Monday, September 10, 2018

Marguerite Dabaie's The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories

There's a long and winding history to this project that should have been short and sweet. The bulk of this book was actually some of her earliest work, and she self-published two volumes starting in 2007. The first strip in this edition (published by Rosarium), "The Struggle", describes the difficulties she had in getting attention from any publisher from these personal, mostly funny observations about "Growing Up Christian Palestinian In America". She faced rejection after rejection, which led to two great realizations. First, simply putting the word "Palestinian" in a book title in America was enough for a publisher to reject it for fear of it being too controversial or political. While Dabaie doesn't shy away from political issues, the book's real focus is on how specific cultural idiosyncrasies unite us all as people. Every culture has their own food, music, fashion and odd quirks all their own; it's what makes us all human. Dabaie simply wanted to share the complexities of growing up in a culture that she herself was ambivalent about in some ways, especially the sexist underpinnings of it.

There is a certain sense where even the smallest detail in this book is political, however. Palestinians have faced a great deal of erasure as a culture as a way of justifying their expulsion from their homes seventy years ago. Palestinian foods (especially) and other cultural touchstones have been claimed by others, so to declare something as Palestinian and particular to that experience is radical in a sense. Dabaie doesn't waste time addressing common and sticky perceptions of what someone of Palestinian/Arabic origin must be like with"Should/Am", a series of paper-doll cutouts. Dabaie goes from stereotype to stereotype, boldly drawing humor out of a cut-out of "Martyr" ("NOT in Israel To Sight-See!"), alongside "Muslim", "Seductress" (a harem girl costume), "Revolutionary" and finally "Hungry Artist". It's a direct shot across the bow to start a collection, and Dabaie makes her bluntness work by using dark humor and the convention of a child's activity.
The rest of the stories in the book range from light-hearted memories as a child to pointed observations on today's political climate. A story about her family stealing grape leaves from wine orchards (prefaced by the technique on how to roll a grape-leaf) was funny, as was a story about the ways in which Palestinian-Americans go to extremes in connecting with their culture. It's clear that Dabaie is conflicted on a number of matters relating to the Palestinian cause. In a story about hijacker Leila Khaled, it's obvious that Dabaie is drawn to her because she was a woman who acted boldly in the Arab world, and not just because she drew media attention to the Palestinian cause. There's another story called "The BestEST Joke" where someone tells her a Palestinian joke (not knowing that she was half-Palestinian), and she doesn't know how to react. "Arabs and Film" addresses not only the weirdness she felt growing up watching Arabs depicted as terrorist stereotypes in films. Above all else, this is a book about coming to terms with a lifetime of cognitive dissonance.

A book consisting solely of strips about her family would have been a different book in terms of tone, to be sure. The clever structure of music portrays the complexity of her feelings, as musical skill was something she always desired but training was denied to her because she was a girl. The exquisitely drawn "Domestic Goddess" is about expectations that she defied, where she was expected to cook, clean, be quiet and be ready to get married & have babies. Dabaie's hatching is sharp and precise, and her depiction of her Teta (grandmother) as a multi-armed monster in constant whirring motion was reflected in Dabaie's present-day activity as an artist. Dabaie is fond of many aspects of her childhood but doesn't romanticize the people and events that alienated her.
My favorite story in the collection was "NOW", an acidic critique of Americans using the kaffiyeh, a traditional piece of cloth, as a fashion statement. ("Go against 'the man' Now. In style!") I think Dabaie is currently most skilled as a satirist; she has an elegant thin-line in those drawings that really brings out the cutting humor in her concepts. I also admire her simplified, stripped-down style that she used in "The BestEST Joke" and the grape leaf story. The stories where she uses a gray wash are less successful visually, especially compared to her bolder and crisper line elsewhere. Still, Dabaie was bold in trying so many different styles for this collection, and it's clear that she has a strong storytelling voice. Her point of view and experiences are also obviously unusual in the world of comics, but it's not just that point of view that makes her distinctive as an artist. Her brains, sense of humor, and graphic design sense are the engine that manages to link her memories and opinions in such a bold presentation.

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