Bye Bye BabylonA comic review article by: Jason Sacks
Imagine you're 7 years old and you're out for lunch one lazy day with your extended family. You live in one of the most beautiful places in the world -- the Switzerland, the Paris, the Las Vegas, the Monaco and the Acapulco of the Middle East all in one. Life is good for your upper-middle-class family.
Until that fateful day.
April 13, 1975 is the day that everything changed in Beirut, the day that the peace and sanity of this wonderful city literally exploded. Suddenly insanity was the order of the day, AK-47s the key currency, and a life of happiness was replaced by a life of terror.
That's the story that Lamia Ziadé tells in her new illustrated memoir Bye Bye Babylon, a chronicle of her life in Beirut that spans from those bucolic days when the city was at peace to the days four years later, when the city was in ruins and death and destruction were an everyday occurrence. It's a harrowing story by its nature, a story that's hard for most of us in the US to understand, but it did happen to young Lamia Ziadé, who tells her personal story through a child's eyes.
The narrative of this book is compulsively compelling. It's hard to imagine a more intense or frightening experience for a child than to live through these events. Ziadé does a nice job of telling this story in a unique way -- rather than being told in graphic novel form, like a Joe Sacco or Guy Delisle book, Ziadé intersperses short text pieces with deliberately loose and evocative art pieces. This gives the book a bit of a storybook quality to it -- which is of course ideal for a story about a child.
The slightly lurching nature of this book, though, also defuses the drama. There's a sequence in which Ziadé's parents are trapped at the Cavalier Hotel and unable to escape to the family home where Lamia and the rest of her family are waiting. The parents can't leave because of the mortal threat of assassination, so they are trapped at the hotel with no phone and no other way of communicating with their kids. Lamia and her family are terrified -- but this mini-drama doesn't actually build to a payoff. Instead a few pages later the parents are back at home and normalcy is restored. Perhaps their escape wasn't dramatic, but the lack of a payoff to the scene makes it preceding moments less compelling.
We get lots of anecdotes in this book and some pretty compelling scenes. But the book doesn't quite hold together as a whole. Still, I enjoyed traveling to an exotic place like Beirut, despite the war, and found the artist's sincerity interesting.
I have to admit that I'm a sucker for a good travelogue comic, whether it's by Craig Thompson, Guy Delisle, Rutu Modan, Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi or Jesse Lonergan. After all, travel broadens the soul, whether in print or in person. We get to see a new place, find out about some interesting people, and experience something that we wouldn't otherwise see. And when war is involved, these sorts of comics help the reader to understand those incomprehensible events more deeply and build our empathy and interest in the events.
And while Lamia Ziadé's work isn't quite as memorable as Sacco's Palestine or Delisle's Pyongyang, it's still an interesting first-hand exploration of a fascinating event. I hope that there will be a second goodbye to Babylon because these events are just fascinating.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.