Being illegal is unbearable

The Lebanese comic artist Rawand Issa loves black. Her illustrations are satirical, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and above all introspective. Her graphic novels also raise political questions, however, and combine minor everyday emotions with major social issues. By Julia Neumann

By Julia Neumann

Rawand Issa draws thick lines and doesnʹt come from Mars. The 26-year-old Lebanese artist expresses what she feels through her comics. That works best with a black pen pressed firmly to the paper – Rawand often feels afraid, angry or not understood, almost as if she came from another planet.

After five years as a journalist, Issa realised she could tell her stories better in comic form. Her first characters werenʹt superheroes, but Syrian refugees. "I was angry because there was a lot of racism against Syrian refugees in 2015 and I wanted to raise my voice. I couldnʹt find the right words, so I wanted to find an easier way. I decided on a documentation in comic form – not a simple subject for my first work as an artist."

Her joy in visual representation also comes from her childhood in Jiye: "I come from a small village. People there donʹt like reading newspapers, but they do enjoy magazines and all things visual," says Rawand. Moving from El-Jiye to Beirut was exciting, at first. "When you move from a village to a city, your whole life changes. All there is in the village is the house where you were born, the neighbours, one supermarket, one cafe. I love my village, but only old people live there, itʹs very conservative – I canʹt do anything there."

Comic strip from "Being illegal is unbearable" by Rawand Issa (photo: Rawand Issa)
Stigmatisierung und Ausgrenzung von syrischen Flüchtlingen im Fokus: "Ich war verärgert, denn 2015 gab es viel Rassismus gegen syrische Geflüchtete und ich wollte etwas dagegen sagen. Ich fand nicht die richtigen Worte und wollte es daher auf einem einfachen Weg versuchen. Also entschied ich mich für die Dokumentation in Comicform", so die Künstlerin und Journalistin Radwand Issa.

Issa hoped to live the life of a successful city woman. "Do you know that Alicia Keys song, in Neeew Yoork…?" The song gut stuck in her head – and New York became Beirut.

Like an alien in new surroundings

But once she got over the initial excitement in her new world, her doubts began to grow and depression followed on behind. "Once Iʹd asked all the questions and knew a lot, I felt bad," says Rawand. "I was like an alien in my new surroundings. I saw the world very differently, dark and gloomy. Suddenly I realised the world is unfair and I have to deal with it on my own."

For instance, Rawand noticed her workmates at the newspaper werenʹt taking her seriously, as a young woman; she noticed overdue elections being postponed again and again; she saw that the young generation had no political voice. "I felt like Iʹd been ignorant all along. Getting so much information at once can be traumatic."

In her comic Mish Men ElMarikh (Not from Mars), Rawand Issaʹs protagonist discovers she is not alone with her depression. The graphic novel is a personal chronicle. "I drew myself and I talk about myself, but a lot of other women identify with it. There are so many common social, economic and political problems that Iʹm not the only person facing. Hence the title ʹNot from Marsʹ."

Drawing against everyday insanity

Rawand Issa uses comics to document feelings. "Documentation is important on a personal level. You change very fast because your surroundings are changing. And if you donʹt document that you go crazy." Documentation is also important for society, Rawand says: "If I want to know, for example, what happened in Lebanon in the 1970s at the time of the civil war – and I want to find out how people felt at the time instead of just reading about the events – then Iʹd understand everything."

The history of the Lebanese civil war has still not been fully written; the collective trauma is only gradually being processed. "We have five or six history books in Lebanon. Nobody knows the truth. There are so many myths about the war and so many things that havenʹt been uncovered to this day. The young generation is very confused. Weʹve all realised that documentation is important to understand what happened then and whatʹs happening now."

Lebanese comic artist Rawand Issa (photo: Rawand Issa)
Zwischen Gesellschaftskritik und Selbstfindung: Die 26-Jährige Libanesin drückt in ihren Comics das aus, was sie fühlt. Das geht am besten mit einem schwarzen Stift, den sie fest aufs Papier drückt. In ihren introspektiven Comics stecken gesellschaftspolitische Themen: Ängste, emotionale Bindungen, die Repräsentation von Frauen. Ihre Protagonistin hat dicke Augenbrauen und schwarze Locken.

Part of that historical legacy is the way people deal with emotions and attachments. "Everything is temporary because of the war. And people in Lebanon have one thing in common: we donʹt expect much. Weʹre getting older believing that nothing lasts long: jobs, loans, love. Weʹre always waiting for a disaster to happen, something that forces us to take flight."

Overcoming childhood trauma

Issa works on the traumas of her childhood in her zine Diary of a Hen. The story is about the chickens that grew up in her childhood garden. Issa was particularly fond of the rooster, playing with him and growing to love him. One day, though, he was gone without a trace. "I asked my mother: whereʹs the rooster? And my mother answered: youʹre eating him."

Rawandʹs comic is also a critique of capitalism, of a kind. While some hens play in the spacious garden, others perch in cages. "How can a child growing up in a poor family get the love, attention and support she deserves? So that she at least grows up a little mentally healthy. I truly believe our society treats love like a piece of bread. Love is not equally distributed."

Issaʹs introspective comics cover socio-political issues: fears, emotional attachments, the representation of women. Her protagonist has thick eyebrows and curly black hair. "You rarely see a protagonist like that in cartoons, comics or novels. If someone draws an Arab woman, then itʹs usually in an exotic way, more in the style of a belly dancer. But Iʹm not a belly dancer!"

Julia Neumann

© 2019

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire