A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached, translated by Edward Gauvin
Once again, I start from book’s end, with the “About the Author” page which introduces war-child Zeina Abirached, whose first 10 years of life were spent surviving Beirut’s civil war (1975-1990). As an adult, she happened upon a 1984 documentary that included “[a] woman whose home had been hit by the bombings [who] spoke a single sentence that startled her: ‘You know, I think maybe we’re still more or less safe here.'” That woman was Abirached’s own grandmother. “At that moment, she knew she had to tell the story of their lives in Beirut.”
Zeina and her younger brother are waiting for their parents to return home. They’re just a few streets away, visiting their maternal grandmother, but navigating the Beirut streets requires “complicated and perilous choreography.” The children have never known a life without war. Their apartment has been closed off room by room for safety, until all essentials have been piled into the small foyer. Not only does the family gather there, but their neighbors often arrive to wait out the shellings and bombings as it’s the safest space in the entire building.
Tonight, Anhala, an older woman who has raised multiple generations of the family with whom she has lived for decades, is the first to come down to make sure the children are safe on their own. To distract them, she gets the children to help bake a sfouf, her favorite cake. Next comes Chucri, the building’s go-to, fix-it man, bearing blankets and washed lettuce (produce is scarce, as is the water to wash it). Then Ernest – who has never left the building since his twin brother’s death – taps on the door, ready with the next scene from Cyrano de Bergerac. The foyer is soon cozy with the rest of the building’s neighbors … but still the children wait for their parents to arrive safely home.
Over the course of a single night, Abirached reveals the challenging lives of each of the inhabitants. Told through the clear eyes of a young child, the absurdity of war is magnified – with innocent humor and horrific tragedy, not unlike Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis and her memories of her Iranian childhood in Iran. Abirached details the hours spent taking turns waiting to get an elusive dial tone on the phone: the parents smoking themselves into a smoke screen, the children laughing and playing clapping games until the sudden interruption of a connection. Meanwhile, Chucri spends his days in one snaking line after another for everything from bread to matches to gas for the building’s generator, hoping someday he might learn something about his long-missing father. Monsieur Khaled dreams up stories of life before war, insisting he’s from Texas, the “farthest place he could think of,” but chose life in Beirut only because of true love. The unique typeface – blunt, block capitals with a very distinct use of dots over the ‘i’ and inside the ‘o’ (think bullseye!) – is eerily representative of the random potshots happening outside, a reminder in every panel that war is never far.
While violence never ends, somehow, people must still live their lives … and survive. “To die To leave To return / It’s a game for swallows,” a graffitti-ed wall shouts. Even the youngest children recognize the absurdity of war … why doesn’t everyone else?
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2012 (United States)