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Utopia and Dystopia in Beirut: A Conversation with Barrack Rima

By Alexandra Gueydan-Turek Carla Calargé

An excerpt from Barrack Rima's graphic novel Beirut Trilogy appears in WWB's current issue of graphic literature in translation. In conversation with translators Alexandra Gueydan-Turek and Carla Calargé, Rima reflects on the recent protests in Beirut, his complex relationship with the city, and his approach to creating art.

Alexandra Gueydan-Turek and Carla Calargé (AGT & CT): Could you tell us about your style and your influences?

Barrack Rima (BR): The notion of “style” makes me uncomfortable because I try to resist confining my graphic work to repetitive and rigid aesthetics, or even to narrative molds that would privilege a particular scenario or reading to the detriment of the creative act. In other words, I think that the graphic art is a language that is invented while it is practiced.

The first artist to have influenced my work is Louis Joos, a Belgian underground comics artist who was also my professor in evening classes at the Académie des Arts de Watermael-Boitsfort (Brussels). He taught me how to go directly to the heart of the matter when placing my drawings within a sequence and how to structure that sequence. He also taught me that drawing is, first and foremost, the product of a hand gesture and that the drawing movement of the hand precedes thinking. It is also thanks to Joos that I discovered the Argentinian school of comics, notably Alberto Breccia, who was a true revelation for me. Of course, other comics artists also influenced my works, such as Hugo Pratt (Italy), Muños and Sampayo (Argentina), Edmond Baudoin (France), Joe Sacco (USA) . . .

AGT & CC: Beirut is often present in your work. It is even possible to claim that it is one of your main characters, whose amnesia, deterioration, degradation, and abjection you document in your graphic novels. You also document the city's resilience and its jolts of resistance. Could you tell us about your relationship to Beirut? Do you think that its architectural heritage in a way crystallizes the (hi)story you try to narrate?

BR: I was not born in Beirut, but in Tripoli, in the north of Lebanon. My relationship to Beirut never developed out of daily life. It was always mediated by narratives: my parents’ stories, their friends’, or what I had read or seen in films. Yet I also knew Beirut as a kid, during the war, when my family moved there to flee the armed conflict taking place in Tripoli. My rapport with Beirut was the kind that one can have with a capital city that concentrates the history, wealth, violence, and contradictions of the entire country. For a long time, I fantasized about Beirut: for me, it represented diversity, the cultural avant-garde, modernity, the refuge of Arab dissidents, the place where intellectuals met, and the site where any discussion was possible, where one would fight for Palestine, Algeria . . .

In the 1990s, after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, I was studying in Belgium, and I would go back to Lebanon for vacation and spend a lot of time strolling the streets of Beirut and visiting old and abandoned buildings. That is precisely what inspired the first volume of the Trilogy, published in 1995. Later, in 2005–2006, when for family reasons I had to stay in Lebanon for several months, I decided to rent a studio in Beirut and began to look for a community of friends. But I was very lonely: it was not at all easy to make friends, and the city showed me its spiteful, sectarian, consumerist, and violent face. To the point where I could not stay in Beirut for more than a few days at a time and would very often go back to Tripoli. Tripoli is less socially stimulating but also so much gentler and more welcoming. Today, I know that both extremes are true when it comes to Beirut, that those extremes are constantly present and that they mingle: idea and reality, narrative and daily life, the ideal city and ordinary violence, utopia and dystopia. 

I think that the architectural heritage is a narrative in itself. A city tells stories of its past and its present through its buildings and its facades. The organization of public spheres, urban layout, and urban planning are languages. They can be regulated by public offices according to political decisions or ideological beliefs, or left to be determined by individual or collective initiatives over time. . . . In that sense, a graphic work is like a city because it associates and juxtaposes narrative’s distinct elements in order to create a sequence. Architecture is an important element for me in the Trilogy. It is a sort of metaphor of the (hi)story within the story, an additional layer of the narrative.

AGT & CC: We wanted to publish these excerpts of your work as an echo to the powerful movements of protest that have been going on in Lebanon for several months (since October 2019). In your trilogy, you evoke the protests that took place in 2015 following the trash crisis. What is the importance of this political substrate in the conception of your graphic work? And how can the current protests add to and enrich our reading of the Trilogy?

BR: When I begin a new piece, I do not necessarily feel the need for a particular political motivation in order to be able to create. However, the political context becomes unavoidable when I narrate Beirut, a city with which I have an ambiguous relationship that varies between utopia and dystopia. That is because I am trying to find and show the path toward an idea of what a society based on dialogue and freed from violence—both physical and moral—would look like.

The 2015 protests were, indeed, the foundation of the 2019 Lebanese revolution. I do not use the word “revolution” lightly: today, in addition to calls for justice as well as environmental and social demands, we are witnessing a collective rise in awareness toward a common good. I have no idea where things will lead us because “the monster” is very much there. Yet this revolution is not an only child: it has sisters in Iraq, Algeria, Sudan, Hong Kong, Chile, France, Iran . . . Most of the time, these are savagely repressed. But I cannot be satisfied with a revolution that is confined to one nation: if it is not global, a revolution is not worth it. I wonder if selfishness, physical and mental borders, inequalities, and savagery can continue at current levels . . .

When I think of what is happening now, I go through euphoric moments followed by moments of disillusionment, and I am surprised to see, at forty-seven years old, how much I am moved by a revolution that I would have loved to witness and to live thirty years ago!

AGT & CC: Do you think that graphic art lends itself more easily than other genres to a discourse of (political and ideological) protest?

BR: No, I do not think that graphic art is necessarily more suitable than other arts to express protest. It seems to me that graphic art is different in that it can simultaneously represent duration and instantaneity. In our visual field, we see the double-page spread at any time of the reading process. The instant is in the image and the duration lies in the sequence of images: the narrative. That is mainly what attracted me to graphic art: I like to draw but also to tell stories.

Nonetheless, protest is not specific to the graphic art form: it can take place through (civil) disobedience, standing against injustice, writing, talking, witnessing, or even sharing a meal, and loving . . . I am told that my art is political, but I have tried always to avoid settling on the message before engaging in the creative work itself. The creative act is a gesture, a breath, a movement that creates meaning but that cannot be entirely controlled. What comes out, though, is not arbitrary, and yes—it can serve to express dissent if one is a dissenter!

Born in 1972 in Tripoli, Lebanon, Barrack Rima lives in Brussels. He is a comics artist, filmmaker, and member of Samandal, a comics association in Beirut. To date, he has published the following comics: Cairo Storyteller (in French, La Cafetière, 1998); De Brusselmansen (in Dutch, weekly in Brussel Deze Week newspaper, 1998–2003); Beirut Trilogy (in French, Alifbata, 2017); Sociologia (in Arabic, weekly in Al Akhbar newspaper, 2014–2015); Nap before Noon (in Arabic, Samandal, forthcoming). He has also directed a short film and a documentary: Souvenir from Beirut (fiction, 12 min, 1999) and The Land of 48 (documentary, 57 min, 2003).

Translated by Alexandra Gueydan-Turek and Carla Calargé.

Read Alexandra Gueydan-Turek and Carla Calargé's translation of an excerpt from Barrack Rima's Beirut Trilogy.

Published Feb 20, 2020   Copyright 2020 Alexandra Gueydan-TurekCarla Calargé

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