The graphic novel Jerusalem by Guy Delisle isn’t really a novel, it is a graphic travelogue of Delisle’s year living in the holy city as an expatriate stay-at-home dad, raising his two children while his girlfriend worked with the Israeli branch of Doctors Without Borders (MSF in conventional French, Medecins San Fronteres). Not particularity religious, he “thanks God he was an atheist,” Delisle documents his experiences and observations living in the world’s most holy city with a wry, outsider perspective. He lives in Eastern Jerusalem in a Muslim district called Beit Hanna and he must change buses frequently to get through the Jewish and Muslim zones. He is baffled by the customs of the ultra orthodox Jews that live in poverty to study the Torah. He offends Muslims by presenting his artwork. He suffers through endless interrogations each time he leaves and reenters the country. Most of the time he searches out scenery to sketch only to be told by guards that he isn’t allowed to sit down and sketch certain areas such as the wall that divides Israel and Palestine.
It is hard for me to say this about a graphic book but my initial impression upon finishing this was disappointment. I say that this is hard for me to say because it isn’t a bad book; it was a lite and enjoyable read that was easy on the eyes and speaks with an honest self awareness that is fresh. However, with a title like Jerusalem I found the subject matter too light and lacking depth. Delisle is informative about many aspects of the tenuous relationship and history between the Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis, but his execution is too narrow for such a delicate political topic. This is a travelogue after all and it reads as such. Events happen to Delisle, he documents them and they are left hanging just as a new day and new events occur. There isn’t an overarching vision or “story” to bind the many incongruous events that are documented here. Each page is a short scene from a day in the life of an expat in Jerusalem and although interesting, the day in the life of an expat isn’t what I was looking for in a book bearing the title Jerusalem. The only cohesive part of the book that extends beyond a page or two is Delisle’s coverage of the Gaza Conflict that began in December 2008 and extended through January 2009 when Israel retaliated against the Palestinian firing of rockets into Israeli territory with a barrage of airdropped bombings over the Gaza strip that resulted in approximately 1,300 Palestinian deaths in an unjust overcompensation for the 13 Israelis that died as a result of the Palestinian rockets. Here, Delisle’s coverage was thorough and congruent. I wish that more of the book had that consistency. When I picked this up I was expecting something like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Li Kunwu’s A Chinese Life. What those two books had that I found lacking in Jerusalem was a personal connection to the political and social story depicted on the pages, but Jerusalem is merely a travelogue and isn’t capable of achieving the the personal connection inherent in those other works.
Despite my criticism, there is plenty of good stuff within Delisle’s book. He does present the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a fairly neutral tone, although he does seem pretty judgmental (and with justification) towards the Jewish settlers encroaching upon the every dwindling Palestinian territory. The many conversations he has with MSF workers, diplomats, and other expatriates provide a varied understanding of the culture and conflict between Israel and Palestine. The book does satisfy as a light and informative glimpse into the world we so often here about through distant news stories. Not that I had desire to suffer through the risks associated with traveling in Jerusalem these days, but Delisle does add to my discouragement simply through his depiction of the bureaucratic hell that is found in the many, many checkpoints. His book is a valuable account of life in Jerusalem, however it isn’t necessarily a memorable account for this reader.