Monday, August 28, 2017

D&Q: Poppies of Iraq

There's a gentleness to Brigitte Findakly's narrative voice that makes her descriptions of growing up in Iraq, in territory now occupied by ISIL/Daesh, feel understated and restrained. Poppies of Iraq is the third major memoir regarding growing up in the Middle East produced in the west (along with Marjane Satrapi's famous Persepolis, of course, and Riad Sattouf's The Arab of the Future), and it's so much more compact and less focused on tons of personal minutia than those other books. Findakly's past is every bit as painful and shattered as any ex-pat, but it's clear that these events feel a lot more distant to her now.

Co-written and illustrated by her partner Lewis Trondheim and colored by her (she's a professional colorist, not a writer), it has the feel of a fascinating, narrated family album. That's magnified by the chapter-ending photos that she provides of herself and her family. Findakly's narrative is straightforward, as she opts to portray her life and family as ordinary in nearly every sense but also affected by extraordinary times. Her father was a dentist, and it was not unusual at the time in the Middle East for those seeking higher education to obtain it in Europe. Her father met her mother in France, and she returned to Mosul when he was ready to start his practice as well as work for the military. The history of post-World War I Iraq is one of a nation being freed from years of Ottoman Empire rule and a great deal of continued foreign occupation. It is unsurprising that there might be instability in an ancient, proud country after years of colonial interference, and so in Iraq there were military coups and deposed monarchs, all leading up to the Saddam Hussein era.

For Findakly and her family, there were simply long periods of living a relatively carefree and fun life. She discusses going to public school and wanting to learn from the Quran like her friends (even though she was a Christian). There was her best friend who lived next door, with whom she played constantly. Throughout the book, Findakly jumps back and forth in time, revealing the fate of various friends, adding context to relationships that she only became aware of much later, and examining the irony of so many friends having to call her in Paris to make sure she was safe after the latest attack. As her narrative slowly moves forward, she reveals details about how her family was affected by whatever the latest coup was. When Christian-led forces had control of Iraq, her family was feared and mistrusted. When a Muslim-led government was ascendant, there were moments of great danger. In both cases, her father's status as a member of the army saved her family from a potentially harsh fate.

Findakly also addresses her betwixt and between quality as part French, part Iraqi. Her parents were able to use their status to get groceries and supplies that many others didn't have in times of crisis, but Findakly always wanted to have what the other kids were having. It was especially amusing to see her want margarine instead of butter! There were also little side-strips called "In Iraq", wherein Findakly would share a tidbit or two about one of her country's idiosyncrasies, like injections always being considered superior to pills, or families blessed with multiple children sometimes giving a new baby to someone in the family who can't conceive.

Her family left for France for good in 1972 because of the slowly crumbling infrastructure and increasingly corrupt government that was taxing her father unfairly. Findakly reverses the usual "we were happier in the west!" narrative by explaining how difficult her family had it. Her father couldn't practice dentistry in France; her mother's family cut her off when she went to Iraq; and it was difficult for her to adjust to an all-French classroom. Over the years, Findakly could sense growing unhappiness among her relatives when she'd visit, while at the same time she felt more and more comfortable asserting herself in France. She went to protests, she explored her talent in art, and eventually moved out on her own. She still felt drawn to what she considered to be her home country and even considered a drawing gig doing a children's book for the Ministry of Culture until she realized that it would mean working for Saddam Hussein. By the end of the book, her remaining friends and family in Iraq were shells of their former selves after the American occupation and its ensuing chaos, while the family members living abroad had their own prejudices. Findakly, remarkably, was able to empathize with them and their situation and tried not to judge, because everyone was affected by Iraq's chaos differently.

What's interesting about the book is that it's quietly about seizing control of one's own life and agency in subtle, gradual ways. Whereas the young Marjane character in Persepolis is bratty and unbearable as a teen, young Findakly is friendly & agreeable and carries those traits into adulthood. The art by Trondheim well-matches his skill in drawing from life (especially big, sweeping backgrounds) and his friendly, gentle character designs are a snug fit for the fondness she has for her family, extended family and friends. There was not much internal drama for Findakly growing up, and the move to France actually cat a time when she was champing at the bit for more freedom. In terms of what Trondheim did on the page, he used an open-format six panel grid that often collapsed panels. This contributed to the book's light, breezy feel that sometimes masked the more serious aspects of the story. This book doesn't try to be a major event or a profound commentary on the Middle East; its lack of such pretensions and focus on particular details make them all the more memorable and funny, as Findakly tries to connect her own story to any other story about growing up in any kind of unusual environment.

No comments:

Post a Comment