A Syrian refugee odyssey in comics, photos, and prose

road-to-germany-p1Just out this week in Foreign Policy magazine is “The Road to Germany: $2400,” which depicts the odyssey of 11 Syrians from the doorstep of their unrecognizable homeland to a life in exile. The bulk of the piece is 11 pages of comics by yours truly, adapted from the reporting/writing of journalist Alia Malek. And as in The Photographer (by Emmanuel Guibert, paired with Didier Lefèvre’s photographs), “The Road to Germany” incorporates photos by Peter van Agtmael, who accompanied Alia on her immersive reporting journey. (Back in September, Alia and Peter shadowed the subjects of the story all the way from the Greek island of Kos to Frankfurt, Germany, meeting up with them at many points along the way.) In other words, this is a very unusual piece to be running in a mainstream news magazine!

In crafting the comics component, my job was to take Alia’s amazing, heartfelt reporting and create a narrative to fill in the visual gaps between Peter’s incredible photographs. I was handicapped, though. Unlike Alia and Peter, I hadn’t actually accompanied our protagonists—Muhanid & Ihsan; Mohammed & Sawsan, and their children Sedra, Ali, & Brahim; and Naela, Maysam, Suhair, & Yusef—on this odyssey, so I immersed myself as best I could. Sadly, in recent months, this type of journey has become all too common, so there were a lot of visual resources out there. And with the help of Alia’s notes and Peter’s archival shots, I dove into the minutiae of life vests, the UNHCR outpost in Gevgelija, and German border police uniforms.

I was also struck by the chart that Syrians and other refugees use as the main guide through their route. Even though everyone has smart phones and the resources of the Internet at hand, they still hold on to this crude schematic, which is more like a game board than a map:

muhanid's-chart-map-cropped

I wanted to integrate elements from the chart into the story, not only to remind readers of its importance to the refugees, but also as a bridging device for changing scenes and pushing the narrative forward.

For the comic’s opening scene on the overloaded raft, I was struck by Alia’s description:

Women and children . . . lined up, nearly supine, in the raft’s base. . . . Where any space remained on the bottom, another layer of women and children wedged in. Everyone’s bags were thrown in a heap on top of them while the men were pressed in along the edges.

FP Executive Editor Mindy Bricker and I quickly decided this image would be the “splash” panel of the comic, and I intuitively felt that the best way to capture it would be from directly overhead. This is from the pencils:

page01pn1-pencils2-lr

The comic starts with five pages of my hand-drawn art; the last six pages incorporate Peter’s photos into selected panels. Combined with actual quotes from Alia’s reporting, it’s pretty cool to see this marriage of documentary forms. And after a solid month of work back in December, it’s very gratifying to see this story in print.

I would say I’m speaking for Alia & Peter as well when I say I hope this piece succeeds in humanizing a refugee crisis which is all too often thought of in impersonal numbers—or sensationalized hysteria—and gives readers a feeling of “being there” on this harrowing journey. As the opener states, “Showing what happens when strangers are thrown together by adversity—how desperate alliances formed and dissolved—[‘The Road to Germany: $2400’] is a diary of an exodus from a war zone to a hopeful, if uncertain future in the West.”

For now, the piece is only available in print, in the Jan./Feb. issue of Foreign Policy. If it becomes viewable online I’ll be sure to post a link. (UPDATE: Here’s the link)

road-to-germany-spread

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New comics story, “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand”

Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the SandDebuting today on the Cartoon Movement website is a new piece of mine, “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand.” The story follows Mohammed and Sara, two young Bahraini editorial cartoonists who found themselves on opposite sides of Bahrain’s short-lived Pearl Revolution.

I met Mohammed and Sara at workshops I led while visiting the tiny Persian Gulf country on a U.S. State Department trip. Shortly after I became friends with both of them on Facebook, Bahrain underwent a great deal of turmoil in protests inspired by the Arab Spring — and also by the country’s simmering sectarian tensions.As the New York Times wrote the other day, Bahrain  is “… a country that was once one of the region’s most cosmopolitan is now one of its most divided.”

In the story I document Mohammed and Sara’s impressions of the events, through their words and experiences — as well as their own cartoons, which were published as things unfolded.

As I mentioned, I visited Bahrain last year as part of a trip that also took me to Egypt, Algeria, and Israel/Palestine. I later realized that the way I was “handled” by the State Dept. folks in Bahrain was very different than in the other countries I went to. Essentially, I feel, things were whitewashed a bit, and I was not given a full sense of Bahraini society, particularly the ethnic tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. You can read my original blog posts about the trip, my first reactions to the Pearl Revolution, and my realization that I had been “duped” here. Also, Michael Cavna of the Washington Post‘s “Comic Riffs” blog wrote a very nice profile of me and the piece here.

Since I finished the piece, the Bassiouni committee, which I mention near the end of the story, has published its report. You can read the original report here [a pdf], or two very thorough New York Times articles about its reception here and here.

