Rarely does another city spark such passion, from ecstasy to ire to insanity. From the historical, political, religious arena to the deeply personal, contemporary Jerusalem juxtaposes physical beauty with noxious tension.
Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle’s new graphic novel, “Chroniques de Jerusalem” (“Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City”) looks like the work of a gormless foreigner, yet ultimately this tragi-comic description of the year he recently spent in the city is impartial in all its surrealistic mania.
Trained in animation, Delisle now focuses on the successful comics that he sketches in pencil and ink. “Jerusalem” is his twelfth (and longest) effort and his fourth travelogue.
The artist said that when he moved to occupied Jerusalem he wasn’t particularly interested in the Middle East, nor the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He had done most of his traveling in Asia and his first two comic-book travelogues were about China and North Korea, where he taught animation. His more recent books about Burma and now Jerusalem develop the author’s autobiographical self as the partner of Nadège, who works for Doctors without Borders.
“We were supposed to go to Tokyo and only found out a month before that we were to go to Jerusalem,” said Delisle in a telephone interview from his home in Montpellier, France. “I didn’t mind. I thought it would be a change. I didn’t know much about the conflict. I thought it would be interesting and I would learn. For me, it’s always a strange experience, it’s simple for [his partner]: she works.”
Delisle’s character is a good-natured, stay-at-home dad, who juggles the logistics of moving to a new country, food shopping and young children while trying to get his head around the complicated situation in which he’s landed, recording everything in a sketchbook.
When the Delisle family arrives they are housed in Beit Hanina, in Arab East Jerusalem where most of the NGOs are based. He takes his daughter for a stroll and discovers overflowing rubbish bins and badly maintained roads without any parks for children. He notes that Jerusalem hadn’t looked like this in guidebooks.
He quickly finds parallel systems in the city: Israeli buses go to all neighborhoods except the Arab ones. Arab minibuses only go to Arab neighborhoods. In Beit Hanina, residents pay taxes for water and rubbish removal but don’t get the same service as in West Jerusalem. When Delisle goes to West Jerusalem, he finds the cafés, parks and markets that he’d imagined. When he returns with his family to show them, it’s Saturday and the entire city has shut down. “It reminds me of Sundays in Pyongyang [North Korea],” he remarks.
Delisle’s settling-in vignettes provide a nice sketch of the cultural setting.
When Delisle finds all the Palestinian shops closed one Thursday, he has a hilarious experience trying to shop in the enormous supermarket in an Israeli settlement not far from Beit Hanina.
NGO acquaintances have told him not to shop in settlements because “it encourages them.” Guilt-ridden yet drawn by the allure of a bountiful supermarket, Delisle is asked at the entrance if he has a gun. Once inside he spots his favorite cereal, Shredded Wheat, but he manages to tear himself away without buying anything. Then, on his way out he walks by three Palestinian women loaded down with shopping bags.
Delisle works to see the situation from all sides. He ventures to ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, where he sees men drunk during a Jewish holiday, and to the West Bank but he persistently fails in his attempts to get to Gaza. He travels to the Qalandiya checkpoint with a group of Israeli peace activists who monitor Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank. Here, he is confronted with the vision of the wall for the first time, which becomes a fixture in many of his drawings.
During his three trips to Al-Khalil (Hebron), he impartially records Israeli settlers’ devastating occupation and a settler guide’s ruthless propaganda.
The Delisle family is in Jerusalem for the start of Israel’s December 2008 attack on Gaza. Nadège had been stuck in Gaza earlier in the year. When she calls Delisle to say she has been detained, he asks if there aren’t any other ways to get out. “Ah, I see. There’s only one way to get to Israel ...”
How do the people in Gaza get out? he then asks. “Ah, they never get out, I see ...”
He asks whether she’s not inventing an excuse to party in Gaza. “Ah okay, they’re not having much fun there ...”
Delisle manages to explain the details of the conflict and in particular the Gaza war in a clear, dispassionate manner that brings home the horror.
“I go slowly, I’m a slow learner, I like things when they are clear and visible. I thought I’d make little arrows, it’s an efficient way of showing a complicated situation,” said Delisle, referring to numerous diagrams and maps that appear in the book.
The artist juxtaposes descriptions of the attack with his daily life.
“Dad, what’s war?” asks his 5-year-old son. He and his friend Nicolai, also a househusband, whose wife works at the Red Cross, take the children to the beach. “Hey, aren’t those military planes, the ones that have been flying over us for a while?” “They’re going towards Gaza if I’m not mistaken ...”
“That’s my natural way of telling a story,” Delisle said. “If it was too serious I don’t think I would have had the courage to get through 300 pages. I need to have anecdotes and little situations. I want to add everything that is weird.
“I like to talk about small things. I’m not very attracted to politics,” continued Delisle. “When I do my books I have the feeling I’m writing a really long postcard to my mom.”
Delisle also records his experiences running comic book workshops for art students in Nablus, Ramallah and Tel Aviv. In occupied Nablus he is struck by the poverty of knowledge on the subject due to his students’ general state of imprisonment. In Ramallah, his students are dynamic and informed, while in Tel Aviv the general level is excellent.
The apogee of mad humor comes together when Delisle takes his car to the Palestinian mechanic.
The mechanic asks him if he would like his windshield replaced with glass or plastic.
“Uhh ... glass,” Delisle responds, asking if plastic windshields are a kind of new technique.
The mechanic tells him the settlers prefer plastic windshields because they are more resistant when rocks are thrown at them.
“You mean settlers come here to get their cars repaired?” the comic-book artist asks, flabbergasted.
“Yes,” the mechanic replies. “We’re open on Saturdays and besides, it’s cheaper [here] than [it is] in the settlements.”
One of the moments in the book when Deslisle is the most frightened is when a settler picks up a rock to throw at him while he is traveling in a Doctor’s Without Borders van.
In the end, said Delisle, “I’m not too crazy about the place, there’s too much tension. There’s the beauty of the old city but when it’s packed with soldiers and rifles the magic goes away.”
He keeps watch on the news coming from the countries he’s traveled to, such as North Korea or Burma. But when it comes to the Middle East, “you’re still going to hear about Israeli politics even if you don’t want to hear about it,” he says.
“Chroniques de Jerusalem” is published by Editions Delcourt in French. The English translation, “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City,” will be published later this year by Jonathan Cape in the U.K. and Drawn & Quarterly in the U.S. and Canada.