Palestinian graphic novelist merges art and activism to tell refugees’ stories
By Zahraa Farhat | Friday, 11.04.2016, 01:41 PM

DEARBORN— Chicago-born Palestinian graphic novelist Leila Abdelrazaq is showcasing her work in an exhibition called “Drawing in the Diaspora” at the Arab American National Museum from Nov. 12 to April 19.

The 24-year-old said she identifies as Palestinian because she feels inclined to do so as Israelis have continued to “ethnically cleanse” Palestinians from their homeland since 1948— marginalizing the community. She explained that she refuses to hyphenate because it only fades the Palestinian nationality, which she wants everyone to acknowledge.

“We are people who are being actively ethnically cleansed—Israelis will take any excuse to deny our existence,” she said. “So I don’t like to undermine my Palestinian-ness by hyphenating it. I am as Palestinian as any other and I will not make it easier for others to deny that by first denying it to myself. That’s why I refuse to hyphenate.”

As a daughter of a Palestinian refugee, Abdelrazaq’s experience mirrors her artistic, activist and storytelling career. Her first graphic novel, “Baddawi”, which she published at age 22, took three years to finish. It’s about her father’s life in the eponymous Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon where he was born after his parents fled their homeland due to the 1948 Nakba— the occupation of Palestine.

Abdelrazaq decided to detail her father’s childhood experience living in the camp; his perspective of the Naksa— the 1967 six day war— and the realization he wouldn’t be able to return to his homeland as well as his life during the Lebanese civil war.

Abdelrazaq said she wants to tell stories of refugees taking control, rather than ones that produce pity, because stirring sympathy for them is actually unhelpful.

“I want to show refugees’ experiences where people are the subject of the story, not objects of pity; agents of their own life, not victims of their circumstances,” she said.

Abdelrazaq also wants to portray how diverse groups of the extensive Palestinian community view the diaspora.

“I want to show firsthand accounts of diaspora and what that means for us,” she said, adding that she also wants to enter into conversations with other Arab and diaspora artists about the different experiences of being Palestinian or Arab moving the conversation beyond a “Palestine/Refugees 101” narrative and, “into a more nuanced conversation about what diaspora looks like for different segments of the global Palestinian community.”

She stressed that there are so many ways to embrace the Palestinian nationality and so many experiences that accompany it.  

“The experience of being Palestinian is vastly different for someone living in the West Bank, ’48, the camps in Lebanon or Syria, or in the diaspora in Europe, North America, South America and other places around the world,” she said. “None of these experiences are more ‘legitimately’ or ‘authentically’ Palestinian than another, they are just different.”

Abdelrazaq had the chance to visit Palestine twice since the publication of her first book— once for the Palestine Festival of Literature and another to work with the Tamer Institute at the Palestine International Book Fair.

“Baddawi” was shortlisted for the 2015 Palestine Book Awards in London. Abdelrazaq also spoke at the American University of Beirut as part of its Arab Comics Symposium in 2015.

As for her exhibition at the Arab American National Museum, Abdelrazaq said she hopes attendees recognize that comics are not merely for children, but are active storytelling tools that can benefit readers of all ages. She described this medium as useful for activism.

“I also want people to understand that while published material is great, self-published material is just as important and sometimes even more powerful,” Abdelrazaq added. “I hope to encourage people to use zine-making and self-publishing to create our own narratives and write our own histories.”

The showcase includes graphics from her zines and comics, which consist of “Baddawi” and her short comic “Mariposa Road.” The short comic connects the hardships of unregistered immigrants with the vague essence of Palestinian citizenship.

Some of her other works shine a light on political movements like the #Arabs4BlackPower movement and the fight to free Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted of lying on a naturalization application when asked if she had ever been imprisoned.

Abdelrazaq’s work has also been attacked by some media outlets.

While sketching for a project on immigration and borders last December at the U.S./Mexico border in Arizona, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents detained her because of the Arabic notes they noticed in her sketchbook.

She said the notes were actually making fun of her chapped Arabic. They released Abdelrazaq four hours later without any charge.

“It was scary and confusing,” she said. “But, scarier was the aftermath because there was a big stir in the right wing media about it. The racism Middle Eastern/Muslim people or people who are perceived to be Middle Eastern/Muslim are facing today is not just a result of outwardly bigoted candidates like Donald Trump. It’s a result of the climate created in this country for the past 15+ years and the ‘war on terror’ that my generation has grown up dealing with.”



By Zahraa Farhat

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