathy also suggests the mother’s breaking down of barriers to her continuation of testimony, delineated by the elimination of panel frames in the last four pages of the chapter and ending with the mother’s declared intent to “[t]iḥkī” or “to tell her story” (91).

Fig. 5: Lena talking to her therapist, Murabbā wa Laban 89.
Fig. 6: Lena talking to Vali, Murabbā wa Laban 91.

Furthermore, this intent ensues from the mother’s receptive capacity as well. Her depiction as the listener to Merhej’s narrative, also tantamount to her reading of the early chapters of the comic, suggests that the mother’s desire to tell her own ḥikāya is prompted by an aural and visual reception. This cyclical interaction between aurality and visuality alludes to the interconnection of aural empathy on the part of the artist and the reader. The ear-oriented artist’s visual illustration of empathy potentially animates the reader’s listening to the quiet and multisensorial resonances of the images. Accordingly, the artist’s portrayal of aural empathy can give rise to the reader’s ear-oriented receptivity to the illustrated testimonies. Clearly, Vali’s act of reading the comic with a visual ear enables her to recognize the empathic visual rendering of her testimonies because of her attunement to the voices and the bodies of the characters in Merhej’s comic. Vali’s desire to tell thus emanates from her listening to the aural and visual frequencies of the comic’s images.

Receptive Creativity

Nearing its close, the comic buttresses the heuristic cyclicality of the receptive and creative aspects of the narrative through the initiation of a second narrative cycle. This new cycle, brought about by the mother’s recognition of the daughter’s visualized empathic listening, stirs in the mother a stronger desire to relay her traumatic experiences, which accentuates her waning narrative resistance. Although Merhej illustrates the recurrent mediation of her siblings in conveying the mother’s testimonies, the comic still foregrounds the mother’s more forthcoming oral witnessing. Whether this second cycle of narration is communicated to Lena or her siblings, the mother’s perception of the daughter’s empathic visual aurality galvanizes her desire to share and tell her story. The depictions of trauma in the last two chapters thereby signal a change from reticence to enunciation.

In the chapter following the mother’s reading of the comic, Merhej brings to light the cumulative traumatic experiences of the mother beyond her experiences of WWII and the Lebanese Civil War. Chapter Six, “How My Mother Became A Person with Special Needs (Kaifa aṣbaḥat ’ummī min dhawī al-ḥājāt al-khāṣṣa),” situates the mother’s memories of her parents’ disabilities within opening and closing anecdotes from Merhej herself about the mother’s own disabilities. The use of the comics medium to retell Vali’s testimony guarantees Merhej’s investment in the authenticity of her act of retelling. The mother’s growing visual impairment that might make her unable to drive or read small print does not prevent her from doing the larger crossword puzzles, just as it does not prevent her from reading her daughter’s comic (100). Merhej’s reliance on visual techniques with minimal use of words provides the mother with an accessible reading experience of the retelling of her ḥikāya. Moreover, the framing of the sixth chapter presents Merhej’s acquired empathic listening skills through its gradual renunciation of disability as a lack of ability. Although Merhej shows that her mother always stressed the importance of identifying people with disabilities not as “crippled (muʿāq)” or “disabled (muʿawwaq)” but as “people with special needs (dhawī al-’iḥtiyājāt al-khāṣṣa),” Merhej’s hearing of her mother’s concerns about her visual impairment do not translate into feeling the need to support her until the end of the chapter, when the mother is travelling alone to Florida for an appointment with a famous optometrist (92). In fact, she sought “to escape (al-harab)” her mother whenever she had asked for help with electronic devices for work. Merhej evidently hears her mother’s assertion “I hate pity (akrah al-shafaqa)” at the beginning of the chapter, but she does not really listen to what her mother’s voice and body tell her until the end of the chapter. Pity, like sympathy, is a demonstration of passive sentimentality, but empathy requires an understanding of what the speaker experiences. As she listens to Vali’s narratives about disability and the challenges she faced with her own parents, Merhej illustrates that active listening in response to a declaration such as “I hate pity” does not entail dependence, nor does it preclude the need for emotional support. By the end of the chapter, the mother is seen to be able to manage on her own since, like Merhej’s father affirms, she is “a mighty woman (imra’a jabāra)” (101). It is the daughter whose emotional response changes throughout this listening process, from a desire to escape her mother’s needs for help to a feeling of guilt for leaving her mother alone. Evidently, the visualization of aural empathy does not just exhort the mother’s desire to tell her ḥikāya; it also demonstrates the development of Lena’s empathic listening. By drawing her listening to Vali’s stories and testimonies, Merhej also sketches her own growth as an empathic listener.  