In the end, I find the whole story quite heartbreaking — particularly because of the way the demonstrators were so brutally suppressed. It’s also really sad to see the lack of perspective on both sides. There’s a quote from one of the Bassiouni committee investigators that I think sums it all up quite tragically: “‘There is no neutral account ‘ said Mohamed Helal, the commission’s legal officer…. ‘The community is almost living in parallel universes.’ In investigating one episode, Mr. Helal said he found on the same day, at the same moment, ‘there was not one moment of overlap. How can you reconstruct the truth when there’s no overlap?’ he asked.”

Once again, here’s a link to the story, “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand”: http://www.cartoonmovement.com/comic/24

Was I a State Dept. Stooge?

Events of the last week in Bahrain have made me see how naive I was about the country — even after my visit there last October. Before this last week, I had no idea that much of Bahrain’s internal tensions stem from a Sunni minority’s rule over a Shia majority. Other factors are at work, of course — including basic tenets of democratic civil societies like the rights of free assembly — but the heart of it really does seem to be this artificially imposed sectarian divide. The Sunni king — part of a royal line that goes back over 200 years — even brings in Sunni (or at least non-Shi’ite) foreigners to serve in the police force and military. All this just to ensure that Shi’ites don’t have easy access to weapons.

What really frustrates me is that I was specifically not informed of any of this background when I was brought in by the U.S. State Dept. to visit the country last fall. I’ve gone back over the literature they gave me, and nowhere does it mention the sectarian split. My foreign national handler (who I now have to presume was Sunni) never made mention of it, nor did any of the people or institutions I visited. (These places included an American university operating in Bahrain, a college for wealthy female students, an art society, and a journalists association.)

Maybe it didn’t come up because it’s considered impolite to talk about such things. But I would have expected better from the State Dept. to inform me, an official visitor, about the political realities on the ground. After all, in Egypt, Algeria, and Israel/Palestine, my American hosts were very upfront about the political/ethnic divisions in the respective countries. (I tried to do as much independent research as I could before I got there, but there were no guidebooks for Bahrain to be had, and I was visiting so many countries in such a condensed period that I just didn’t have time read much about the country before I got there.) Considering that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based out of Bahrain, I’m forced to question the motives of my embassy compatriots there. So once again American “interests” conflict with our supposed “values”…

And now I think back even more on the walking-on-eggshells quality of my visit there, right in the middle of Bahrain’s parliamentary election season. A very denuded Parliament, as it so happens. Which makes it even more strange that the State Dept. invited me there — as a “political cartoonist” — yet asked me to refrain from breaching certain sensitive topics. Many of which I was blissfully ignorant of. It makes my head spin.

Bahrain is a tiny country, pretty well off, highly educated. It’s littered with Western chain restaurants: McDonald’s, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Fuddruckers, the list goes on. I got no sense of it being a place on the verge of an explosion. And yet now we see the king cracking down hard on what appear to be very peaceful demonstrators. Seniors, women, children — all victims of repeated tear gas attacks, rubber bullets, shotguns, and beatings.

A young man I met at one of my workshops there has been corresponding with me on Facebook. He was in the Pearl Square roundabout until about 1 a.m. on Wednesday, leaving just a few hours before the riot police moved in, clearing the square (and killing at least five people). A friend of his, a 23-year-old engineering student, was among the dead. My Bahraini Facebook friend implored me, “Please help us.. we need world’s help..!!” Surreal.

A recent tweet by a Bahraini citizen with the handle RedhaHaji sums it up: “Hard to hold back tears. This is not real. Not happening. We hear things like this happen in other places not our home.”

Bahrain — The Next Domino?

I guess after what happened in Egypt I shouldn’t be surprised by anything, but I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that protests would now be taking place in Bahrain. As I wrote when I visited the country back in October, Bahrain seemed stable — not exactly a representative democracy, but certainly much more so than its immediate neighbor Saudi Arabia. Bahrain has only had elected representatives since 2002, with two rounds of elections having taken place since then, but on the whole I got the sense that people there seemed happy. The artists and students I met there all seemed proud of their country and its relative openness. But I guess general prosperity doesn’t necessarily mean people are truly satisfied with their lot.

After all, as I observed during my visit: "My [U.S.] Embassy handlers advise me to speak on any topic except the elections. … Politics is a touchy subject here in Bahrain. There’s no tradition of public debates here, so campaigning seems limited to six-foot-tall roadside campaign posters and small-scale electoral rallies." Not exactly a vibrant public square. And I guess the proof is in the streets right now.

We’re really living in incredible times!

Domino Theory — 2011 Edition

I've been watching with some interest the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia (also known as the "Twitter Revolution"), as protesters in that country have successfully overthrown a corrupt, autocratic government. Seeing as how I recently visited a neighboring country in the Maghreb — Algeria — I asked an American friend living there if similar rumblings were being heard where he was. Turns out there have been indeed — as well as protests and "riots" in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Lebanon. My friend reports that Algeria went through about a week of rioting, witnessing five dead, 800 injured, and more than 1000 arrests. The Algerians feel great solidarity with the Tunisians, particularly in regard to the autocratic, corrupt nature of their government; and what is happening in Tunisia has sparked optimism that maybe things in Algeria could also change. According to my contact, however, the Algerian police and military were very restrained in dealing with the protests, with many of the injuries actually being suffered by the government forces just trying to restore calm. So that was smart (though obviously painful for the cops).

