Zeina Abirached was born in Beirut in 1981 in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War. Her family lived near the demarcation line dividing East and West Beirut. Snipers and artillery became an everyday occurrence, as were shortages in gas, food, and running water. Something as simple as walking a few blocks to visit family became a life or death affair.
A Game for Swallows, set in 1984, presents readers with a single night in Abirached’s family’s apartment. Her parents have gone to visit Zeina’s grandmother, but as the fighting has grown worse, they’ve become stranded. Zeina and her brother remain at home in the one safe room in the apartment building – their foyer. Over the course of the evening, neighbors gather in the foyer with them, a ritual that has grown throughout the many bombings. They share food, stories, pictures, and recitations of Cyrano de Bergerac, all while keeping each other company and hoping for the safe return of Zeina’s parents.
It’s difficult to avoid comparisons between A Game for Swallows and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Honestly, it was one of the reasons I requested to review this title. Both stories explore a girl’s childhood in the Middle East during wartime. They share similar artistic qualities, such as using black and white illustrations; bold, almost child-like characterizations of people; and the ability to conjure up a city at war with simple depictions of everyday life. However, Abirached’s work is less a memoir of her childhood and more a vignette dedicated to the life she and her neighbors lived – a life that Zeina and her brother were born into.
The art, while reminiscent of Satrapi’s work, is more stylized and provides a greater sense of detail. Abirached plays with geometric shapes, building up walls of barrels blocking the streets or losing a neighbor’s taxi in a sea of cars waiting for the chance to purchase gasoline. Facial hair and cigarette smoke are a chance for her to play with whirling shapes. Abirached has earned my fandom for the ft-ft sound made by the Cyrano-reciting Ernest’s mustache.
However, her skills are most evident in the way that she uses space in her panels. The foyer is filled with many objects to make it more comfortable, most striking of which is the tapestry depicting Moses and the Hebrews fleeing Egypt. It serves as a background for the majority of the book, but the way that it occupies space changes to reflect the moods of the characters. When the children are left alone while a neighbor puts a cake in the oven, the foyer looms around them, black and empty, save for the tapestry. When visitors call out if artillery is incoming or outgoing, the figures on the wallhanging peek around them. The panels can be cramped with people, sometimes dangling feet and hands into the gutters of the page, or the space manipulated to highlight a face apart from the crowd.
Abirached’s story is striking, tense, and poignant. Though we expect the worst while Zeina’s parents are absent, the way that the building tenants come together is heartwarming. Moments of humor – Zeina and her brother “shaving” with Lego razors, Chucri’s play-fighting, and Farah’s story of dodging snipers in her wedding gown – add levity to an otherwise dire situation. While not as in-depth as Persepolis, this is still an engaging tale that may attract younger readers. It has many discussion topics that could be of interest to teens and the artwork is accessible. In a world where doomsday preparation is featured on reality TV and teens are increasingly aware of the devastation of natural disasters, one hopes that the sense of community shown in A Game for Swallows is just an apartment away.