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Guy Delisle’s “Jerusalem”: Peering Through the Veil of Orientalism

Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle’s latest effort,

“Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City
Guy Delisle
Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2012
336 pgs, $24.95

Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle’s latest effort, “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City,” is a mix of his earlier diary, journalism and travel comics and it features the strengths and weaknesses of each of those genres. Delisle draws “Jerusalem” chronologically with most diary entries, anecdotes and examinations filling between one and five pages. He uses a subdued color palate heavy with blues, browns and grays and only rarely bold contrasts, a soft and compelling visual touch. He draws a rough, organic line that is familiar and welcoming, and his characters are mostly drawn with a generalist pen that allows an everyman engagement to Delisle’s cartooning. The exception is how he draws himself as a quick scratch with dots for eyes.

“Jerusalem” starts with a telling illustration of two maps that situate the volume’s geography. The first shows Palestine/Israel on a map of the world. The second is a regional map with lines between Syria and Jordan and Syria and Lebanon, but only dotted lines define Israel’s borders. Israel has never declared its borders, making Delisle’s a clever portrayal, but he also includes the occupied Syrian Golan Heights as part of Israel. “Jerusalem” has several such moments where Delisle’s innocence of all things Palestine and Israel offers both missteps and insights. We are sometimes so immersed in contexts we are familiar with that we cannot get the perspective necessary to see very simple and obvious things that an outsider would understand at first glance. Often though, the outsider might not “get” it at all.

Delisle’s story starts with the flight to Ben Gurion airport. His partner works for Médicins sans Frontières (MSF) and will be based in Jerusalem for a year. He surveys the airport in admiration, “The airport is ultra-modern,” he notes. “A year here will be a nice change from our usual Third-World destinations,” (8). MSF provides them with housing in Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem, and Delisle is awoken by the Muslim call to prayer early the first morning. He uses the opportunity to have a good look at their apartment and finds remnants of previous tenants, all of whom were expatriates like himself (11-12). The observations are amusing, but they point to a recurring theme in “Jerusalem”: Delisle is first and foremost informed about Palestine and Palestinians by the European expatriates – NGO employees, journalists and diplomats – and Israelis he encounters rather than by Palestinians (15, 17, 32-33, 38-41, 73, et al.). He takes this to an (unintentionally) absurdist level in his four tours of the southern West Bank city of Hebron. The first is with a European guide and Palestinian driver from MSF (116-121), the second with a French woman living in Hebron (189-90), the third with the left-wing Israeli group Shovrim Shtika (“Breaking the Silence,” 281-286) and the last with right-wing Israeli settlers (305-312). Four tours of a Palestinian city and only in the first are Palestinians allowed to even participate somewhat in telling their own story. Gayatri Spivak famously asked, “Can the subaltern speak?” Delisle mostly answers this “No.” This is both an ethical failure and an insightful look at how people – especially though not exclusively from the Global North – learn about Palestine and the Palestinian liberation struggle without hearing from Palestinians.

Delisle’s at times brings a specifically North American reading of Palestine. He starts his first trip to West Jerusalem with a panel titled “Going West” illustrated with a horse-drawn covered wagon (23). The horse-drawn covered wagon is an archetypical image from the European settler colonization of Turtle Island and its eventual transformation into North America. It’s hard to think of a better image to show leaving the indigenous Palestinian area and heading to the Israeli settler society in West Jerusalem. Delisle arrives in West Jerusalem and notices immediately the infrastructural disparity between Palestinians and Israelis. “Ah! Real sidewalks,” he draws, “Ah! An outdoor café!” (25). The public parks and “garbage cans that aren’t overflowing” starkly contrast with East Jerusalem’s “nonexistent sidewalks, cratered roads” and other infrastructural poverty that “didn’t look anything like [the Jerusalem of] the travel guides,” (14). He bonds with Nikolai, a Danish expat, over contempt for the East Jerusalem infrastructure while walking with his children one evening. “It isn’t much of a neighborhood, is it?” says Nikolai as he looks around. “There’s trash everywhere!” As Nikolai, Delisle and the children walk together, Delisle notes, “We hit it off instantly,” (34).

“Jerusalem” at times suffers from poor translation (either from Delisle’s original French text to English or from Arabic to Delisle’s pencil). “Arab minivans” (18) are later correctly called “Arab minibuses,” (23). Throughout the text, Delisle calls the hijab (a headscarf) a “veil” (58, 62, 136, et al.). But he himself makes veils (niqabs) from hijabs by removing the faces of women wearing them. Delisle’s generalist line and panels with numerous small characters (49, 213, et al.) explain the lack of faces in some instances. But Delisle often draws women with hijabs larger than characters without hijabs, including some wearing other head coverings, yet still lacking a face (18, 43, 58, 62-64, et al.). It happens enough to consider it a pattern. Who is doing the veiling here?

Delisle is an Orientalist cartoonist well beyond his veiling of Muslim women. He draws Palestinian children playing with toy guns running around the neighborhood. “Given the context,” he reflects, “I’d probably give them Lego bricks instead,” (68). Sure, children playing war (or even playing armed resistance) is viscerally unsettling, but how is this worse in the Palestinian context? Delisle’s home context is a history of settler colonialism including massacres of First Nations people. Surely, Canadian settler society children playing with guns is at least as troubling as Palestinian children doing the same. Instead, “given the context,” Delisle Orientalizes Palestinians and, much less frequently, to Israelis. Indeed, Delisle contrives a context that limits his imagination. In one sequence, Delisle and the Alliance Française are organizing comics events in a few Palestinian cities. “Who knows?” Delisle says, “Maybe we’ll discover the next Marjane Satrapi?” (191). Will they “discover” – Europeans inevitably “discover,” never “encounter” – an Azeri Iranian socialist from urban secular Muslim society now living in France? Or is it that Satrapi, as opposed to say, Chris Ware or Harvey Pekar, is famous and from “that part of the world”?