Reading stories like this — and what's been happening in Cairo recently — is so strange to me, having walked those same, then quiet, streets, just a few short months ago. As with in Burma, I'm reminded that what seems to be a complacent citizenry can rise up quickly against their repressive government when provoked. While I was in the Middle East, I often heard about the infamous "red line," the theoretical line that dissenters could not cross. In Algeria and Egypt, the red line was understood in media circles as being anything directly critical of the military or the ruling family. So it was okay to write about "corruption" or to attack certain government figures, but never go beyond that. Well, it seems in recent days those red lines are being crossed and stamped out.

(I'm also struck by how big a role Facebook and Twitter have played in all this. I can't tell you how many students, artists, and journalists I met during my travels in Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, and Israel/Palestine who had FB accounts and have since friended me. How could these governments not have foreseen the way these social networks would enable people to work together and plan actions? It's really mind-boggling.) As "my man in Algiers" writes, "What happens next will be critical. If Tunisia has real elections and installs an inclusive, democratic government like they say they will, the rest of the Middle East will really start to shake." My instant association with all this, of course, is 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Such a thing taking place in the countries of the Middle East is incredible to contemplate. I mean, three of the countries I visited last year — Algeria, Egypt, and Bahrain — are all classic oligarchies.

I'm saddened to hear, however, that my own government's pragmatic concerns are taking precedence over this potential explosion of democracy. After all, the U.S. enjoys good relations with the autocratic leaders of both Algeria and Egypt, both of whom assist us in the "war against terrorism." True to form, my friend reports that "some of the latest regional media stories are all about how terrified the U.S. is over the prospect of the Tunisian Revolution spreading throughout the region." He goes on to sarcastically comment, "Yeah, that would really suck for us if all the corrupt dictators were swept out of power and replaced by democratically elected governments…"

I'm certainly no expert, but it seems pretty obvious to me that people living under a fair, representative system would be less inclined to spread fear, terror, and violence — and less likely to target countries like the U.S. that they see as hypocrites when it comes to spreading democracy…

Israel/Palestine, Tweet by Tweet

October 22
Sitting in the Amman airport for four hours waiting for my connection to Tel Aviv. Now it can be revealed that my last stop is indeed Israel. (The fear was that if, say, Algerian officials knew that I would be traveling to the Jewish state, they would have denied my visa or at least made it difficult for me while I was there. The U.S. Embassy even printed up two separate flight itineraries for me, one which showed me going from Bahrain to Jordan, and another which showed that I was actually continuing on to Tel Aviv.)

I still don’t know what kind of people shop in the airport duty-free areas…

Flipping through Royal Jordanian Airline‘s in-flight magazine during the 20-minute flight from Amman to Tel Aviv, I notice that their flight map of the region shows the names of all the countries in the Middle East — except Israel. It shows some of the key cities — Jerusalem, Tel Aviv — but leaves out the country name. I assume that this is because many people refuse to recognize Israel as such, and insist on continuing to call the country Palestine. So even during my flight over, I am reminded of the many volatile complexities of the land I am going to visit…

Arriving in Israel, I am helped through the customs process by an expediter from the U.S. Embassy. I choose to have my passport stamped, which automatically guarantees that in the future, as long as I continue to use this passport, I will be denied entry to Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and any number of other Middle Eastern countries.

I arrive in Jerusalem, Israel’s most religious city, on the eve of the Sabbath. Walking around the deserted downtown streets, I keep wondering, "Are all those stray cats Jewish?" They might be ethnically so but don’t appear to be observant. (No kippahs.) They are extremely skittish and paranoid, though, so…?

October 23
A free day in Jerusalem. Looking forward to a thorough self-guided tour of the Old City. Morning at the hotel buffet: the guests all remind me of my dear, departed Grandma Gus and her pals. The International Herald Tribune is a very large broadsheet, but Haaretz is even bigger: it’s gotta be at least 18" wide. I shudder to think how much food goes to waste everyday from these fancy hotel buffets.

Holy Holy Land, Batman! I’m not religious, but it’s hard not to be awestruck by the historical gravitas of the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (not to mention some of the sites on Mount Zion). Unfortunately, both times I try to visit the Dome of the Rock it is closed to non-Muslims. I figure I won’t be able to fake it…

Thanks to the Narnia books I love Turkish Delight, and it is plentiful here.

Magic Hour in Jerusalem’s Old City. The light is beautiful.

October 24
Now it can be said: The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!

Just presented my work to 50 mostly bored students at Hadassah College.

After getting burned by a $60 hotel laundry bill in Algeria it’s laundry time in my bathroom sink. Reminds me of my backpacking days.

Walking back from dinner downtown, traffic is held up on King George St. due to a bomb scare. Police come, three loud bangs, and now everything’s moving again.

Tonight at Jerusalem Cinematheque I talk about Harvey Pekar and our 13-year-long creative relationship before a showing of American Splendor. Seeing the film for the first time since his death, it’s stunning to realize how perfect an epitaph it is. It was made while he was still alive, but is a wonderful, loving tribute to him now that he is gone.

