Lebanese comics artist and musician Mazen Kerbaj first appeared in Words Without Borders in February 2008, in our second graphic novel issue. Since then he’s contributed six more pieces, most recently “A Subjective History of Lebanon,” published in September. WWB spoke with Kerbaj on Zoom on September 4, 2020. This interview has been edited and condensed.
WWB: Your “Subjective History of Lebanon” juxtaposes Lebanon's political history with your autobiography. There's a real progression from the personal interpretation to the sense of the larger political context, which of course has to do with aging, and becoming older and more aware, but also, I think, reflects to a degree the development of your work. Would you say that your work has become more political over time?
Mazen Kerbaj (MK): Yes and no. Somehow, I feel it became also less political, mostly when I left Beirut. Five years ago, I moved to Berlin, and little by little, I began to do fewer things directly related to Beirut. I actually stopped a strip that I was doing for a local newspaper. In this strip I said, “I feel I'm disconnected, and I feel I'm just kind of an obnoxious expat now, being from outside and giving lessons to the country.” This expat appears a lot in our lives. We all have friends who are expats, and when they come in the summer, they say, “Yeah, but in Canada it's not like this, or in France, everything works.” I will say, “Please shut up.”
When I left, I felt, even in my drawings, I'm not accurately sharing this catastrophe that is called Lebanon, this daily problematic life. The fact of being safe in Berlin, in a country like Germany, and to just put my finger on the sore spot, felt wrong somehow. In one strip, I said, “When I left Lebanon, I left with it my right to treat it as a shitty country, because I was far away.” So, deep inside, I felt it was wrong. Or not that it was wrong, but that I lost some legitimacy.
WWB: You note in “Subjective History” that you're an expat, “ogling my country with a mixture of relief and guilt.”
MK: Absolutely, yes. Of course, I'm glad that I'm not there, specifically because of the recent explosion. But at the same time, I feel so guilty not to share this with all the people that are there. This is a typical Lebanese feeling, this rejection and this attraction to the country. One of my first pieces for WWB was “Letter to the Mother,” where I really deal with this love-hate relationship I have with Beirut, and with Lebanon in general. I think we all share this. We are not capable of hating it 100%, but we are not capable of loving it 100%, because it's really an easy place to hate. When you read “Subjective History of Lebanon,” you think, “How can somebody survive one after another of these things?” Actually, it just becomes normal. We are used to living in this crap somehow.
When I drew these two pages, I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to start from. I was talking a lot with Racha, my companion, my wife, and I was telling her, “It's very difficult, because I don't want to. This country is doing so bad, and usually, my way of working is through my own scope. So, it's always somehow, if not autobiography, self-portrait, some kind of work. Whatever it is, it passes through my own eyes.”
Even before the explosion, I used to tell her, “I feel so, so, so wrong to talk about myself while the country is in this shit, like the economic crisis and everything.” I couldn't. I would go and come back, and I couldn't say, “Yeah, I'm seeing it from afar, but I'm affected because all my friends are there, because my money is in a bank in Beirut, I cannot access it, like everybody else.” But still, it felt really wrong because, even if my money was there, even if I was affected mentally, I was not there. I was privileged somehow. I had a privileged position.
“For the past forty-five years, it's been really bitter to be Lebanese.”
It took me a very long time to arrive at this idea of doing the subjective history of Lebanon. Instead of talking about the crisis, I would talk about how we arrived there, and how I myself arrived to be a privileged witness from afar. So, it was really very painful to get this idea out of me. It took time, a lot of time, and then at some point, it became really clear. I was researching the history of Lebanon more and more in detail, and then both of them came together. But this idea of a subjective history of something has always been there. I never would have imagined it would end up being used for a history of Lebanon, but I think it works perfectly now. But again, this is one of these ideas that's been in my head for . . . Maybe the first time I wrote this title was like fifteen years ago or something, and then it came when I needed it.
Of course, while doing this piece, I said, “I have enough material to do a book here. But I will do it in two pages.” I had to find a way to pack my ideas into two pages, and it's one of the densest stories I've ever made. There is so much information. Lebanese friends who saw it said, it's incredible. It has all our lives in it, because all our lives are basically the same. If you change some things, any other friend who was born in the same period lived the same shit.
And then, a week later, ten days later, this bomb arrived. It's shocking to reach a place where you cannot imagine you could be still shocked by something in this country, and then you are proven wrong.
WWB: You were terribly young the first time you lost someone you knew. It seemed to me that that was the pivot, in “Subjective History,” where you moved from responding to things very personally, to having that greater sense of the political impact, and of yourself in the political context, not just as a boy.
MK: Yeah, yeah. This was really . . . I was maybe ten or twelve, I don't remember the exact year, but he was just a boy playing football with us in the neighborhood, and then, one day, he dies. Yes, this guy called Albert just disappeared one day like this, and we didn't see him for two weeks. Then, a mutual friend comes to play football and says, “Hey, where are our usuals? Where's Albert?” We said, “Albert got shot by a sniper.” And he asked, “In which street?” We said, “This street,” and we continued playing. We were boys, and it was a kind of defense mechanism where we said, “Okay, he died,” as if you said, “This apple fell from a tree.” It was just a normal thing that happened.
