Quebecois graphic novelist Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City (Jonathan Cape, 2012) is a collection of short comic strips which record Delisle’s year in East Jerusalem with his wife, a doctor for Medecins Sans Frontières.
Delisle is one of a number of graphic novelists to have turned recently to the subjects of Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine. Harvey Pekar and Boaz Yakin published two very different works in 2012 on their connections to the region, and Sarah Glidden documented her birthright tour in How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2010). Journalist Joe Sacco’s acclaimed Palestine (2001) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009) provide touchstones to which all new graphic novels on Israel/Palestine are inevitably compared.
Delisle has published travelogues on Burma, North Korea and China. His focus is typically on the details of day-to-day life – which mainly revolve around looking after his two young children – rather than on the in-depth explication of history, politics and nationalist violence that characterise Sacco’s texts. The image below is taken from Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza:
In contrast, Delisle records Israel/Palestine from the perspective of a curious outsider and in his own tongue-in-cheek self-description, ‘a housewife’. Delisle’s position, if quietly subversive in its gender politics, can sometimes feel grating in its deliberate naivete and in the context of Israel/Palestine, inappropriately cutesy. The initial impression of superficiality is heightened by Delisle’s minimal illustration style, a sharp contrast with Sacco’s painstaking detail. At the same time, Delisle’s apparent lack of prior knowledge lends his narrative voice and judgements a greater degree of trustworthiness than explicitly ‘activist’ literature, a fact which may go some way to explaining his popular appeal.
Jerusalem, like Delisle’s other works, is structured into short vignettes that are well-suited for highlighting the absurdities of life in Israel/Palestine, as well as the clash between Delisle’s expectations and the realities he encounters. Delisle’s expectations of the grandeur of the Holy City are met with disappointment when he wanders around his East Jerusalem district:
‘It’s not much of a neighbourhood, is it? This isn’t anything like I imagined Jerusalem. There’s trash everywhere!’
‘I thought Jerusalem would be much more modern. It sure didn’t look anything like this in the travel guides.’
Delisle’s disarmingly whimsical style allows him to highlight some of the arbitrary and frustrating aspects of life in Jerusalem, particularly discrimination against Palestinians. He describes with amazement Jerusalem’s two separate transport systems, one Arab and one Israeli, while the juxtaposition of his expectations with reality is particularly striking in his visit to the East Jerusalem settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev. The image Delisle had attached to the term – ‘two or three shacks on a hill with a dog’ – differs vastly from the town he encounters, with 50,000 residents and an expensive shopping mall full of desirable goods.
His apparently trivial internal conflict over whether to buy Shredded Wheat from a settlement supermarket expands into a reflection on the entanglements between politics and everyday decisions, with a tragi-comic payoff as Delisle, having decided to go with his conscience and not buy settlement goods, observes ‘three Muslim women loaded down with bags’ leaving the store. Through his short sketches and outsider’s perspective, Delisle presents a version of Jerusalem that is surprising, frustrating, and often surreal.