Afterward, drinks with Israeli-Belgian cartoonist Michel Kichka, considered by many to the father of Israeli comics. He too knows my French pal Émile Bravo. I look forward to Kichka’s upcoming comics memoir of his father and the Holocaust…

October 25
Two separate workshops today, with "underserved" 8-10-year-olds in Jerusalem & Holon, then meet-and-greet w/Israeli comic pros at the Israeli Cartoon Museum. Whew!

The Kagan Media Center is in a working-class section of Jerusalem, mostly for Jewish immigrant children, many of Eastern European origin.
Both that workshop and the one held in Holon (near Tel Aviv) — at the Lazaros Community Center in the Jessie Cohen neighborhood — go as well as can be expected for my first time with kids that young. I do a modified version of my mini-mini-comics workshop: we come up with characters and then each kid starts their own mini-mini. The kids in Jerusalem show some real promise; the kids in Holon — mostly Ethiopian emigrees — mob me at the end for personalized sketches. One kid also mimes his love for Eminem, Tupac, and Michael Jackson.

The Holon Cartoon Museum is quite impressive — maybe the best one I’ve seen of its kind. And I really enjoy meeting the cartoonists, most of whom would fit quite comfortably in the realm of what we Americans call "alternative comics." I feel like I am among friends. And I come out of there with a full bag of swag: free copies of the comics of all the participants (who include Shay Charka, Noam Nadav, and Ilana Zeffren)!

October 26
Seaside hotel in Tel Aviv, and there are already people in the water and on the sands at 8 a.m.

Then it’s a talk and workshop for nineteen 9th-graders from the Arab “Mekif” high school in Jaffa. Despite some language and translation difficulties — and typical challenges of working with sulky and/or unruly teenagers — the workshop is fun for everyone.

Rabin Square. Lunching with Daniel Mendelson, my French-Israeli comics pal. Merci toda!

Very nice presentation and Q&A for about 100 students at the Minshar for Art school in Tel Aviv; tomorrow I spend the day in Ramallah, the West Bank.

October 27
At the Jerusalem Hotel, a beautiful Palestinian-owned rustic establishment in East Jerusalem. My last breakfast on this trip. Today I am being programmed by the U.S. Consulate, which is exclusively tasked with dealing with Palestinians. Another example of Jerusalem’s status as a divided city. (The American Center deals with Jewish Israelis.) Until last night, I had no idea what I would be doing today — let alone that I’ll be visiting the West Bank. I’m very excited; after being here for four days, seeing the Jewish side of things, I’m anxious for some some insight into the Palestinian perspective.

Security briefing at the U.S. consulate, and now it’s off to Ramallah. Driving into the West Bank, we speed through checkpoints of Israeli soldiers armed — and armored — to the teeth. VIPs like us breeze through on one road, while the other road for normal folks is backed up for what looks like miles. It is sobering to see the Israeli settlements dotted around the arid hills, overlooking old, long-established Palestinian towns and villages.

Location: PD (e.g. Public Diplomacy) Ramallah. Awesome roundtable with Palestinian political cartoonists from the West Bank and — via Direct Video Conference — Gaza. Participants include Majed Badra, Baha Boukhari, Nedal Hashem, and Mohammad Sabaaneh.

Lunch at a very chic sandwich place in Ramallah, and then A.D. presentation and mini-mini-comics workshop with students of the International Academy of Art Palestine. Once again, I come out with loot: a T-shirt, a mug, and a tote bag. Shukran!

I admit it’s difficult to reconcile the two images of Palestinians I see in the occupied territories. On one hand there are the encroaching Israeli settlements, the many travel restrictions, and the obvious privations of everyday life. On the other hand there is the clearly flourishing city of Ramallah, which is awash in investment and new construction. The city is renowned for its night-life (much better than moribund Jerusalem) and will soon be opening its first five-star hotel. As usual, I leave my new experience more confused than when I started. But this is good.

Back in Jerusalem, I do a quick event at the Consulate’s new East Jerusalem library/outreach center, America House. There I meet with a select group of Israeli Arabs, mostly local artists. Then, we take a crazy trip through Mea Shearim, looking to find a cheap bag to bring home all the swag I picked up during my three-week tour. Success, and then it’s off to the airport.

Ben Gurion. This is it. Heading back home to the good ol’ USA. Wow, Israeli airport security is no joke. They are giving me the third degree about every aspect of my trip. My "official" U.S. State Dept. affiliation has little impact. Even the fact that I have an expediter with me, a U.S. Consulate employee with a special badge who escorts me through all the security and passport checks, does not deter them. They ask me all sorts of questions about the purpose of my trip, why I had visited the three Arab countries, and ask to see official letters from the U.S. Embassy. And the guy keeps asking me the same questions about the purpose of my visit, trying to see if he can catch me in a lie or a contradiction. But I actually enjoy the ordeal, and keep my cool the whole time. Finally, after double X-raying all my bags, looking through all the Hebrew, Arabic, and French comics I have acquired throughout the trip, and practically dismantling my laptop, they let me go through.