Paired with the explication of Vali’s visual impairment is the introduction of her growing family from the time of her infancy until giving birth to her youngest child, all of which emphasizes the mother’s greatest fear, losing family members (96). These fears emanate from Vali’s proximity to death during the war, as many of her friends lost their parents during WWII, and from her mother’s experience with epilepsy, also called “little death (al-mawt al-ṣaghīr)” (97). Vali’s experiences with death and disability do not become crippling, however, but empowering and transformative. As a child, she had to take care of both her mother and her siblings whenever her mother had an epileptic episode (see fig. 7). The 12-year-old girl’s role is foregrounded through her visible presence in almost all the panels of the page. The three inset panels within the larger hyperframe of the page shows the children’s eyes wide with terror at seeing their mother experience one of her epileptic episodes. The second and third panels separate the children, leaving Vali alone to look after her mother, with the three other children scared yet safe in a locked bathroom. The child’s arms circling the moving body of the mother during her episode fall helplessly at her side when she does calm down. Her calm yet seemingly lifeless body evokes more dread in the child’s eyes. The little black frame enveloping the page represents the little deaths that terrify this family during and after the times of the mother’s episodes, while the gray gutters illustrate the frighteningly overwhelming state of alarm the family lived in. Merhej’s depiction of these memories also calls attention to the visual absence of the father and his emotional detachment from his family. He does not show up in the page where he is needed, leaving Vali, the 12-year-old child, to provide her mother and siblings with emotional support. The father does, however, appear alone in silent speech bubbles on the next page as Merhej depicts different theories about how her grandfather lost his fingers, rendering him also a person with special needs. Vali’s family experience leaves her more resilient, having to compensate for an absent disabled father and support a loving disabled mother.

Fig. 7: Vali’s experience with her mother’s epilepsy, Murabbā wa Laban 97.

The visual narration shows the mother as a survivor of trauma, not as a victim of trauma. This mighty woman resents pity either for her visual impairment or for her traumatic experiences. The representations of her traumatic experiences do not resonate with Caruth’s designation of trauma as the unbearable belatedness and “unwitting reenactment of an event that one cannot simply leave behind” (Unclaimed 2). In other words, Merhej’s representation of her mother’s traumatic experiences shies away from “trauma theory’s cult of the unrepresentable” (Mitchell 60). Consequently, Vali is not portrayed as a victim whose unrepresentable, yet haunting traumatic experiences impede her from moving forward or facing the past. Rather, Merhej shows that these experiences themselves allowed Vali to be receptive to her mother’s needs and ensured the endurance of their relationship until she stood by her deathbed in Hanover in 1977 (fig. 4). The constant presence of the past –traumatic as it may be—somehow empowers her during difficult times to make sure their family stays safely together. It is Vali’s ability to attune herself to the needs of those around her that makes her such a formidable woman. This chapter therefore emphasizes Merhej’s recognition of the importance of emotional support as an act of active empathy; for without the active listener, “the act of telling might itself become severely traumatizing, if the price of speaking is re-living; not relief, but further retraumatization” (Laub 67). The listener’s resistance, her “urgency to pull back, to withdraw to a safer place,” can preclude the continuation of testimony (73). Active listening distinguishes itself from hearing through its outcomes: the outcome to Merhej’s listening to her mother’s testimony is not only the mother’s relief, but also the daughter’s perception of the responsibility of the witness to listen empathically and respond appropriately, as Vali does with her own mother. 

The mother’s empathic response to the grandmother’s illness and distress visually illustrates the haptic encounter that would transform this individual memory into an intergenerational memory contributing to the collective trauma of the women in the family, as expanded upon in the final chapter, “Familial Echo (Ṣaḍā ʿā’ilī).” Holding the grandmother during her epileptic episodes becomes one of the embodied memories that continue to inhabit the mother’s body. The trembling body of the grandmother becomes inscribed in the mother’s bodily memory. Paying heed to Vali’s verbal and body language in her telling of her narrative allows Merhej to visually imagine the felt frequencies of the event in the mother’s ḥikāya and give ‘form’ to the mother’s haptic memories. Mediated by Merhej though her visualized aural empathy, these graphic representations of the mother’s haptic memories evoke the ensuing intergenerational trauma in the form of what Tina Campt calls a “still-moving-image.” Still-moving-images are ones that “hover between still and moving images: animated still images, slowed or stilled images in motion or visual renderings that blur the distinctions between these multiple genres: images that require the labor of feeling with or through them” (“Black Visuality” 80). This image portrays the beginning of an embodied echo of trauma that gets passed down to the mother and then Merhej herself. It calls upon the reader to listen to the affective resonances within the illustrated bodies and future illustrations of intergenerational trauma, to attune to the “difference levels of [graphic] audibility, many of which register at lower frequencies through their ability to move us” (Campt, Listening 40-1). It also urges the reader to recognize that “one’s self unfolds in narrative language” and “includes attention to others, and takes account of the body,” which “has become our most legible signature” (Charon 73-6). That is to say, the image exhorts the reader to read it with a visual ear by attending to the quiet (e)motions of the women’s bodies and to let these still (e)motions move their imagination.

