Sunday, May 20, 2012

Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City

by Guy Delisle

Guy Delisle has made a name for himself by traveling to parts of the world where people suffer under oppressive regimes, and then cartooning about it in a style that is often both sympathetic and critical at the same time.  His first book, Pyongyang, had him stationed for a while in the capital of North Korea, and sharing his observations and musings with us in his disarming, chummy style.  It worked well, as did his later forays to China (Shenzhen), and Burma.

Now, with this work, he turns his eye to Israel, after he and his wife lived for a year in Jerusalem.  Delisle's wife works with Médecins Sans Frontières, and joined their mission to Palestine in 2010.  They stayed in an apartment owned by MSF in East Jerusalem, right across from an Israeli settlement.

What makes Delisle's travel memoirs work so well is that he portrays himself as entering a country with no real preconceptions or specific expectations, and he actually does allow events and the people he meets to dictate his feelings about a place.  Early on, the family (they have two young children with them) is encouraged to avoid shopping in the settlements, as spending money there lends them a sense of legitimacy, and all of the settlements are illegal, if openly permitted.

As the year unfolds, Delisle spends a lot of time traveling the small country looking for good places to sketch (there are a lot of drawings of the Wall between the West Bank and the rest of the country), trying to see all of the historical and religious sites (with varying degrees of success), and meeting people on all sides of the conflict.

Clearly, the Palestinians come out of this book looking the best, but it would be hard to have it any other way.  The settlers are portrayed (accurately, from all other accounts I have read) as racist aggressors and insane fundamentalists, who are seen as an embarrassment to the rest of Israeli society. 

It's hard to read this book without gaining a sense of anger at the injustice of Israel's policies, and also a curiosity as to why the rest of the world is so permitting of the crimes permitted by the state.  There are a lot of books on this topic, but Delisle's is effortlessly accessible and frequently quite funny.  It's a nice comics companion to Sara Glidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, which Vertigo published last year.

Once again, Delisle has succeeded at showing the world a system and a place where people suffer great hardships, although here it is not so much at the whim of a hard-line regime (although it is) but also at the hands of individuals who have been given too great a sense of entitlement and empowerment.

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