Damn! Crappy older plane w/o personal TVs. Now I can only pray I get my whole row to myself so I can sleep.

October 28
I’m baaaaaaaack! Comics Diplomacy 2010 comes to a close. And just in time too as my trusty Tumi backpack just fatally busted a strap.

Bahrain, Tweet by Tweet

October 18
Left Algiers, transited through Istanbul, and landed in Bahrain. Man, oh man, Manama. I feel like I am on the moon.

October 19
After getting in late last night, I enjoy the cushy bed here at the Gulf Hotel. Today I am celebrating Sari’s birthday in absentia.

Back-to-back hotel lobby interviews with English-language papers The Daily Tribune and The Gulf Daily News. Bahrain is deep in the midst of parliamentary election campaigns, and before the interviews my Embassy handlers advise me to speak on any topic except the elections. Only a "democracy" since 2002, politics is a touchy subject here in Bahrain. There’s no tradition of public debates here, so campaigning seems limited to six-foot-tall roadside campaign posters (all hilariously similar: with the candidate’s name and a mug shot) and small-scale electoral rallies.

The country is a tiny archipelago connected by a causeway to the tip of ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. Incredibly liberal by Arab standards, Bahrain bills itself as a regional business and entertainment destination. (In fact, Saudis flood into Bahrain during the holy days of Friday and Saturday, eager to take part in family activities, movies, and the like, which are expressly forbidden in Saudi Arabia during those days. And many relatively liberal Saudi families send their daughters to study at Bahraini universities, which offer the girls many more educational/career options than they are allowed back home.) In ages past a land of small villages and pearl divers, Bahrain has undergone an incredible building spree — apparently with no consideration of urban planning. Giant office towers and ultra-modern hotels loom over patches of empty desert.

You see many Saudi businessmen in their full formal outfits, the ankle-length thawb and the keffiyeh headdress. You also see women in all stages of "cover," from burkas to a modest veil. The variety of veils and their configurations is amazing. I am most struck by women I see in tight, almost form-fitting burkas, with their heavily made-up eyes showing through in a most fetching way.

Almost 50% of the population is from India, and the country welcomes foreign guests of all stripes. You can get real pork bacon from hotel room service — and I did!

Off to meet Bahraini artist Abdulla Al-Muharraqi in A’ali, and then to the Bahrain Arts Society to present my work & some context for US comics. Two more interviews: one for live radio and one for Bahrain weekend TV.

October 20
Ran a fun collaborative mini-comics workshops for about 40 girls at the Royal University for Women. That afternoon/evening, I conduct two workshops organized by the Embassy in cooperation with Hewar Youth Society and the Bahraini Journalists Association. For the first workshop, with young, aspiring Bahraini cartoonists, I give them four stories from today’s paper. Then, acting as an "art director," I have them work up illustration concepts for the various stories. My goal is to show them the difference between the dominant form of opinionated political cartoons and the more subtle practice of editorial illustration. I get a kick out of the way all the students in my workshops here call me "Mr. Josh."

Professional Bahraini cartoonists from local Arabic and English dailies participate in the second workshop, during which they share their ideas and techniques, as well as discuss the challenges they face in publishing their own political cartoons. We wrap up our meeting
— which is the first time the artists have all been in the same room together — with an illo jam (which sadly, I don’t have a picture of). Artists at the workshop include Sara Qaed, Hamad Al-Gayeb, and Nawaf Al-Mulla.

October 21
Today’s Bahrain schedule: workshop at the New York Institute of Technology (!), a meeting with the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, and an interview with an Arabic newspaper. Leaving my hotel, I see my first woman in a burka with a veil completely covering face. Not even holes for eyes. Husband leads her by the hand.

My time in Bahrain is winding down. it’s been fascinating, totally different in every way from Algiers. Leaving tomorrow morning for country-to-be-named-later, the final stop on International Comics Goodwill Tour 2010.

October 22
The agent at the Gulf Air check-in counter has no idea what country Tel Aviv (my "final destination") is in — she thinks it might be in Europe. Because most Arab airlines don’t fly directly to Israel — I’m flying through Amman, Jordan — it’s almost as if the country doesn’t exist. (Later, I am informed that I should have told the agent that Tel Aviv is in the same country as Jerusalem. Everyone knows Jerusalem.)

Manama by Moonlight

[Check out a full album of photos from Bahrain here…]

Algeria, with great respect to all other nations, of course

Tuesday, Oct. 12
Flew in to Algiers sick as a dog. Never should have had that Egyptian KFC. After many bathroom visits & sleeping 10 hours, I feel human again. They’ve put me up in the beautiful and history-steeped El-Djazair, whose former guests include Dwight Eisenhower, Simone de Beauvoir, Edith Piaf. Not too shabby.

My first official activity is a presentation of my work at a local “access school,” an English language school for underprivileged youth sponsored in some part by U.S. funds. Goes well.