This is classic travel writing, a genre that rivals anthropology in Orientalist production. Delisle’s obvious talent for observation means he occasionally subverts Orientalism, too. He draws Passover with a tongue-in-cheek panel saying “Passover (Jewish Easter),” (240). He then illustrates a fun (if, um, imprecise) description and engagement of Passover through his culturally Christian eye, providing a bridge to engage traditions that are not his own (240-241). Contrast this with his portrayal of a Palestinian neighbor’s wedding in Beit Hanina where men were dancing together (76-77). “I don’t know how much beer I’d need to drink to dance with one of these mustachioed guys,” he says while looking down from his window. “What a strange party.” He’s clearly poking fun at his own perceptions and discomfort, but it is still the Palestinians that are othered. Examples of othering abound such as when he is deeply unnerved by a Palestinian operating a bulldozer in West Jerusalem, invoking a single 2008 attack (52-53), but is merely annoyed when confronted by armed Israeli soldiers (187-188) despite Israeli soldiers offering a decades-long and ever present deployment of violence (suspended and spectacular, both of which Delisle witnesses).

Delisle is perhaps at his best when illustrating the whimsical and mundane (or things that should be mundane, but aren’t). A tremendous sequence starting on Yom Kippur effectively builds drama, struggle and comedy into a narrative of trying to sketch (78-82). It’s an exceptional piece of cartooning even in such a quality volume as “Jerusalem.” He later crosses the Qalandiya checkpoint (now the major interchange between Jerusalem and Ramallah) on foot for the first time and both gains and offers a window into the bewildering and dehumanizing experience of crowded lines, bars, turnstiles and armed Israeli soldiers that is a daily experience for many Palestinians (104-105). It is another mundane activity, getting from point A to a nearby point B, that is full of drama because his encounter with Israel’s apartheid – checkpoints being part of hafrada (Hebrew for separation) – infrastructure. Another exemplary sequence is one of his sketching trips. He spots a turtle, imagines his children’s joy about his return with the turtle, marks the spot and goes off to sketch. Upon his return the turtle has departed, he searches and calls for it (234-235). It’s a simple, effective and very funny sequence and it brings to life beautifully the minor hopes, successes and failures of daily life.

Delisle’s prior ignorance of Palestine can also produce powerful sequences. He visits a small Bedouin village south of Hebron and, like all first-time visitors, is shocked by the level of persecution. The Israeli Army blocks the roads and demolishes their homes, and Israeli settlers harass and attack the community (125-128). It’s a deeply moving sequence that ends with two poignant landscape panels of Delisle’s van leaving and an Israeli military helicopter flying over. He is also surprised by the Israeli media’s political discourse. While reading the paper, he reflects, “If you’re used to more restrained criticism of Israel and its government, it’s almost shocking,” (134-135). He somewhat overstates the case, but it’s both a beautifully drawn – the voyeuristic journalists in silhouette especially – and informative anecdote.

Delisle captures well the intensity, urgency and distant (though close geographically) horror of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s December 2008 – January 2009 attack on the Gaza Strip (158-172). Delisle writes primarily from Jerusalem or, as ever, from expat informants, but does a superb job describing Cast Lead’s asymmetry as well as his horror at both the war and the normalcy of Jerusalem life while Gaza was attacked just a few dozen miles down the road. He describes well this detachment from both the war and the normalcy in two panels depicting a Gregorian calendar New Year’s celebration for expats (161). The first shows a night-time gathering through a window at a short distance. The second zooms out to a scene full of somber darkness while the New Year’s countdown completes.

He follows Cast Lead with one of “Jerusalem’s” strongest sequences depicting the return to peace for Israelis and the continuation of war for Palestinians. Nikolai and Delisle are at the beach with their children right after Cast Lead. Relaxing in their beach chairs in a panel straight from a Corona commercial, Nikolai observes Israeli military planes in the sky. “How come they’re flying towards Gaza? I thought the operation was over.” Delisle replies, “There’s still a few airstrikes here and there,” (175). It’s very powerful cartooning.

“Jerusalem” sometimes offers a keen outsider’s insight. Late in the book, Delisle is traveling in the West Bank. and struggling with the map, “It’s hard to tell if it’s in the West Bank, since the maps don’t show the separation wall. Looking at them, you’d think Greater Israel was already a done deal,” (289). This is a moment of forehead-smacking clarity, something painfully obvious to an outsider, but very often lost to closer observers caught in the paradigm of one state/two state solutions and the :viability” of an independent Palestinian state. Mostly, the insight challenges the perception of “Greater Israel” as a project of a peripheral, fundamentalist and extreme Israeli right wing, not as something already accomplished by mainstream Israeli political parties and 130 years of Zionist colonization of Palestine.

“Jerusalem” provides a series of illuminating, entertaining and infuriating stories. Delisle proves once again that he is an immensely talented and innovative cartoonist and storyteller. His political analysis leaves much to be desired, his Orientalism is unforgivable and he regularly mangles history. For readers unfamiliar with Palestine, it will offer a lot of new and challenging content if mostly from the comforting voices of Westerners. Yet, his talent for capturing the everyday trials of life and his efforts to illustrate trauma, violence and normalcy, as well as showing how so many people learn about Palestine, still makes “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City” an easily recommended volume.

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