A candid conversation about gender fluidity, exile and mystical poetry

Comic book author Barrack Rima: “Liberation is a path that never ends, we are never completely free”

© Barrack Rima

Excerpt from “Dans le taxi” by Belgian-Lebanese cartoonist Barrack Rima: “It is not good for a girl to be like a boy and for a boy to be like a girl.”

With Dans le taxi, Belgian-Lebanese comic book author Barrack Rima pays homage to her hometown of Tripoli. It is the place where she first tasted Sufism and the mystical poetry of Rumi, but also where she had to oppress her gender identity. Only as an artist can she turn her suffering into drawings, love and poetry. “I don’t want to end up like Salman Rushdie or the editors of Charlie Hebdo.”

This article was translated by Kompreno, with support from DeepL. Original source.

Barrack Rima enjoys a soft autumn sun on Brussels’ Place Saint-Gilles. She is sitting in the café she has frequented since her student days. The maple leaves, her high heels and painted lips: they shine in the same powerful red.

The Belgian-Lebanese comic book writer deliberately looks for the feminine touches in her outfit. Yet she does not allow herself to be pushed into that narrow pigeonhole. She also wears her beard with pride.

Gender fluidity is also a major theme in Rima’s latest book, Dans le taxi (2020). In it, the young main character steps into a shared taxi at one point wearing his mother’s red high heels and dress. His father in the back seat reacts furiously.

“The first thing I discovered was that I was transphobic. Surely that had to mean something.”

It is a poignant scene that also stirred a lot in the author herself. “After writing my book, I felt I had to delve into the gender aspect. So I did. The first thing I discovered was that I was transphobic. Surely that had to mean something.”

It has opened up something huge, Rima explains. “We are now two years on and I am in transition. But actually, it doesn’t make me feel that different. It was in me all along.”

Exile

Once, the Mediterranean Sea was a unifying factor for Lebanon. Today, it is a border, hard as concrete. It is the border that millions of Lebanese have crossed for work and studies. Or to flee a painful past of war.

“The diaspora has become a unique part of Lebanese culture,” says Rima. According to the most conservative estimates, over 4 million Lebanese live abroad (compared to just under 4 million in Lebanon). The World Bank calculated that foreign money transactions of the diaspora account for 54% of Lebanon’s gross national product. This is one of the highest percentages in the world.

Rima also left her homeland at the age of 18. She ended up in Belgium, where she was allowed to start her education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.

“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was quite normal for people from the Lebanese middle class to study abroad. It was the end of the civil war, people wanted to leave. I don’t feel it was a decision, it was obvious. My two brothers had gone before me.”

Rima, now a Belgian citizen, feels completely at home in Brussels. “Belgium is very similar to Lebanon in some ways. Brussels is right on a centuries-old language border. I love that. Borders are places where identities can float around freely.”

Johannes Decat

Stripauteur Barrack Rima: ‘België is net als Libanon geen natiestaat. Je vindt hier een mix van heel verschillende mensen die samenleven op een kleine plek.’

According to Rima, Brussels, like Lebanon with its multitude of denominational communities, has no dominant identity. And she experiences that as liberating. “Belgium, like Lebanon, is not a nation-state. You find here a mix of very different people living together in a small place.”

“I am fed up with journalists who try to summarise the ‘Arab graphic novel scene’ in a few pages,”

That can breed violence, she says, and rejecting the other. But it can also breed a model of society in which everyone has their place. “Maybe the regional and economic model makes war impossible here. I mean, if Belgium was in the Middle East, it would be war here a long time ago.”

Rima is an artistic jack-of-all-trades. Besides autobiographical graphic novels, such as Dans le taxi and the Beirut Trilogy, she has made documentary comics and has several film projects to her credit.

She also made comic cartoons about life in our capital with “The Brussels Men” and denounced social problems in Lebanon with her weekly contribution Sociologia in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar.

Yet Rima says the media has a tendency to put her in the narrow pigeonhole of an “Arab artist.” “I am fed up with journalists who try to summarise the ‘Arab graphic novel scene’ in a few pages,” she says.

“Such summaries then result in stereotypes about a wide and complex art scene that doesn’t actually have that much in common with different countries, backgrounds and specific histories,” she wrote in an email following our interview.

Shared taxi

Although Rima’s critique of Lebanese society is sharp, Dans le taxi at times reads like a paean to her Tripoli. The mere choice of the shared taxi as a setting, with a driver who is also a part-time poet, betrays a complex love for her hometown.

Those shared taxis are typically Lebanese. A driver picks up several travellers during a trip and takes them to different locations to save costs.

The shared taxi takes the reader through the history of the main character and his hometown Tripoli.

The storylines intertwine, just as their route winds through the old port city. The backseat conversations touch on big themes like migration and gender norms. The destination is unknown.

“Liberation is a path that never ends. We never are completely free.”

Then the poet-driver allows two new passengers to take a seat and starts reciting verses by the poet Abu Nuwas: “Drinker, raise your glass to the health of beautiful boys.”

Thereupon, the main character and his fellow passengers indulge in a passionate bisexual lovemaking. In that fused dream world of the shared taxi, the author is born. It seems to be the end point of a transformation. Did the main character give birth to the woman who was inside her all along?

“I don’t believe in such an end point,” Barrack Rima immediately objects when I present her with my interpretation of the book. “Liberation is a path that never ends. I believe we can transform many traumas to move towards liberation, but we are never completely free.”

The seven sleepers of Ephesus

Rima’s militancy was not always reciprocated. In 2010, the Lebanese prosecutor accused four editorial board members of the Lebanese cartoon collective Samandal, of which Rima was a member at the time, of blasphemy, spreading fake news and slander and defamation.

Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar once rejected one of Rima’s drawings because it featured nudity, yet the artist admits that she suffers mostly from self-censorship. It comes up every time before she starts drawing, she reveals.

“I don’t want to end up like Salman Rushdie or the editors of Charlie Hebdo.”

“I am currently working on a story set between heaven and hell. And there’s a revolution, you see. It might be sensitive. But once I actually have something on paper, I can unleash my creativity again.”

She also often has nightmares just before publication. When Dans le taxi was published, she dreamt that her father would discover the book. This fear, by the way, is not limited to her family.

“Sometimes I fear the reaction of society. I know there are limits, legal and societal. I don’t want to end up like Salman Rushdie or the editors of Charlie Hebdo.”

At the end of Dans le taxi, the main character dreams that, as an old man, he meets his adult daughter. She tells him about the legacy he left her. That legacy is depicted as a tree. The heart is a metal flower, a propeller that carries the daughter into a new age as the seven sleepers up to the edge of heaven.

Here, Barrack Rima uses Rumi’s verses to refer to the seven sleepers of Ephesus, a Biblical legend that also appears in the Quran. It tells the story of seven persecuted Christians who hide in a cave.

Over three hundred years later, they awaken in an era where Christianity has become the official religion of the Roman Empire. The seven Christians can now live their beliefs freely and safely.

In that story lies a hopeful message for avant-gardists like Barrack Rima herself. Society is changeable. It makes sense to fight for a freer world where identity is a changeable choice for everyone, not a label that others give you.

This article was translated by Kompreno, with support from DeepL. Original source.

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Over de auteur

  • Midden-Oosten en Migratie

    Johannes is journalist en schrijver. Zijn interesse gaat vooral uit naar politiek verzet, in al zijn vormen. Talen zijn een uit de hand gelopen hobby.

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