Poppies of Iraq by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim. Translated by Helge Dascher. Drawn and Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462939. 120pp.
Gene: This graphic novel is by Brigitte Findakly and drawn by her husband, Lewis Trondheim, who is my favorite cartoonist. (She’s his colorist, and apparently does some coloring for other cartoonists as well.)
It’s the story of her growing up in Iraq. Her mom is French, her dad is an Iraqi dentist. Her mom moved to Iraq after they married — she met Findakly’s dad when he was in dental school in France. And they lived in Mosul, which has been in news for all of the wrong reasons lately. So this is her story about growing up Christian in Mosul, half Iraqi, French-speaking at home…
Sarah: Oh yeah.
G: …going to Arab schools. It’s written so that a kid can get it, but there’s some adult level weirdness, too. It tells the history of Iraq, it has photos of her family, and it has cultural tidbits about Iraq that were a bit surprising.
What struck me were a few parallels between Korea (where I lived for a few years) and Iraq. Here’s a moment where all of the kids are out running behind a truck spraying a fog of DDT to kill mosquitos. I saw this in Korea in the early 1990s (and my wife Silver remembers it in her neighborhood farther back than that), though there the kids breathed it in and out as they pretended to smoke.
S: I remember a similar story from the U.S. in Frank Zappa’s autobiography.
G: This can’t be safe. I hope they’re not still doing it. Or if they are that they’re using some safer chemical.
Another moment that reminded me of Korea is when Findakly says that if a family has a whole bunch of kids, but a married sibling doesn’t have any, they’ll just give a kid to the couple. Silver’s mother was actually given to one of her aunts for a time. (She lived in Manchuria for a bit in the 1930s until that aunt lost her fortune and returned Silver’s mom to her birth family.) I’ve heard this is done in India, too…
It really gives fascinating day-to-day details, too. Here’s a bit about Findakly’s mothers’ magazines from France. Iraqi customs officials would cut out any photos of Jewish people.
And this is my favorite cultural tidbit, a two page sequence that ends with this: “In Iraq, before a wedding, the future husband is asked if he wants his fiancée’s pubic hair completely removed or left as is.” (laughing) The groom said, “Completely,” so the bride is crying. Relatives carry the message between them.
G: Here are some nicely done pages about the history of Mosul, and some really old photos of Findakly’s ancestors and relatives.
Here her parents are on the phone, speaking French, while her father was in Baghdad. The government officials listening in interrupt and tell them not to speak French because they can’t understand.
Here’s a bit about Iraqi manners. Findakly’s mom never got the hang of the fact that people were supposed to refuse second helpings even if they wanted more, so she’d just put her amazing French desserts away. (Their guests eventually adapted and started taking seconds.)
G: Overall it’s a kids-eye view of the country. At one point people were angry at Christians and they were being killed but in Findakly’s experience, she wasn’t really alarmed. Her father was a dentist for the army, and that protected them a bit, even from looting by soldiers.
(minor spoiler) Her parents are still alive. And so the narrative not only moves between all of what I’ve mentioned before, it also moves between the past and the present. They’re in their late 80s or early 90s and live across the street from her. Sometimes when she needs to clarify something for the book she goes and talks to her mom.
S: I’m glad there’s another book that reminds me of Persepolis.
G: Yeah, they’re both great, and neither of them ever comes across like an after school special.
And just one more point, after the family eventually moves to France, it becomes a bit of an immigration story. Her father can’t work as a dentist, and she’s told she can’t be Arab because she’s Christian. (She walks away from the kid who said that, calling him an idiot. Findakly seems to feel like Iraq is home, and even goes back to visit a few times.)
Thanks to my friend Dawn who got me a signed copy at Comic-Con in July. Trondheim and Findakly even drew this in my book!