Drawn from history
Any attempt at writing a history of the Middle East is going to be difficult, let alone one that tries to capture the complexity of the relationship between the United States and the Middle East in graphic-novel form.
Yet, that is what Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs, and the award-winning artist David B have attempted in Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations.
The idea for the project was born when the Frenchmen met at a history convention in Blois, in France’s Loire Valley, in 2008.
“David was awarded the prize for best historical graphic novel, while I got one for the best historical book [Apocalypse in Islam, translated in 2011 by University of California Press],” says Filiu. “That is when we decided on a long-term collaboration on a major and ambitious three-volume project about the graphic history of the relations between America and the Middle East.”
The first volume, covering the years 1783 to 1953, was published in May 2012. Volume two, which will be released tomorrow, examines the post-war years from 1953 to 1982, as the US became a superpower and the Cold War raged.
Once again, the artwork is in stark black and white.
“David’s masterpiece, Epilectic [about the artist’s experiences growing up in France in the shadow of his brother’s illness], is in black and white,” says Filiu. “I was already a great fan of David’s works, even before we met. So I left him clearly in charge of the artistic dimension of the project, even though we kept discussing, continuously, every angle of the book.”
While David B was in charge of the artwork, Filiu worked on the words. Dialogue seems too strange a term to use when chronicling the Middle East.
“We had covered, in the first volume, one-and-a-half centuries when America was at first a peripheral actor in the Middle East and then, after the First World War, a friendly power towards the Arabs and Muslims, compared with the French and British empires,” says Filiu.
“This second volume covers the 1953-84 period, when the US became the power in the region through its association, and even identification, with Israel. The third volume will take us from Bush senior to Obama.”
The author says that there were big differences in the process of writing volumes one and two.
“When you come to more contemporary events, you have to be more exhaustive and shed light over the so-called ‘dark angles’ of our common patrimony,” he says. “In that case, I am convinced as a historian that history is always very political, especially when it shapes current conflicts, such as in the Middle East.”
What is striking is that, despite the books being divided into chapters that are in chronological order, there is a circularity to the issues and problems being faced, no matter how much the borders or the countries involved in the debate change over the years.
“What David and I wanted to show is the permanence of tragedy,” says Filiu. “History is tragic and the Middle East has always been saturated with tragedy. This is something American decision-makers have a big problem in understanding.
“President Obama, a Columbia graduate and a Harvard [Juris Doctor], could appear more educated than me. But his obvious inability to grasp the tragic dimension of history led him to errors in the Middle East that, in the long run, might prove as devastating as George W Bush’s mistakes.”
In addition to his collaboration with David B., the academic continues to write more traditional prose books. His most recent, Gaza: A History, has just been translated into English.
“My Gaza: A History was written in its original French version while I was working with David on the first volume of Best of Enemies,” he says. “I never stopped my own academic career and research during all these years of collaboration with David.
“You can see from the Best of Enemies how we portray the Palestinian struggle as central to the history of the whole region, especially during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
“As a historian, I do believe that Gaza should become the cornerstone and the foundation of a real and lasting peace between Israel and a state of Palestine covering the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.”
Updated: October 4, 2014 04:00 AM