My compatriot, comics writer Brandon Jerwa, and I are taken to the central newspaper “district” for a fairly extensive and thoughtful interview with the largest Algerian daily, El Watan. (My interview ran here. Warning! French language.) After that, a short nap and missed connections ultimately proves unable to derail a nice dinner with several of the other visiting artists, including Pakistan’s Nigar Nazar and three young women from Lebanon, Joumana Medlej, Amal Kawaash, and Lena Merhej.

I just learned from the TV that Global Handwashing Day is coming up next week.The two English-language TV stations here show 1.) 20th Century Fox movies, and 2.) 80s/90s music videos. Oh, and BBC News. (P.S. The music video station is actually a German station, but they predominantly show English and American pop.)

Wednesday, Oct. 13

Quino

From Algérie News: My portrait of the great Argentine cartoonist Quino (on the body of his character Mafalda)

F!BDA, the Festival International de la Bande Dessinées Algérie, opens tonight. That one year of college French is serving me well here! The only downside to this trip is having to shave and wear pants every day.

Today, a day of storms and rain, I am doing a bullpen-style drawing marathon with five other cartoonists for Algérie News, a daily paper which will be entirely illustrated by us! I draw four finished illos in about seven hours, sort of like Illustrator Boot Camp. The job runs so long we miss the wet F!BDA opening ceremonies. Too tired to eat. G’nite from the Meghreb.

Thursday, Oct. 14
F!BDA proper begins today. My first look at the festival, which is set up on the European/Angouleme model. Almost like a little village, the festival consists of tents housing a bookstore, exhibition spaces, an event space, and smaller “booths” for exhibitors. This is the anti-San Diego Comic-Con: no video games, no movies or TV shows, no cosplay to speak of… The emphasis is on the art of comics, and the experience of reading.

I’m on a morning panel charmingly titled “Can the Comics be Therapeutic?” After the panel, Brandon I are taken to L’Ecole des Beaux Arts to teach a class together. It goes very well, despite our mid-exercise fear that the whole experiment is going to derail. The students are eager and the teacher tells us later that we achieved results in 90 minutes that would have taken him a week. We share tea with the director and the head teacher, and exchange books.

We are shuttled about in a specialized Embassy SUV, which looks normal on the outside but is heavily armored on the inside. The doors seem to weigh a ton, requiring real strength to slam shut, and the insides are all built up with plating, so much so that squeezing into one’s seat is actually quite difficult. The windows are all bullet-proof glass, of course. John B., our Embassy host, brags that the vehicle is so well protected that we could “drive over a land mine and not even feel it.” I have no desire to test that assertion.

Then we tour the stunning the Bastion 23. Whenever the guide mentions anything to do with Islam he says, “With great respect to all other religions, of course.” It is very charming — and quite odd.

After another interminable wait in the lobby, we drive to a restaurant far on Algeria’s outskirts for a group dinner with the FIBDA organizers and invited artists. The roasted headless sheep they deposit on our table is undeniably tender, yet I think I have been forever cured of a taste for mutton.

Other than the lamb misadventure, I am finding Algeria to be a fascinating country — with really uninspired cuisine. How can a culture with French and Middle Eastern origins have such drab food? It’s like the cooks conspire to drain the taste out of what should be delicious, culturally specific foods. For instance, the couscous has been bland and mealy, and the crepes tough and tasteless.

Friday, Oct. 15
Our first full day at the Festival. Brandon has a morning panel, then after lunch we head over to the book-selling tent and signing area. It is really fun to soak up the atmosphere, check out all the great BDs, and meet festival attendees. We even sell a few books, and I sign and sketch for folks, just like back home. Then we have dinner back at our hotel with John B. and our new British friends Paul Grist and Nana Li. I hear the tale of the Cuban cartoonist, first time off the island, refuses to shake John’s hand because she is afraid that her Cuban handlers will think she is planning to defect!

In the evening we are guests at a party at the U.S. Marines’ quarters in the U.S. Embassy. There are six Marines stationed there — six of the sweetest, fresh-faced kids (of all races) you could ask for to represent the U.S.A. Most of the guests are young Algerians, typically well-off and “connected” somehow…

monkeys

Algerian primates

Saturday, Oct. 16
Today we get a break from the festival to do a little exploring: tours of Blida and Chrea are on the agenda. This is an internal U.S. Embassy function that we are lucky to be included in on. The dozen of us pile into two vans, and, as required by Algerian law, are given a police escort all the way on the hour-long trip. Not exactly a subtle travel method, though it’s a cool way to speed through traffic, what with the guns and sirens and everything.

Back from the tour of the former “Triangle of Death.” We had monkeys! Brandon & I are hitting the streets of Algiers while we can. As per Embassy safety regulations, we are forbidden from using public transportation or private taxis, though we’re allowed to walk anywhere we want. Unfortunately, the El-Djazair isn’t in the most happening area of town, though there are some awesome views of the harbor.

Back in the room after a street excursion and subsequent hotel-room-patio steak dinner with Brandon. Our British friends are free to hang out, but the front desk says the wait for the only cab we’re allowed to use is at least 45 minutes. Calling it a night and hitting the whirlpool tub.

Sunday, Oct. 17
Last night I was awakened by the loudest explosion I’ve ever heard. Was sure it was a bomb. Turned out it was thunder. Then it began to rain.