It took a really long time for me to get it out again, and to say, “Wow, this thing really happened in my life, and this guy really died in a way somebody shouldn't die normally.”
WWB: You added the epilogue to “Subjective History” for our publication. We spoke about what you would do and how much you would add. That single panel is really all you can say, isn't it?
MK: Yes, yes. Because I tried also, I thought about it a lot, and I tried to enter the story, to enter this new episode, if I can call it that, in the story. Somehow, each time I would enter it, it would be less powerful than to just say, “Look what happened after all this shit I'm talking about. Look what still could happen.” If I go into the story, it tones the ending down. But when I put it as an epilogue, it's the opening of what's next. So the story is not finished, there is an epilogue, and probably a series that I will make in ten years, and that would continue, or whenever.
While if I put it in . . . It was really a conclusion to the story, and I didn't want to conclude the story, especially not like this. Because the shock was so big for me, I needed to make the shock as big somehow, or as absurd, in the story. Beirut ended up in smoke, so my head, of course, it literally ends up in smoke—we don't see my head. This also shows that even I, who said in the last panel that I'm far away, I'm a witness, and I'm not affected anymore—then bam, I am again in the middle of the scene, and I'm as affected as anyone else.
Check out more of Mazen Kerbaj's graphic literature on WWB, including “A Subjective History of Lebanon”
WWB: You initially moved to Berlin for a fellowship, didn't you? What prompted your decision to stay?
MK: Many things. In 2015 I got a fellowship for one year. It was an artist residency, and they paid me and agreed to bring my family, to help me find school for the kids, et cetera. I have three kids, and this is one of the biggest reasons why I moved out of Lebanon, why I stayed here. Because, as I said before, we are somehow like this lost generation, that accepts Lebanon as it is, and lives it with fatalism. “OK, we live in it. OK, it's shitty, but we are used to it.” And there are some good things in it, et cetera.
But deep inside, knowing that there is no future for my kids, especially in 2006, and I say it in “Subjective History,” it was the first time I was a father during wartime—it changes your whole perspective. You cannot say, “OK, I live my life day to day, and then whatever happens, I'll adapt to it.” When you have kids, it makes it somehow much more bitter, and it’s also very difficult to leave. If it was wartime, I would leave and just throw myself into nowhere, and then start again. But it was peacetime—peace in quotation marks, of course. It's never peacetime there.
It was very difficult to decide just to abandon everything. But once we were there, it wasn't as difficult as I expected, because Berlin is, believe it or not, cheaper than Beirut to live in. And most of my work as a musician was done away from Beirut. So, somehow I was working more, because I was in Europe, and it was easier to travel and to play.
“You cannot go out of your house in Beirut without meeting somebody you know. It's impossible.”
My published work is also a little bit between Beirut and everywhere else, but this I can do from here. So, it wasn't very difficult to stay here. Berlin is a fantastic city, at least for the arts and music. Maybe German people are less sympathetic to me than Lebanese people. They are ruder or less hospitable here. But at the same time, they are more direct, which I like also, because they say things like they are. While in Beirut, no, it's always turning around, the same without naming it.
Of course, it's a very different life, but on the artistic level, of course it helped me a lot. Not only because it's Berlin, but also because I lived all my life in Beirut, and making such a big change was very good. Like, to remove all my habits, and to start building new habits in a new place, et cetera, really changed and opened for me a new perspective. I wonder what I would have done with my work if I didn't move. I would have done something else, probably. So, it's interesting on this level.
My wife and I were very happy to try to make it happen, and then it happened. The more time passes, the more we say, “Fortunately, we did it.” It's really bitter to be Lebanese nowadays. For the past forty-five years, it's been really bitter to be Lebanese.
WWB: You mentioned that being in Berlin has shifted your perspective. What kind of things has Berlin allowed you to do with your art? Or, what sort of things have you found yourself developing as a result?
MK: Well, many things actually, because I'm here, because I'm more in contact with various different musicians. For instance, in improv music in Lebanon, we are a very, very small scene that we initiated. So, somehow there I'm the grandfather of the scene at forty-five years old. Here, there’s a scene that has existed since the late '50s and early ‘60s. So, this means there are a lot more musicians in this scene, some older or younger than me, than in the improv scene in Lebanon. There are also a lot more places where you can play this music here, and also a very trained audience, people who know the music.
It's very important for me to know what I do is valid. I just do it for myself, of course. But it's good to know where one stands, and to realize this. For me, it was mostly a change of habit in the sense that I moved to a country where I didn’t know anybody. I have a lot of musician friends, but Beirut somehow saps your energy in a way that no other city, I think, does.
