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Dodging Bullets in the Lebanese Civil War

French-Lebanese graphic novelist discusses past, current projects with students

French-Lebanese graphic novelist Zeina Abirached walks through her work with Duke students.  Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography
French-Lebanese graphic novelist Zeina Abirached walks through her work with Duke students. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

Before she even finished grade school, French-Lebanese graphic novelist Zeina Abirached had mastered the art of avoiding snipers' bullets in her war-torn East Beirut neighborhood. To walk two blocks from her parents' apartment to her grandmother's house, Abirached and her brother had to weave through buildings and alleyways and sprint across the street to safety.

Despite the danger, Abirached represents the journey in her autobiographical graphic novel "A Game for Swallows" as a map dotted with humorous annotations in the margins.

"I think adults have a more restricted views of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990)," Abirached said. "A child's innocence and humor tells so many different stories."

Now based in Paris, Abirached discussed her work based on her childhood in Lebanon at a workshop on Tuesday afternoon hosted by the Center for French and Francophone Studies (CFFS).

CFFS Director Helen Solterer worked with faculty on campus, including French Language Program Director Clare Tufts and Middle Eastern Studies professor miriam cooke, to organize Abirached's residency at Duke. Their aim is to introduce students to innovative writers and artists who are writing in French around the world.

"As a bilingual writer who chooses to write in French, she is a remarkable example of those whose audiences are quickly worldwide," Solterer said. "And as a Lebanese woman, she is on the forefront of the current generation whose writing is marked deeply by growing up during wartime."

Born in 1981, in the middle of the civil war that ravaged Lebanon for 15 years, Zeina Abirached grew up in an apartment building in East Beirut, right next to the wall that divided the city. Although this period was very traumatic for Beirut, Abirached said she wants to demonstrate to her readers that family life and daily routines can go on even in extraordinary circumstances.

"That's what I wanted to show in my books -- the other side of the civil war," Abirached said. "Not all the destruction and the official statistics but how normal people tried to manage during a difficult time."

Abirached also talked about her current project, "Beirut Partita," a retelling of her great-grandfather's quest to invent a piano that could play both Western and Eastern music, which is generally considered impossible because Eastern music uses more notes than are physically on the keyboard of a Western piano. Departing from this "bilingual" piano, Abirached's new book explores issues of Eastern and Western identity in Lebanese culture, where French and Arabic are the most commonly spoken languages.

"All my books are, in a way, about identity," Abirached said. "I feel that I am between two cultures. And music and art is a way to find a solution to the issues of identity."

Sophomore and Intermediate French student Ada Aka said she especially enjoyed meeting Abirached in person after having read "Beyrouth Catharsis" in class.

"At the end, she not only signed our books but also talked with each of us and drew cute little pictures in them," Aka said. "After attending the event, I was able to visualize her childhood memories in my head to better understand life in Beirut."

For more upcoming events hosted by the Center for French and Francophone Studies, visit their website.

For more information about Zeina Abirached's work, click here.