Comics and Graphic Treatments of the Middle East: Not Just for Beginners

The Allan Solomonow papers, 1944-2016 [bulk: 1960-2009], Ms. Coll. 1247, are now processed and available for research.

Allan Solomonow (born 1937) is a Jewish peace activist who was active in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area from the 1970s through the 2010s. His particular concern was Middle East peace, and especially, the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Researchers who have an interest in US policy in the Middle East, the role of both secular and religious peace organizations, and ongoing Arab-Israeli dialogue will find much of interest in the collection.

One topic that interested me as I worked my way through the materials is the use of cartoons, comics, and other types of graphic representation to convey thoughts and ideas about a topic as sensitive and fraught as Middle East peace.

In the mid-1980s Solomonow and an illustrator named Leonard Rifas proposed a comic treatment on the situation in the Middle East with Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, then affiliated with the publisher W.W. Norton. Writers and Readers produced what they called the “Documentary Comic Book Beginners Series” — books made up of text and illustrations meant to present complicated non-fiction themes in simple, readable, and amusing stories that would appeal to the non-expert wanting to gain literacy on a given topic. Some of the titles produced by Writers and Readers over the years include Marx for Beginners, Nicaragua for Beginners, Nuclear Power for Beginners, and even Domestic Violence for Beginners — awkward title choices aside, they did not shy away from difficult topics.

While the volume on the Middle East never came to fruition, Solomonow and Rifas developed a proposal that included chapter outlines, page counts, sample texts, and the mock-up of an illustrated chapter.

The Solomonow papers also contain other instances of comic and cartoon treatments of the Middle East. A small comic book put out by the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC, in the 1950s is aimed at educating American Jewish children by telling a simplified and perhaps sanitized story of the founding and growth of the state of Israel. In Lyn ‘n Len’s Album: Watching Israel Grow, two American siblings create a scrapbook about Israel and recall a trip to visit their uncle David. Lyn and Len’s parents fill in the back story, having visited at the country’s founding. The short comic describes “hostile Arabs” from the past and states that “all citizens, Jews and Arabs alike” can now vote in free elections, but otherwise does not directly acknowledge the Palestinian people.

An issue of the weekly comic book Los Agachados (The Crouched Ones) from 1973, by the Mexican political cartoonist Eduardo Humberto del Rio Garcia, who went by the pen name “Rius,” is dedicated to the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews. Rius’ narrative tells the history of the area and explains, from his point of view, how the conflict came to be. Rius’ views are plainly socialist and he exhibits sympathy for both Jews and Palestinians, but with perhaps more affinity for the plight of the latter. He is critical of the modern Jewish state, especially political leaders such as Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, and also examines the role of the US and the USSR in the region’s predicaments.

Finally, the collection includes a set of comic books called Palestine by the Maltese-American cartoonist Joe Sacco. Sacco, who was trained as a journalist, spent significant time in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the early 1990s and interviewed more than 100 Palestinians and Jews. His treatment is intimate and sober and is decidedly sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. But most critics have praised the work for its balance and it has won several awards, including the 1996 American Book Award. It was named one of the Top 100 English-Language Comics of the Century by Comics Journal. Sacco was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to turn the comic series into a full-length graphic novel.

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