Through this practice of active listening, the traumatic echo is recognized in the repetition of a metonymic iconography of the intergenerational psychological pain.6 Whether in times of apparent calmness or emotional outburst, the mother and daughter’s bodies reverberate with similar affective frequencies (see figs. 8 and 9). During Merhej’s outburst after a period of “shutting people out (inghilāq),” her emotional state transitions from being physically and psychologically closed-off to an expulsive explosion of anger overtaking the bottom page (90). Every layer of hidden anger within Merhej becomes increasingly livid: the V-shape of her lowered eyebrows grows sharper, and her teeth begin to resemble sharp fangs. These nested figurations resonate with the trembling infant trapped within Vali’s body, living with her from the time her mother had to hide with her in the basement when the Russian Army entered Hanover. The sharper contrast between the internalized embodied trauma and the external show of strength does not, however, repudiate the impact it has on the present state of the mother. The mother had told Merhej’s sister, Mona, that “the memory of her trembling body still haunts her (dhikrā jismahā wa huwa yartaʿish, lā tazāl taskunahā)” (110). The mother’s powerful exterior does not therefore belie the fact that her quivering infant body still unnerves her. The white aura surrounding her grown-up body is the visual rendition of the quiet vibrations of the mother’s barely perceptible and buried trembling. Although the emotions inhabiting Merhej and her mother’s bodies are different, their aural and personal visualizations generate an integrated iconography for the metonymic representations of the women’s intergenerational traumas. 

Fig. 8: Lena is fed up, Murabbā wa Laban, 90.
Fig. 9: Vali’s embodied trauma, Murabbā wa Laban 110.

Evidently, Merhej’s aural and visual mediation in her representation of listening illustrates the generative outcomes of empathic listening, allowing Merhej to understand her own experiences by choosing to attune actively to the resonances of her mother’s ḥikāya. Active listening engenders the aurally empathic visualization of the mother’s ḥikāya, which then merges with the daughter’s personal ḥikāya in both narrative and iconography. The juxtaposition of the mother’s testimonies with Merhej’s own testimony accentuates the aural mediation of even the highest level of receptiveness to the other’s narrative. Empathic listening does not thereby entail some ‘true’ knowledge of the other’s narrative, but an understanding of the experiences they have shared. Evidently, even though visual silences, echoes, and noise belie the absolute truthfulness and authenticity of representing traumatic experiences, they do not attest to their unrepresentability. Alternatively, they elucidate the reconstructed nature of re-membered narratives of trauma. 

The visual and (e)motional familial echo becomes more pronounced when the final chapter introduces Vali and Lena’s memories as children during WWII and the Lebanese Civil War (see fig. 10). The first page on the right shows the mother during a bombing in Hanover in 1945, while the second page shows Merhej during the bombing near Gaza Hospital in 1982 Beirut. Beside the captions that indicate the setting of these two events, the two pages are quiet, prompting the reader to attune to the felt similarities and differences between the two experiences. The quietness of the pages further urges the reader to pause and read the pages linearly (i.e., from top to bottom one page at a time) and tabularly (i.e., from right-to-left across the two pages).7 The external and internal loneliness of the mother is accordingly contrasted with the nurses around the daughter trying to cheer her up. The mother worked in the hospital when Merhej was young, and she was loved and admired by those around her even after she retired (25). What left both two young girls so horror-struck, however, were the scenes of disembodied, injured, or dead bodies spanning the two pages on the second tier. Traumatized by the scenes of violence in different times and places, the mother and the daughter are unresponsive to the aural and physical impacts of the bombings that force those around them to drop to the floor. The stares of the mother and the daughter trap the reader in a cycle of gazing across the second and third tiers across the two pages, urging them to find, in the disappearance of the windows between the first and last tiers, the way out of their hopeless desire to escape this ever-present and repetitive vision of trauma. 

Fig. 10: Familial echo of trauma, Murabbā wa Laban 108-109.

The two pages evoke the haptic and sonic frequencies of fear, terror, and impending death through the pull of the injured and deceased bodies suggested by the frightened eyes of the mother and daughter. These images invoke a creative receptivity in the reader that is informed by empathic listening. Merhej gives visual form to familial echo, one that is attentive to the collective traumas of the mother and the daughter, by offering a quiet double-page spread whose creative potential still refuses to muffle its receptivity. The comic thereby performs a self-reflective practice of listening. It illustrates that empathic listening is not an act of analytic close listening attempting to excavate the concealed truth of the testimony, but an act of listening closely that attunes to the affective dimensions of the narrative, an understanding of a truth that is gleaned by perceiving the felt, the thought, and the known within the ḥikāya. It is an understanding that is sometimes even capable of doing more for the listener than the speaker, as is the case with Merhej herself. 

