By Johan F. Krarup
So much has been said about Israel and Palestine — the most hyped conflict in the World — that I started reading Guy Delisle’s new travelogue, Jerusalem – Chronicles from the Holy City, with some trepidation. Would Delisle’s trademark quotidian, low-key journalism work in Jerusalem, the Gordian knot of Middle East conflict? Would his often lively and entertaining, but just as often predictable and chit-chatty approach offer a interesting perspective on the subject? Surprisingly, the answer is YES!
Guy Delisle reported in comics form from various points of interest around the world. Lately, this has been thanks to his wife who works as a coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. Delisle follows her as a dependent, taking care of the kids and ensuring that family life runs smoothly while his wife is a work. He takes this opportunity to work in his sketchbook as often as possible. He has previously done a book on Burma (2007) in this way, while his two books prior to that, Shenzen (2000) and Pyongyang (2003), were the result of his own travels liaising on international animation projects. The present book, however, works his position as the empathetic family man to significantly greater effect, creating what is without a doubt his best comic so far.
The quotidian incidents that form the basis of Delisle’s work are exceptionally well managed in Jerusalem, providing rare insight into the life, thinking, feelings, and ignorance of the man in the street. We learn that the citizens of Jerusalem cannot meaningfully be divided into the three groups of common classification: Jews, Arabs, and Christians. Each of the faiths has its own complex of subdivisions, often intensely at odds with each other. The different groups worshipping at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, fight — and often come to blows! — over the right to use every little nook and cranny of the church and its inventory (seriously: a window sill belongs to one group while the ladder leading to it belongs to another!)
The Jews too are divided into a multitude of groups. It is comical and thought-provoking to read about the different settlers, some of which are extremely aggressive and throw rocks at Palestinian school children, while others have opened their settlements to non-Jews. An Arab coyly explains that he has chosen to live in one of the more tolerant settlements and in effect has contributed to an Arab settlement in inside a Jewish settlement in an Arab area. Delisle is staying in Arab East Jerusalem but shops — guiltily — in a supermarket in a Jewish settlement. Here the selection is much better, something which a fair number of burka-clad Arab women have also discovered, so they also shop at the Jewish settlement.
All these details from ordinary life say something important about Jerusalem, showing it to be a city of marvelous complexity and absurdity. And never are we made to forget the deep conflict underlying it all. The wall winding its way through the West Bank, separating Jews and Arabs, is ubiquitous. Delisle describes in detail how a normal workday is affected by hours spent backed up at various check points.
Jerusalem does not provide a bird’s-eye perspective on the conflict in the way Joe Sacco does it in his excellent Footnotes in Gaza (2010), for example, or the way we have seen it in countless books, articles, films, etc. No, it brings us down to street level and shows us a cartoonist’s efforts to learn the rules of the game.
Stylistically, Delisle has developed an approach to colour that is both elegant and refreshingly efficient. His consistent near-monochrome is broken at key moments by strong yellows or reds, for instance suggesting loud noise and effects of surprise or shock. He also subtly alters his base color from, say, grey to blue in order to separate discrete elements of his narrative.
Jerusalem is a really well composed book. This is the first time I get the sense that his rather superficial approach to documentarism actually works to his advantage, providing real insight into the city. Despite never having been to Jerusalem myself, I feel convinced that I have been given a thorough introduction to this rather peculiar melting pot of a city, divided as it is in ghetto-like areas in which neighbours know nothing about each other. As a surprised Jewish cab driver asks Delisle: “The Arabs have busses?!?”
Guy Delisle, Chroniques de Jérusalem, 334 pp., colour, Paris: Delcourt, 2011 / Jerusalem – Chronicles from the Holy City, 336 pp. colour, Montréal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2012. This review was originally published in Danish at Nummer9.dk. Translation by Matthias Wivel.