PARIS: What was it all for? This may be one of the most terrifying questions about Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War. The war that robbed people of their lives, childhoods and peaceful retirements has inspired countless paintings, photographs, books, plays and films. The question is at the core of “Bye Bye Babylone,” Lamia Ziadé’s new memoir-cum-graphic novel.
The Paris-based artist and book illustrator was seven years old in 1975. “I liked the Bazookas my mother would buy for Walid and me at Spinney’s in Ramlet al-Bayda,” reads the first line of “Bye Bye Babylone.” Spinney’s supermarket was “a real paradise that would go up in smoke like everything else.”
Although certainly from a privileged background, Ziadé spent her entire childhood and adolescence in Lebanon during the war. She narrates the book from the point of view of the child that she then was, with great nostalgia for the pre-war Beirut she remembers – the travel agency with the big model Pan Am plane in the window or Ajami, where her father took her to eat mhallabieh.
Ziadé is also nostalgic for what she never had a chance to experience – the Paon Rouge Club, or the Roxy, Radio City, Dunia, Métropole, Empire and Rivoli cinemas that she dreamed about. She admits that she partly wrote about the former landmark cinemas because she really wanted to draw the façades.
She places her parents in the category of “suicidal Middle Easterners,” who, although they had an apartment in Paris and the opportunity to leave, remained in Lebanon for the entire war. While describing how the militias took to violence with gusto, Ziadé’s feelings of bafflement come through forcefully. This is compounded by what, as an adult, she could not understand either: her parents’ choice to remain in Lebanon.
“They were very attached. And my mother is a bit reckless,” she shrugged. “Once a year they would leave the country together and leave us [children] in Lebanon. Later, when I went to Paris to study at 18 they would have me come home for every single holiday. They must have thought I was safer in Lebanon than in the Paris streets with druggies and boys.”
Writing and illustrating a book about her childhood has been at the back of Ziadé’s mind for at least twenty years. She said she “didn’t have the courage to jump into it” before. But with the political events of 2005 and 2006 “I thought maybe I’d stop doing superficial stuff like women with their legs spread open … ”
She is referring to her mixed-media artwork since 2001, which – originating from her illustrations for a book of erotica – has more often than not included pop variations on the theme of Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.”
Besides a rocky phase during the project when her first publisher went bankrupt, “Bye Bye Babylone” took Ziadé three years of intensive research and was, she says, an education in itself. “I discovered the political aspect of the war. I would begin to read something and then I’d go off on a tangent and uncover something else.”
Sources that proved invaluable to her were, among others, Joseph Chami’s “Days of Wrath 77-82,” René Chamussy’s “Chroniques d’une Guerre” and L’Orient le Jour newspaper’s compendium of wartime front pages, which not only conveyed the atmosphere of the time but, just as importantly for Ziadé’s work, contained advertisements. Ads, labels, brands are all aspects of design that have been a part of Ziadé’s collages, especially present in her books over the years.
In “Bye Bye Babylone,” Ziadé joyfully paints in gouache products from Spinney’s – Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks, Planters cocktail peanuts and Kraft rainbow flavor marshmallows. She cheerfully continues on to catalogue the weapons used by the various armed factions: the Kalachnikov, the Slavia, the Fal, the M16, RPGs, and Russian grenades (called rummaneh, pomegranates). “Drawing the weapons was the most difficult,” said Ziadé. With the help of a Lebanese friend who “specialized [in] and collects weapons” she painstakingly drew them from photographs he sent.
Writing the book was not easy either. Ziadé had illustrated many books, but this was her first attempt at writing. “My friends helped a lot,” she concedes, “and I had a great editor.”
Although the book has an historical element to it, with the political parties, militias and main events clearly summarized, Ziadé strikes a perfect balance with her childhood memories told in a light but often biting tone.
“We still wanted to believe our country was the Switzerland, the Paris, the Las Vegas, the Monaco and the Acapulco of the Middle East all at once. From the terraces of Raouché or Ain al-Mreisseh, where we would sometimes go have a banana split, you couldn’t see the Shiite slums or the Palestinian camps. And besides, the sunglasses stopped you from seeing what was dirty.”
Ziadé’s pictures of the militias in the 1970s are hilarious. She describes their penchant for fashion and how the regular looting of shops contributed to their fanciful attire: boas, Hawaiian shirts and masks for Carnival become combat-wear. Ziadé’s work is pop, but artistic; she never goes overboard into kitsch and some of her paintings of Beirut going up in flames are unquestionably painterly.
The night bombings are terrifying for Ziadé as is the apocalyptic vision of her neighborhood after 100 days of fighting. “Oh don’t worry about the children, they don’t notice a thing!” Ziadé overhears her mother telling her grandmother on the telephone.
As the war drags on, the reader senses the civilians’ battle fatigue.
“The war during the 1980s was so atrocious and so bleak, maybe it was because by then I was an adolescent but the wild side of the 70s was over, there were horrific car bombs and we just didn’t understand what was going on,” said Ziadé.
Her grandfather Antoun’s fabric shop in the souq where women bought material for wedding and evening dresses has long since been shuttered and abandoned and while at first her grandfather keeps busy watering the plants on his terrace, soon there is no more water and his plants die. The truck driver, Charbel, in Ziadé’s father’s Christian village tells the horrified Mr. Ziadé about how he ties up and drags the bodies of Muslims behind his truck.
The summer of 1990 is one of the deadliest ever and even in the Ziadé family village of Kattine they have to remain inside the house with sandbags in the middle of the living room. Ziadé is 22 and already living in Paris but her life until then has only been the war.
Ziadé wrote “Bye Bye Babylone” “for people of my generation or older who knew the places I described. It’s much more about nostalgia than actually passing something on.”
Her children asked her if everything she had written about had really happened. Mostly, though, they were “happy that I was doing something else besides drawing naked women.”
“Bye Bye Babylone” is published by Denoel Graphic and is available in Beirut bookshops. Lamia Ziadé will be present at the Beirut Book Fair, October 29-November 7.