Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Nonfiction Comics about the Middle East

Comics are great for visualizing places: landscapes, people, and customs. Here are a few non-fiction comics, set in diverse Middle Eastern countries, that might increase understanding of an often-misrepresented region.

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978–1984 by Riad Sattouf

This memoir of a difficult, perplexing childhood in Libya and Syria might sound like heavy reading. But thanks to the child-like illustrations and Sattouf’s light touch in narrating these events, it’s an easy though affecting read. Some things—bullies, gross relatives—are universal. Others—a mercurial father obsessed with pan-Arabism, constant taunts of “Jew”—are specific to Sattouf’s Syrian-French experiences. Overall, it’s an unusual child-sized perspective on an egocentric father, rural deprivation, and culture shock.

Verdict: Buy. There are some major omissions in The Arab of the Future. For instance, Sattouf’s mother is presented as utterly passive and devoid of personality. But the book (like its sequel) is fascinating, moving, and frequently funny.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

This work of memoir/reportage chronicles Glidden’s birthright trip from the U.S. to Israel. These trips are free for young Jews living outside Israel, and take them on guided tours of significant sites. Before the trip, the author is frank about her mixed feelings about both religious Judaism and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. But as she spends more time in the country, the impressionable Glidden is surprised by what a connection she feels to it.

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Verdict: Bypass. This book has its heart in the right place. But for all its good intentions, the premise, like the title, is fundamentally irritating. What Glidden sees on this chaperoned bus tour, accompanied by loads of other Americans including a friend from New York, is a very curated version of Israel. Like the drawings, this narrative is sometimes charming but very naïve.

Palestine by Joe Sacco

Palestine by Joe Sacco

Palestine is the most influential work of graphic journalism, and Sacco remains the elder statesman in this field. Like his other works, Palestine breaks some of the rules of journalism: it doesn’t pretend to be objective, and while the political situation was ever-changing, the book took years to produce. But what it does better than much traditional journalism is to humanize all the people involved (including the self-deprecating Sacco himself).

Verdict: Buy. Palestine is a deeply memorable book that showcases both intimate moments and large historical sweeps. It’s also useful as a reference point for all the other graphic journalism that it inspired.

Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi

Embroideries is simple and snug. With plain black-and-white drawings, it gathers together Satrapi’s female relatives and neighbors in Iran for a funny and revealing conversation, mostly about relationships, gender and sex. It’s a slice-of-life view of the sex lives of Muslim women and the community these women have forged.

Verdict: Buy. Satrapi’s Persepolis gets a lot of attention, but I prefer Embroideries. Fans of action-packed comics might be restless, as Embroideries essentially consists of people sitting around a room talking. But this book has likable characters, a warm setting, and a frankly feminist conviction that gossip is a way of cementing and understanding social bonds.