BEIRUT: Observing from half a world away, one Lebanese expatriate has noticed some eccentricities in her home country that she has sometimes found difficult to put into words.
A graphic designer by training, Zina Mufarraj registers her observations through words accompanied by pictures, which she most recently accumulated into a comic book, “Ikht hal balad, chou b7ebbo” (roughly “Curse this country, how I love it”).
The childhood home that she visits once a year is for Mufarrij a source of both love and frustration. With its outdated infrastructure and joie de vivre, she sees it as a home to misguided but loveable people trying – and often failing – to be accepted within their own society via such status symbols as luxury cars, designer clothes, prestigious jobs and hired help.
“When you’re outside of Lebanon and you come back to Beirut, you start noticing weird things,” she says, “differences between people in Lebanon and the rest of the world.”
Five years ago Mufarraj began writing a blog, recording the observations that express her love-hate relationship with Lebanon, and she garnered a following among fellow expatriates.
She was prompted to write a comic book on the sad and humorous dysfunctions of her home country by news of the 2010 Ethiopian Airlines plane crash off the coast of Beirut, which brought to light the plight of domestic workers in Lebanon.
“I saw a Lebanese woman crying because her maid had died in the crash. It made me emotional,” says Mufarraj, in town for a two-week-long visit from Montreal, “and it made me realize that people who come here to work are part of the family without us knowing it. But we take them for granted and we don’t treat them well.”
With the book, which she hopes to be the first in a series, Mufarraj wants to give fellow Lebanese an honest critique of their society, using a sympathetic and relatable cast of characters.
There’s Zina, the author who loves to draw; Madam, a mother of three who likes to entertain at home with the help of her maid; Coussouma, a migrant worker employed by Madam; M3allim, a truck driver, plumber and electrician; and Anabelle (note the Arabic-French play on words), a self-centered fashionista with fake boobs, hair and lips.
Some have asked her why she chose to create a book at a time when so much reading and browsing – including comics – is done online. Indeed, some of Mufarraj’s work has been circulated, often uncredited, on Facebook.
She maintains, with a hint of irony, that “a book is something you can touch. Even when the electricity goes out you can read with a flashlight ... I wanted the characters to be tangible.”
Some readers have told her they see familiar faces in her book. One 10-year-old family member to whom she showed the book found that her aunt resembled Anabelle, and told her as much.
Mufarraj is already brainstorming material for future comic books, and is planning on further developing her original cast of characters. She is thinking of having Anabelle open her own business. “Maybe she’ll see [her interests in beauty and fashion] don’t give her a sense of purpose.”
As for Madam, she might go on a diet. “Will she be able to resist the knafeh? We don’t know yet.”
She is also thinking of having Coussouma fall in love, an opportunity to explore the social constraints of a domestic worker, such as lack of privacy and free time.
And get ready for an alien invasion of Lebanon. “I want to introduce an alien as a new character. Why not? He’ll try to understand how people function. He’ll try to fit in. Maybe he’ll buy a big car.”
Mufarraj also wants to explore more themes of her home country’s ostentatiousness – like kids who wear fancy clothes to school and over-the-top Lebanese weddings.
“I’m not pointing fingers,” Mufarraj says. “I love Lebanon.” But she does admit that she has “mixed feelings” about being back home. “Home is here, but home is not relaxation.”
Returning home to the hectic streets of Hamra, Mufarraj says she need only look out the window to find material for her comics, and in her own way she also brings comic relief to those around her dealing with the same frustrations.
“I grew up in the Civil War. I didn’t have a happy childhood,” says Mufarraj. “I used to hide in the basement with my neighbors when the bombs hit. I’m not still friends with them, but we shared tough moments together.
“Everyone you see on the street has experienced some of this,” she adds. “The outcome is just weird people, very emotional people who love their country. I wanted to depict this. Lebanese people in and outside Lebanon are all the same. They love and hate it at the same time.”
Zina Mufarraj’s “Ikht hal balad, chou b7ebbo,” published by Zina Comics & Graphics inc., is available at Beirut area bookshops and at Amazon.com.