French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle draws himself with minimal detail: dots for eyes and barely any mouth. As an anonymous everyman he tries to see what others don’t in some of the most remarkable places in the world.
After his graphic books reporting from Pyongyang, Shenzhen and Burma, he has turned his attention to Jerusalem.
Accompanying his wife (who works for Médicin Sans Frontières) on a year-long rotation to the Palestinian territories, Delisle struggles to make sense of one of the world’s most contentious places. Based in an apartment in a Palestinian area of East Jerusalem, he potters around taking care of his two young children, sketching, travelling and conducting workshops with Palestinian artists.
Given his wife’s duties, Delisle spends most of his time in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories. He conveys his bewilderment, from getting stuck at checkpoints to finding a decent playground for his children. Although he loves the Jerusalem zoo and the beach in Tel Aviv, his experiences in Israel and with Israelis are often frustrating, as in the lengthy interrogations he is subjected to flying in and out of the country and when he is repeatedly moved on by the army while trying to draw the security wall.
Delisle is not a reporter and makes no pretence of getting to the heart of the conflict. Although he is at one stage mistaken for graphic novelist Joe Sacco, he doesn’t share the author of Palestine’s willingness to spend endless days in uncomfortable war zones seeking out stories. Delisle doesn’t attempt to grapple with the big political issues.
And Jerusalem (sub-title: Chronicles From the Holy City) is all the better for that. Quietly living his life and observing what goes on around him, Delisle captures the craziness, beauty and tragedy of the Israel-Palestine conundrum.
It is the little details that make this book so enjoyable and so acute: the kids smoking cigarettes in Mea Shearim on Purim; the concentration-camp tattoo on the arm of the Israeli who plays with his son on the plane; the old-fashioned rifles carried by the guards on Birthright trips.