The last book of Guy Delisle’s I reviewed was about his time in Burma, and when I wrote about it I had mixed feelings about his customary form, which is to string together four- to eight-page travel vignettes almost exclusively focused on his day-to-day experiences, using what he sees or hears as an opening to discuss some broader phenomenon about the culture he’s visiting. His stance is always that of a sincerely interested, naive tourist rather than a journalist, and I felt that it simultaneously showed too much humility (in that he declined to speak for Burma) and not enough (in that he also gave space to things like his problems with air conditioning).
On the whole, though, I liked Burma Chronicles. I just wanted even more about the country. It was a closed, mysterious society and I was curious.
I came to his new book Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City with exactly the opposite predisposition. Few countries on earth receive as much consistent media attention as Israel, and its history and conflicts have already been the subject of countless books, including graphic works by some of my favorite (Joe Sacco) and least favorite (Sarah Glidden) comic book authors. I had no curiosity left about it.
As it turns out, that makes it the perfect subject for Delisle’s interested tourist routine, in part because he is a keen observer of details it turned out I had never seen before. Rather than dramatize big injustices, like Sacco, or grapple with the whole arc of modern Israeli history, like Glidden, he focuses on small ironies and oddities.
When he visits Hebron, for example, he does discuss the ongoing conflict between settlers and Palestinian residents, but does so by remarking that there are certain streets Palestinians cannot use, and that the one they can use that runs next to settlers’ homes has been roofed with netting to catch the garbage settlers try to throw down from their windows. He visits a settlement near where he’s living in East Jerusalem and notes that many Arab Christians are living there, attracted by the cheap rent. “It’s like we’re resettling the settlements!” laughs his host.
Overall, then, he presents a picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of its effect on daily life, both in Israel and in the West Bank, which turns out to be fascinating and darkly funny. (He is never able to get permission to visit Gaza, and he guesses that the Israeli official who denies that permission does so because he thinks Delisle is Sacco.)
Three elements stuck out for me in particular.
First, his year in Israel overlapped with Operation Cast Lead, and he does an incredible job of describing the surreality of going about his daily routine while a war takes place just a short drive away. One striking sequence has him and a friend at the beach, watching fighter jets go past en route to Gaza.
Second, the wall encircling Palestinians in the West Bank. He talks about it only occasionally, but is always trying to sketch it, and it shows up constantly in his descriptions of other events. It hangs over everything else silently, just as he must have experienced it.
Third, Delisle is fair-minded, and makes a point to present what he sees as the best aspects of Israeli society. Specifically he points out that the Israelis can be more critical of their government or of Israeli extremists than any American media outlet would ever dare to be.
On December 4, settlers occupying a building in central Hebron were evacuated by the Israeli army. The settlers put up a fierce fight, and six soldiers were injured during the operation. Other settlers responded with violent attacks on Arab families, all under the eyes of journalists. The story made the front page of the papers. The vast majority of Israelis vigorously disapprove of the extreme behavior of the Hebron settlers. In a statement following these incidents, Ehud Olmert spoke of “pogroms” perpetrated by Jews against Arabs. Harsh words, deliberately used by the prime minister to make an impression.
Elsewhere you might think twice before accusing Jews of carrying out pogroms… In Israel, it’s not an issue.
Delisle is interested in Israel in all its diversity. He visits the Samaritans, the Armenian Church, a Bedouin village, the Dome of the Rock. He tours an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. He even goes on a propaganda bus tour organized by a pro-settler group. In the end it is clear where his sympathies lie, and above all who he sees as villains. But the personal travelogue format allows him to be fair about all he does experience without having to throw in a lot of caveats about all he doesn’t, and I felt like he showed me a great many new things about a subject I’d thought I was sick of.
PDF preview here.