“In the neighborhoods along the demarcation line, walls of sandbags sever the streets. Containers taken from the docks of the deserted port stand in the middle of alleys to protect residents from snipers’ bullets. Buildings shut themselves away being walls of cinder blocks and metal drums. Inside these divided sectors, life is organized around the ceasefires.”
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1981, civil war was the backdrop of Zeina Abirached’s childhood. In 1984, she is living with her parents and younger brother in East Beirut, in the midst of a war zone. The family lives mainly in the entrance way of their apartment, which is closest to the interior of the building, and slightly more sheltered from the bombs and gunfire in the streets. Their apartment is located on the treacherous demarcation line, which divides the Christian East from the Muslim West. One night, her parents leave Zeina and her brother at home to venture out and visit her grandmother on the other side. They are caught out by a bombing, leaving the children alone with the neighbours, a motley cast of contrasting characters. Together, they wait, and hope that Zeina’s parents will make it home safely.
Though A Game for Swallows is relatively short, the pacing is often ponderous despite the dire subject matter. The hours tick slowly by, with repetitive panels illustrating the tension and monotony of the situation. The lives of the characters spiral out from the central story, using numerous flashbacks to cover back stories and illustrate what life was like in Lebanon before the war. The characters faces change subtly and expressively in these panels, but everything else remains much the same. The clean black and white drawings work well for these interior scenes, but are almost too stark and clean in their depiction of the ravaged city, which is in some ways a character unto itself. Abirached dedicates the opening panels of her book to the setting, in a manner more reminiscent of Japanese manga than Western comics.
A Game For Swallows is often compared to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and the art style is decidedly similar, as is the situation; both women grew up in a Middle Eastern country in the midst of a war. But the scope of Abirached’s tale is simultaneously larger and smaller than Persepolis. On one hand, it is much more intimate, centering as it does around a single night, rather than a lifetime of events. This single representative incident provides a surprisingly broad window into life in Beirut during this period. However, the cast of characters is larger, as it is a story of a group of people, a community, rather than a single individual. From different classes and backgrounds, each character is coping with the civil war in their own way. While Persepolis made a space for more graphic memoirs, such as A Game For Swallows, to equate them would sell both titles short.