Trauma theorists widely emphasize that telling one’s testimony requires a listener to facilitate the speaker’s transition into witness. It is not the mere presence of a listener that allows the telling to proceed, but an attentive and active listener that helps the speaker give form to memory. The listener to testimony “partakes of the struggle of the victim with the memories and residues of his or her traumatic past. The listener has to feel the victim’s victories, defeats, and silences, know them from within, so that they can assume the form of testimony” (Laub 58). Equally significant, yet often overlooked, is the fact that in the same way active listening is paramount to the production of testimony: the whole process fosters the cultivation of attentive listening practices that allow the listener, through the endeavor to understand the witness and their testimonies, to further understand themselves and the shared experience ensuing from the event of narration. This act of listening is always mediated by the listener, however, through the attempt to make sense and give form to the received testimony. In drawing her mother’s testimony, Merhej’s use of aural visuality mediates her mother’s oral testimony and moves towards empathy. Librandi notes that an echopoetic aural novel foregrounds that “it is listening (the ear) that speaks, or it is a speech that only becomes possible with and through listening” (153). She suggests that the aural novel engenders a voice that is “no longer that of expression; it is, instead, a voice of impression” (123). She posits a theory of writing that listens, not speaks, one that sacrifices the speaking voice for the listening ear. Yet to deny the voice of the creator is to forego their creative mediation. Mediation lies within the bounds of an attentive and ethical practice of listening; it acknowledges the role of the listener in relaying the aural narrative. Aural visuality is a creative receptivity to surrounding voices and bodies, which merges, through the artist’s mediation, with a receptive creativity that edifies the knowledge of both the speaker and the receptive creator. The image is thus simultaneously receptive and creative, weaving different sensorial input into a creative product that is itself received and incorporated by a viewer to continue this cycle. Upon choosing to listen closely to the visual ḥikāya, the reader attends to the evoked voice and felt traumas embedded in the aurally visualized testimony.  

Through its reliance on aural visuality, Murabbā wa Laban proposes an ethics of listening that invites the readers to listen to the visualizations of the testimonies of both mother and daughter. The comic offers a bildungsroman of a listener, one who draws her growing aural empathy towards her mother as she slowly comes to understand her and, along the way, herself. Taken on this journey is a reader who is urged to read the comic with a visual ear, a practice of listening to the images within the comic that is attuned to their aural and visual frequencies. As Tom Gunning notes, “the power of comics lies in their ability to derive movement from stillness—not to make the reader observe motion but rather participate imaginatively in its genesis” (40). By hearing the quiet affective resonances of the bodies and voices in the comic, the readers perform an act of witnessing themselves that is attentive to the mediation of their own creative receptivity. Merhej’s Murabbā wa Laban illuminates the possibilities within comics of witness to generate a visual aesthetics of empathic listening in its attention to both the receptive and the creative aspects of the act of witnessing.


[1] All translations of the comic in this article are mine, and all transliterations follow the IJMES guide.

[2] The first five chapters appeared in 2009 in Samandal Magazine I, II, IV and V; and the sixth chapter, where Vali is shown reading her story, was published in 2010, in Samandal Magazine IX.

[3] See Khoury’s Al-Wujuh al-Bayḍā’ (1981), and Sinālkūl: al-Marāyā al-maksūra (2012); Barakat’s Ḥajar al-Ḍaḥik (1990) and Ahl al-Hawā (1993); and al-Shaykh’s Ḥikāyat Zahra (1980) and Barīd Bayrūt (1992).

[4] Ink-filling is a method of digital coloring used by Merhej several times throughout her comic. The two other methods of coloring she uses are water-coloring (predominant in the first five chapters before the mother reads her story) and charcoal coloring (more frequently used in the last two chapters of the comic).

[5] Groensteen defines braiding as a bridging operation that links panels in a series through non-narrative visual correspondences: “It consists of an additional and remarkable structuration that, taking account of the breakdown and the page layout, defines a series within a sequential framework” (Systems 146).

[6] For more on the iconography of mental illness, see Williams’s “Comics and the Iconography of Illness.”

[7] Mikkonen defines tabular reading as “the global or synchronic look … ‘tabular’ in reference to a tableau (picture, painting, table) …. More precisely, the notion of tabular reading refers to features in comics that invite a nonlinear, or not only sequential, reading of the panels and where, thus, the whole of the spatial arrangement merits a more global look and appreciation” (36).

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