LeHic

Algerian cartoonist Le Hic’s portrait of Brandon Jerwa and me at the embassy video conference.

Today is the Last day of F!BDA: Jerwa panel on comic book adaptations, then to the U.S. Embassy for a video conference with some Algerian and Iraqi political cartoonists. Fascinating to be a fly on the wall as they discuss the ins-and-outs of lives, careers, press freedom, and the like. Supposedly it was covered by CNN. Anyone see it? (The Embassy posted a photo and short blurb about the event on their site.)

Then back to F!BDA for the closing ceremonies: prizes awarded, many sad goodbyes, commemorative sketches, Facebook friendships initiated.

Monday, Oct. 18
Rainy morning. After I pack, check out, and have a final breakfast with Brandon and Nigar, it’s Airport Time.

[Check out a full album of photos from F!BDA Algeria here…]

Cairo via Twitter (with some augmentation)

Friday, Oct. 8
Leaving for the airport in an hour. Using all of my packing/rolling techniques right now. No time to shave; I will shave in Cairo.

OK, Delta Airlines wins the worst-ever international check-in/baggage drop award. Buckle in for the 10-hour flight.

I’m here. Landed in Cairo, was driven to the hotel, met Mike, the Cultural Affairs rep from the Embassy, changed money, and showered. My hotel is the Semiramis InterContinental, a five-star establishment about six stars above my usual travel accommodations. There are many Spanish tourists here. And older ladies in tour groups flirting with the hotel waiters. Later, on Mike’s advice, I find some delicious Lebanese food and take a felluca ride on the Nile before turning in for the night.

Crossing the roads here is exactly like Frogger — dash into traffic, wait, jump forward again. The key is never go backwards or you go splat.

Saturday, Oct. 9
SaBAH el-KHEYer. Studying up on my Arabic phrases.

Baseball breaks your heart. (It’s designed that way.) I’m sitting here in Cairo about to see the Pyramids and I’m depressed because the Giants blew a 4-0 lead to lose to the Braves in 11 innings.

Heading toward the Pyramids from central Cairo, they shimmer into view through the haze like something left by visitors from another planet. My guide, Fareg, is terrific — 31 years as an Egyptologist and anthropologist. (He also takes some funny pictures of me in front of the various sights.) The pyramids are just as stunning up close, and I am really blown over by the Sphinx. Something about the grandeur and dignity of the monument really touches me. On the plateau above the Pyramids, I take a short came ride out into the Sahara. The poor beast stumbles on a Coke bottle and almost pitches me into the sands. Ootini!

After the Pyramids and before our visit to the stately Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan (featured on the Egyptian one-hundred pound note), I stop for a lunch of kushari and a mint tea with my driver and guide.

Many Muslim men here have ash-colored bruises on their foreheads. This comes from their five-times-a-day praying. These men press their foreheads to the floor so vociferously that a permanent bruise develops. This is seen as a sign of their particularly pious nature.

My A.D. presentation at the independent gallery/art library the Townhouse Gallery goes really well. Most of the crowd of 40 or so speak English fluently and are basically familiar with graphic novels. There are even some American ex-pats in the room. Given the audience’s political sympathies, they particularly appreciate my call-out of Joe Sacco as a major influence. Afterward, I do a 15-minute interview with Chitra Kalyani of Daily News Egypt. (She has really done her homework on me!) And then Mike takes me to a Cairo street food establishment and then a beer at the Stella Bar, a nearby watering-hole frequented by old Nasserites.

Sunday, Oct. 10
Take the Metro to Coptic Cairo. I walk in to a beautiful singing liturgy in the round Church of St. George. I take a photo of what appears to be the Holy Termite Mound. At the Metro station on the way back, I end up in the middle of the platform where the ladies-only cars are situated. Off-limits! By the time I run down the station to a suitable car the doors are closing, and I have to wait for the next train. Fortunately, they come along quite frequently.

Later, I find myself in the stunning, huge Egyptian Museum, where I marvel at the ghoulish opened-up mummies of Ramses II and other ancient Egyptian rulers. Then I see the fabled relics of King Tutankhamen. And now I see what the big deal about King Tut’s tomb is. Un-be-lieve-able. Somewhere along the way, I realize I’ve been wearing my Tintin Cigars of the Pharaoh shoulder bag all around Cairo. Respectful homage or inappropriate?

After lunch, I am driven over to Cairo University for another presentation, this time for Mass Communication students. Cairo U. has an astonishingly large student-body of 250,000 kids, which must be one of the largest in the world. After sharing a tea with the Mass Comm dean, I am shuffled upstairs to the class, which has about 50 kids, most of them hijab-wearing girls. This crowd is much less knowledgeable about comics, but their English is surprisingly good and they ask some good questions at the end. As with the crowd the night before, everyone wants to know how I like Egypt and when they can expect to see an Egypt-themed graphic novel from me. When I explain that it took two-and-a-half years to do A.D., and a whopping ten years to do A Few Perfect Hours, they revise their expectations a bit.

