Bye Bye Babylone *****
Lamia Ziadé, Denoël Graphic LL54,500 (French)
Imagine, if you will, that American illustrator and author Maira Kalman was recording the early years of the Lebanese civil war conflagration through a child’s eyes – a devastating mixture of artless technicolour drawings, wide-eyed musings, death and destruction – and you have an idea of Lamia Ziadé’s ‘Bye Bye Babylone’. Unlike Kalman’s ‘The Principles of Uncertainty’, however, whose impact on the world of design and narrative is unquestionable, Ziadé’s exploration of these memories of her childhood deal with what was an utterly terrifying reality, and the effectiveness of the pictorial exploration of warlords and bombings as opposed to floral china and gentleman philosophers is instructive.
Like Kalman, she roots her world in objects. The book opens with a graphic hymn to the delights of capitalism on display at Spinney’s in Ramlet el Bayda in 1975 – Bazooka chewing gum, Kraft’s rainbow marshmallows, Kellogg’s cereal and Libby’s ketchup. Their primary-bright colours and hypnotic Pop Art designs, great splashes of ketchup flowing across the page like blood, are put into frightening relief by the next series of illustrations – a catalogue of weapon types used in the civil war. ‘Le Slavia,’ announces our young narrator with aplomb. ‘La Kakachnikov AK47’. ‘Le Tokarev, le M16, le RPG.’ The juxtaposition is blistering, visceral – and all the joys and pains of modernity are what sears through the heart of the book.
As a child, Ziadé experienced some of the worst excesses of the war, from bomb shelters and bodies to seeing the wreckage of massacred Palestinian camps. Even a family picnic trip to the mountains falls straight into the streets around the Ain el Remmaneh bus massacre on their return. To stave off night terrors, ‘je lis. La peur au ventre, je dévore les Bibiothèque Rose et les BD, qui me tiennent éveillée au cas ou...’
Her eye for detail and the tragic-comedic has lasted, with the cartoon characters from her wakeful nights striking poses in front of burning buildings, interspersed with grim litanies of grey-faced politicians whose images stalked her from TV sets and newspapers. She also has an ironic adult’s eye for her experiences; militiamen at the Holiday Inn, a Kalashnikov in one hand and a bottle of Dom Pérignon in the other, tinkling at the piano with their feet resting on the bodies of their enemies, lead her to remark ‘C’est la guerre désinvolte. Chez nous, l’importance c’est le style.’
With its childlike simplicity of vision yet terrifyingly grown-up knowledge, this war memoir opens new windows on the conflict and on the wartime experiences of Lebanese youth. ‘Bye Bye Babylone’ isn’t like any other account or artwork on the civil war that you’ve encountered before – but it might just be one of the most worthwhile.