A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached

14351069Nonfiction — print. Translated from the French. Graphic Universe, 2012. Originally published 2007. 188 pgs. Library copy.

Born to a Lebanese Christian family in 1981, the Lebanese Civil War has been a constant part of Abirached’s life and it seems almost normal that the city of Beirut is cut into two – East Beirut for Christians and West Beirut for Muslims – by bricks and sandbags. Snipers and artillery bombings keep people from leaving in the windowless rooms of their homes; soldiers and checkpoints keep people from traveling across the dividing line between the two Beiruts.

Abirached’s short memoir documents one evening during the middle of the war when her parents fail to return one afternoon from a visit to her grandmother on the other half of the city. Neighbors come to sit with Abirached and her brother, to distract them from the bombings and the fear with games and stories as they wait and hope and pray for her parents to return unharmed. Others offer to go searching for Abirached’s family putting themselves in danger in order to help maintain one family through the perils of war.

Abirached alternates between the past and the present as she introduces the history of her neighbors as they enter the apartment one by one. It offers a taste of the larger picture of war and how it impacts everyone in different ways, but her main characters – her and her brother – are largely ignored as they sit in silence. This certainly reflects how children in scary situations behaved yet I found it created a barrier between me and the story she was trying to tell. It is not quite a history book; not quite a memoir.

The style employed by Abirached in her memoir reminded me of that used by Marjane Satrapi; her comics utilize the same curls and heavy inking I remember from Satrapi’s memoir. I found it difficult to imagine the small foyer Abirached and her neighbors were confined to, particularly in relation to the rest of the apartment complex. It seemed too small to hold all those people yet too large to be called a foyer. Although, one of my favorite panels was the one where she documented how the threat of the unseen snipers slowly pulled the family out of the rooms in the rest of their apartment.

Her choice to focus on a single night was a rather curious one. It certainly could not capture the scope of the entire civil war and there is little context and history to learn from this memoir, which I was chagrined to find because I know so little about the Lebanese Civil War. However, one night demonstrates how war can interrupt something as simple as seeing an elderly relative, how events in one’s life can change within only a few hours.

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