For my last night in Cairo, I head over to Khan el-Khalili to check out the famous back-alleys bazaar. It is wonderful to trek down the tiny streets, packed with vendors; it is annoying and depressing to fight off the sales pitches from the guys hawking their cheesy tourist-targeted wares. I find respite — and some good kofta — in the Naguib Mahfouz Cafe, and stop by the Al Fishawy Cafe to check out one of the world’s oldest coffee houses.

A bizarre thing happens in the bazaar. An American family from one of the many tourist buses causes a commotion when the dad — a stocky 50-something — begins bellowing at his son. "Jeff! Jeff, goddammit! Hurry up or they’ll leave without us!" Predictably, this causes a huge crowd (mostly of vendors) to gather around to see the fun. Jeff, a 20-ish spitting image of his dad, is understandably humiliated at his father’s tirade, and refuses to hurry. This only gets the dad angrier, and he goes crazy, running up to his son and pushing him along the cobblestone alley. The son pushes back, and before anyone knows it, they are practically wrestling in the street. "I’ll fucking break you in half," the father yells. The crowd is hopping with glee. It’s nuts. A member of the white-uniformed Egyptian tourist police is standing by, but he is conflicted. His job is to prevent tourists from being harassed or assaulted by Egyptians; he has no precedent for interrupting internecine battles. Finally, the dad and his wife run off, leaving Jeff alone. He trudges slowly by in the same direction. I feel bad for the kid to have such an asshole for a father.

Monday, Oct. 11
Farewell, Egypt. I hope to return for a longer visit. On to the next leg of my trip. Algeria!

Middle East Joshicles

Tomorrow I embark on a three-week trip to the Middle East (and North Africa), another "mission" on behalf of the State Department’s Speaker/Specialist Program. This time I’ll be visiting four countries: Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, and a country to be named later. As with my trip to Burma, it seems that — because of A.D. — I am being invited to showcase the cultural freedoms of American society, especially in comparison to the more authoritarian-style policies of the countries Ill be visiting.

I’m starting to realize that part of this "job" of being an international cartoonist is to wear many different hats. Sometimes I’m expected to do a presentation on my work, process, and background. Other times I’m counted on to dialogue with cartoonists from the local country. Still other times I should be prepared to lead comics-making workshops, with students ranging from children all to way to professionals with decades more experience than me. And sometimes I’m just supposed to act as a sort of visiting American dignitary, there to learn and observe. What I am discovering is that although "alternative comics" like what I do are still considered quite unusual in many parts of the world, political cartoonists are often held in high esteem. So even though I don’t do syndicated single-panel editorial cartoons, my work on A.D. allows me to be an honorary member of the club.

My first stop will be a three-night stay in Cairo, Egypt. While there, I’ll be giving a couple of presentations on nonfiction comics to local cartoonists and journalists. Back in the day, shortly before we met, Sari backpacked through Egypt, and she had some really amazing experiences in Cairo. Thanks to her, I’ve always dreamed of visiting the place, and I really look forward to meeting some of the country’s cartoonists, as well as doing some sight-seeing and of course checking out the pyramids of Giza.

My next destination is Algiers, Algeria, where I’ll be taking part in the week-long 3rd Annual International Comics Festival. (At least one other American, comics writer Brandon Jerwa, will join me for the Algeria portion of the trip as well.) Last year, two American cartoonists, Daryl Cagle and Jan Eliot, visited as part of the same program, and from their blogs they seemed to have really valued their experiences. In addition to leading panel discussions and seminars at the festival, they painted a mural at a center for children who have been victims of abuse in an inner-city neighborhood in Algiers; published a cartoon together with an Algerian artist in the nation’s most widely-read newspaper; met with the editors of several local papers; visited a women’s center; and led a drawing workshop at a local orphanage. They also held several press events with the Algerian media, including a TV appearance on a popular morning talk show. So I guess I can expect much of the same treatment. And since this really is an international festival, I expect to meet other cartoonists from all over the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Should be incredible.

My third stop will be Manama, Bahrain. (Raise your hand if you knew the capital of Bahrain was Manama!) During my four days in Manama, I will give three two-hour workshops, the first to professional newspaper cartoonists, the second to amateur cartoonists and youth, and the third to university students. I’ll also be giving two presentations, one at the Bahrain Arts Society and the second to the students at the fine arts center at the University of Bahrain. I really know next to nothing about the small island kingdom of Bahrain — and never in a million years imagined I’d get a chance to visit there — so I’m really curious about this part of my trip. (Weirdly enough, the New York Institute of Technology has a campus in Bahrain. What’s that all about?…)

My fourth and final stop, to be revealed later, will also feature presentations and workshops. And then, on October 28, if all goes according to schedule, I will land back at JFK, home after my three-week tour of the Middle East.

Obviously, I’m really excited about the trip and all the things I’ll see and people I’ll meet. I’ve never been to any of these countries, and can’t wait to experience their surprises. But I can’t help feeling guilty for leaving Sari & Phoebe for this long of a stretch. My expectation this time, though, is that in contrast to Burma, where making contact was so difficult, I’ll at least be able to Skype with them while I’m gone.

Stay tuned for further updates.