In conjunction with my last post on graphic novels as pedagogical tools, what follows is my review of the graphic novel Baddawi, which I first read for my research paper.
Leila Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi tells the story of Ahmad, a young Palestinian refugee growing up between the Baddawi refugee camp in northern Lebanon and Beirut in the 1960s and ’70s. Ahmad’s life is modeled after that of Abdelrazaq’s own father, but the story encompasses much more than just the singular experience of one boy, or even just of one family. Rather, it speaks to the broader Palestinian experience of loss and longing for home.
Artistically, Abdelrazaq both widens and strengthens this inclusion by drawing inspiration from Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali’s famed character Handala. Baddawi’s cover depicts the novel’s protagonist, Ahmad, standing with his back facing the reader in imitation of Handala’s famous pose, which he is destined to maintain until the day Palestinians can return home.
Growing up stateless and trapped between two military forces: the Israeli and Lebanese armies, Ahmad and his family, as Palestinians, are constantly under threat in Baddawi. Even as Abdelrazaq depicts Ahmad’s mostly joyful childhood in the Baddawi refugee camp, later juxtaposing it with the greater solemnity of his life in Beirut as a teenager, there is the constant and overbearing threat of the Lebanese Army Headquarters. That is, until 1969 when the camps were freed from army rule.
Statelessness, is a constant motif for Ahmad as well. It shapes his life decisions as he grows older and moves constantly between Beirut and Baddawi, in a bid to outrun the war. This sentiment is amplified when he ultimately decides to attend university in America, having recognized the limited job prospects for Palestinians in Lebanon.
Throughout Baddawi the characters who populate Ahmad’s life are drawn in scant detail with almost generic features, including Ahmad himself, to the point where they appear often as sketches or doodles. This explicitly “cartoonish” style is a deliberate technique used to familiarize an otherwise unfamiliar story to a foreign audience. At the same time, Abdelrazaq’s ubiquitous use of tatreez, traditional floral and geometric patterns used in Palestinian embroidery, to enliven illustrations still anchors Baddawi firmly in Palestinian culture.
Through a medium instantly familiar to a western audience, the use tatreez and the reference to Naji al-Ali, as cultural symbols of Palestine, in Baddawi retain a cultural and historic specificity, but in a way that aims to educate readers on the context. Readers are invited to view the embroidering art as a mechanism for coping with the plight of being refugees in a violent environment, rather than as an exclusionary boundary.
Further, one of Abdelrazaq’s greatest artistic strengths, besides this ease of understandability, is expressing the terror and brutality of the violence inflicted on Palestinian refugees without explicit depictions. Casting soldiers and victims alike as spectral silhouettes, the horrors of war are made no less poignant nor starkly depicted in her renditions.
Baddawi is a deeply personal account, conveying the story of generations of inherited loss. While the novel is split into three sections, each framed within a specific time period, and each one following in chronological order, the reader may find it difficult to decipher exactly when things are happening within each minor time frame. Furthermore, the author’s insistence on the twenty-year time span for a relatively short book, may leave the reader feeling that the story is rushed, or the plot development is weak.
As a pedagogical tool, however, Baddawi beautifully and painfully conveys the realities of Palestinians living in diaspora as a consequence of the Nakba in 1948 and specifically the plight of Palestinian refugees. Even throughout the twenty-year time span, Abdelrazaq still expertly balances Ahmad’s personal stories with the broader realities of war and displacement.