Inside the Giant Fish

Inside the Giant Fish

Rawand Issa, translated by Amy Chiniara

Maamoul Press


60 pages

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“The first beach resort built in Jiyeh faces our house. From then on, we were denied entry to the shore.” Rawand Issa’s memoir-inflected comic zeroes in on the most visible alterations to the landscape of her childhood: the sprawl of luxury resorts that rapidly develops along the beaches of her Lebanon hometown. A defiant song of exile, Inside the Giant Fish records the rituals of a life lived by the sea in vivid prints, all the while chronicling the ache of estrangement from those same beaches as they become the exclusive domain of the leisure class.

Originally printed in Arabic by the Egyptian publisher Mahrousa, the book is available in English through Detroit's Maamoul Press with a translation by Amy Chiniara. Named for a traditional Arab pastry, Maamoul has so far prioritized perspectives “from marginal backgrounds,” but with a resistance to stereotypes and simplistic depictions. Their mission statement emphasizes DIY ethos and self-taught artists, but the books also really pop. The bold palette of Inside the Giant Fish, Issa confessed to the Bulaq podcast, was inspired by a beloved childhood swimsuit. The book’s crucial image–the sea–engulfs entire pages, rendered in marbled undulations of lavish deep blue. This is contrasted by the spiky, geometric human figures that people the story. With their polygon heads and abstracted features, they evoke both the alienation of German expressionism (Kirchner comes to mind) and the pugnacious scrappiness of Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan strips.

The story begins in the 1990s. A seaside town, Jiyeh is home to a shrine to the Prophet Jonah - some claim it was the place where the great fish cast him onto dry land. Drained by years of war, the agricultural village struggles under the weight of widespread inflation, enjoying none of the benefits of a postwar economic boom. Initially, the fenced construction sites along the shore prompt little resistance. After all, they carry with them the promise of jobs.

The limited access to the beach, however, becomes contentious. The narrow stretch of beach still accessible to the public is overcrowded and turns rowdy, until that too is fenced off. Physical barriers aside, parents are wary of children–daughters, in particular–mingling with resort guests, described as “weirdos listening to weird music, dancing half-naked till the sun came up.” For the girls of Jiyeh, being spotted alone on the beach would be scandalous. The girls at the resorts, meanwhile, appear blissfully unencumbered by such prohibitions. An internalization of this confusing double-standard seems inevitable. “It was our bodies, the girls from the area, that were the shameful ones.”

Throughout the book, the narration slides back and forth between “we” and “I.” In interviews, Issa has stated that the book’s stories stem largely from the experiences of her sister, but also incorporate stories shared by family members and neighbors, as well as her own. The resultant composite character reads at times as a generalized “we,” speaking on behalf of a collective memory. Yet the first-person detail and reminiscent tone have all the hallmarks of memoir, and it’s tempting to conflate character and author. We meet the unnamed narrator at different stages of life, but early sequences introduce a headstrong imp in a blue one-piece, carting a floaty fashioned from an old tire. She stands obstinate with insistent curls and thick, expressive eyebrows. Pinpoint dots emphasize her unshaven legs and rough (outthrust) tongue. She will not be refused her day at the beach. A clandestine excursion to a resort bar, however, drives home the sense of otherness she’s come to understand. Perched uncomfortably on a barstool, defiance gives way to self-consciousness, and she sees herself out.

Previously, a tradition of daily routines commenced each spring. Local men constructed temporary shade canopies from the reeds that grew along the irrigation canals. Under these canopies, children played in the mornings, adults cooled off after work, and local youths spent nights “playing cards and backgammon and smoking nargile.” There’s an implication of shared interest - informal gatherings, but also arrangements for supervising children. The sea, meanwhile, appears as an untamed frontier, the children swimming far out from the shore to hunt for jellyfish and to salvage treasures from the rusted hulls of wrecked cargo ships. Since the resorts appeared, though, even when one can reach the shore, sand mining has changed its contours. “The waves didn’t hit the same way.”

Issa’s background in newspaper journalism comes through in the comic’s focus on the hyperlocal, recording disappearing neighborhood routines. An earlier comic, The Insubordinate (also published by Maamoul), follows a group of Beirut activists caught in Lebanon’s military court system. Inside the Giant Fish’s focus isn’t as explicitly political, but it operates at the margins of a similar response to injustice. Issa's subject here is the change of terms for a community sidelined by Lebanon’s postwar reconstruction. Her intent, which she hints at in a conversation with the news website Qantara, is to capture a prevailing mood through documentation: "If I want to know, for example, what happened in Lebanon in the 1970s at the time of the civil war–and I want to find out how people felt at the time instead of just reading about the events–then I'd understand everything”

“Defeat” might be a word for the mood captured by Inside the Giant Fish. It’s there in the characters’ eyes. Arced lines framing the eyes lend an expressive depth–and warmth–to the angular faces that Issa favors. But these lines often communicate a wearied exhaustion, too. Issa describes a generation brought up by parents who’d endured one war after another. “The 80s generation was raised on defeat…. We were taught to put up with things, rather than fight back,” the narrator remarks. She’s talking about the beach, but not only the beach. The beach frames a broader social and political realignment at the local level. The book is studded with references to 15 years of conflict along the border to Israel. The postwar jockeying for political power spreads to the youth athletics center, disrupting basketball tournaments and theater productions. Exhausted by sectarian Shia-Sunni disputes and a general encroachment of religious conservatism on every facet of public life, our narrator increasingly withdraws from Jiyeh, escaping to the city for university studies.

The altered landscape of Issa’s hometown is but one lifetime’s apportionment of centuries of change. The ruins of a sixth-century Porphyreon citadel stand near Jiyeh’s shore, and Issa alludes to a still more ancient city beneath it, “destroyed and built over.” The narrator’s grandmother tells of antique relics that periodically emerged from the sand when she was young (many now displayed in museums far from Lebanon). This was long before the narrator’s time. Back then, her grandmother recalls, whales and dolphins used to swim right up to the shore. There was coral. “The sea was different.”

Later, there’s a move to Ontario. “I felt suffocated by how much we were expected to put up with…. When my immigration request was granted, I packed all my belongings in two days.” She’s unable to escape the feeling of alienation, though. Cast in putty grays, Ontario clearly isn’t home, at least not yet. To cope with “the depression that came with leaving home,” the narrator signs up for yoga and meditation classes. There, closing her eyes, she summons–of course–the waves and sand of Jiyeh. And it helps.

“It was the same calm feeling that I had as a child.”