The graphic artist Guy Delisle presents the perspective of a curious foreigner as he navigates the minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate in Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City.
The Middle East has always been a magnet for foreign aid workers. Entrenched conflict and routine outbreaks of armed violence mean that cities like Cairo, Jerusalem and Beirut have had a strong presence of engaged foreign nationals.
Jerusalem, in particular, has a unique cross-section of foreigners, from diplomats to journalists, who exist in suspended animation; crossing from Israeli Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem to Palestinian East Jerusalem and Ramallah at will. They constitute the few people with the privileged ability to slip behind Israel's network of walls and checkpoints in order to evaluate what is actually taking place on the ground.
Given the depth of perspective possessed by many of these individuals, one would expect a wealth of memories emanating from their circles. Yet this is not the case. The recent arrival of Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, a graphic novel by the talented Canadian comic-book artist Guy Delisle, is a welcome diversion from this silence.
Delisle has a fortunate position, enjoyed by few. His partner works for Doctors Without Borders and jumps from posts in North Korea to Gaza. He dutifully follows, taking care of their two small children and stealing time to sketch the unique cities he learns for short bursts of time. With the eye of an artist and the inquisitiveness of a journalist, Delisle places himself and his journey at the centre of the cities he documents. The result in Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is a rare glimpse behind the headlines at the stark contours of life in the region.
Given the intensely scripted narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the perspective of a curious foreigner, with no particular allegiance, affords the reader a perspective steeped in the flow of life, yet cognisant of all the difficulty associated with everything from movement to water access.
Delisle's choice of medium, the graphic novel, highlights his genuine curiosity as he explores his surroundings from his home in East Jerusalem. Simple tasks, such as commuting to and from his child's nursery in West Jerusalem, take on a wondrous quality which invariably highlights the general absurdity of how life functions between occupied Palestinian and Israeli Jerusalem. With the kids at school, he roams the city, sketching everything from holy sites to the heaps of refuse that clog the streets of his neighbourhood.
However, the narrative of Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City does not shy away from the controversial aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. Delisle repeatedly visits the West Bank city of Hebron, one of the most divided in the conflict, where combat soldiers detail exactly how they were told to control the Palestinian population. While the historical details of Hebron's violent history are presented clearly, Delisle depicts exactly how history is used for selective purposes.
There is an unmistakable sense of surprise apparent at every turn in the story that Delisle weaves from his experience. As soon as he arrives in East Jerusalem, with its dusty streets and utter lack of municipal services, the author scratches his head in wonder. Jerusalem was not supposed to be like this.
After travelling to Europe for a comics conference and narrowly missing his flight to Tel Aviv due to incessant questioning by airport security staff, he again is left with questions about Israel's treatment of non-Jews. Is this really how Israel behaves? Throughout the year his book chronicles, Delisle becomes uncomfortably aware of the gulf between the Israel of his Western imagination and that of reality.
Despite the turmoil associated with the situation, the subtle magic of this conflicted space is captured with a touch of humour and a light touch where needed.
On the Jewish holiday of Purim, he finds ultra-orthodox Jews, generally stoic people, embracing the Biblical directive of partying in the streets. He befriends graphic artists in Ramallah preparing to travel to London in search of careers because the design studios of Tel Aviv are off limits. He finds life flourishing despite the depressing situation created by the status quo of the conflict.
Too often, international observers like Delisle, who travel seamlessly between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, are constrained to report what they experience. Editorial lines and diplomatic protocol ensure that honest accounts remain buried under layers of narrative. Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City bucks this trend with a rare and intimate account of life steeped in the absurd.
Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah.