Zeina Abirached’s I Remember Beirut looks quite similar to one of the most celebrated graphic novel autobiographies of the last 20 years – Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Both are stories of a young woman growing up in a war-torn, Middle Eastern country. Both use a stark black and white art with strong lines and simple, but stylized forms. And clearly the publishers are attempting to hook the same audience, an apt move on their part. Check out the similarities between the cover of Abirached’s book and the poster for the film adaptation of Satrapi’s autobiography.
However, it becomes obvious early in I Remember Beirut that Abirached’s writing is markedly different than Satrapi’s. While Satrapi tells more of a straight-forward narrative, Abirached’s memoir feels poetic. Each memory opens with “I remember…” Her use of anaphora, that is repetition and parallelism for an accumulated effect, gives the story a circular, insulated atmosphere. Each day of the war feels Sisyphean. Her memories are retold intimately, as though we might have been there too, and we’re all sitting around rebuilding the days of war from our youth.
Some memories are humorous, like the bad haircuts by the stylist who believed curly hair needed to be short. Others are ironically horrifying, like when her brother goes on a shrapnel hunt for his collection. Others are somewhere in between, offering an ironic, evocative, personal anecdote to characterize both her family and the war, like the way her mother would replace the blown out windshield of their car with effusive optimism, and how that got worn down until she just drove around with no shield, as though it were a convertible. Like all good memoirs, I Remember Beirut pulls the reader into the particular moment and place. It is a setting that didn’t exist before this moment, and it will never exist again in quite that same way.
I Remember Beirut is strong entry into the world of non-fiction graphic novels. The art and writing are evocative and poetic, bringing the reader into a child’s view of war. Recommended for fans of Persepolis, Maus, and their ilk.