You wake up, and you have work to do, and then you end up not doing any work all day, and you can't say why. Like, it's just a phone call from here, then you went down to have a coffee, then you met . . . You cannot go out of your house in Beirut without meeting somebody you know. It's impossible. I always say it's a kind of very big village. It's not a city. It's a big village where everybody knows everybody.
“I think individuality, it doesn't exist in Lebanon.”
This is great on the one hand, and it's awful on the other hand, where everybody wants to know what everybody is doing, and why did you do that? And I saw him with the wife of whoever. It's a village kind of thing. This energy made me become a hermit a very long time ago. In Beirut, I go out to see maybe ten people altogether, and I go to their houses, or to a small café where I always go, and then I don't do anything else. I really live in my own shell.
Here, on the contrary, I don't know anybody. And the city, it totally belongs to me, it belongs to everybody. I can go down and I'm a total nobody. It's really great to be a nobody in a city. Probably, when I say this to people who live in big cities in the West, it must sound horrible. They would say, “You're stupid. What is better than a human relation?”
But the grass is always greener on the other side. So, being totally incognito and going to any café, and being like anybody else, for me, it's priceless, after forty years of living in Beirut.
WWB: Anonymity is what we all treasure in cities. The idea that you can be completely anonymous, and completely independent, and completely autonomous as a result.
MK: Yes. Yes. I think individuality, it doesn't exist in Lebanon. In Lebanon, there are the families, there is confession, there is the community, there is the building where you live. You belong to so many groups before you are an individual. Your individual needs or aspirations come really at the end, you cannot claim them. Of course, I used to claim them, and many people claim them, but you become sort of a weird person for some. Like, “Why would you claim this? Why would you want to be Mazen Kerbaj before being born Maronite Christian, in Achrafieh in Beirut, from this family, et cetera?” So, everything somehow defines you in the eyes of the others. You need to be definite in their eyes. This is not an easy way to live.
WWB: I wanted to get back to talking about your work as a musician. It sounds as if you're really identifying more as a musician in Berlin, than as an artist. Is that accurate?
MK: I think I'm more known internationally, or at least in places where they do not speak French, as a musician. Many times they would ask me, “Oh, you also do comics?” For me, deep inside I'm a comics artist before being a musician. Because I always wanted to be a comics artist since I was six years old. Music came much later, and almost as a joke. It took me years to realize, “I'm really a musician. I'm seriously a musician. I play with other musicians, I get paid, and I tour, et cetera.” But I'm more known, in Lebanon for instance, I'm much more known as a comics author than as a musician, because I publish a lot there. But I never published in Germany. Some people know me from my blog or some small exhibition, but I'm not really known.
I'm not famous, even as a musician. But at least I'm more known in this experimental music scene. Also, the fact of playing specifically improv music makes me deal with so many other people, and work with so many other musicians. You are more exposed to people.
Whereas, as a comics artist, it's the most solitary job in the world. Like, you work for a year on a comic, and then it takes ten minutes to read. Then, you see your audience once every couple of years for a book signing. We don't even talk with them.
So this is why I love these two extremes. I love the solitary work of the writer, and this very direct thing of music. Like, to be really there in the moment, and when the music is over, it's over. It doesn't exist anymore. You could record it, but it's something else. So I really like these two extremes somehow.
WWB: How do your two art forms cross-pollinate and affect each other, would you say?
MK: For a long time, I used to say they didn't. Which was wishful thinking, I think, to escape answering the question. Because, as I said, music came later, and I was always separating them, even refusing to sell my comics after gigs. And when I went for book signings, I didn't bring my CDs. So, it was really two things.
But I like the pollinating image. There's a lot of it. A lot of my comics work was very influenced by my discovery and practice of improv and experimental music.
In the beginning, I started music to let loose and to lose my capacities as an illustrator. In music, I never had to do this, because I never learned it. I never learned how to play the trumpet, how it shouldn't be played. So, I went directly to where I wanted to go. Sometimes I feel the lack, but at the same time, I say, “No, no, because remember in illustration how much it took you to unlearn what you learned?” It's more to unlearn than to learn, believe me.
“Each time I start a new chapter, there's a catastrophe.”
Improvisation, also, was a very big influence from music. Improvisation for me is a means to get somewhere I cannot get with planning. I like to be lost and to be in danger, both in music and in comics. In music, of course, it's in the moment. You have to take the decision just in the second. In comics, it's a little more loose, but I also love it when, waking up the next day, I see what I did yesterday and say, “Well, I never would have imagined to arrive here.”
So, it's nice how you have to navigate through all this, and fight with your own ideas. I like this because I always think of art as something . . . My wife accuses me of believing in art, as you believe in God, which I accept. I accept the accusation. You have to believe in something, right? So, it's as if there was something here, and somehow I channel it through myself to get it out. Of course, it sounds a little bit naive and stupid, but I like this idea of grabbing things and letting them out.
So, I really like the total opposition of these two forms of art. I always think of music as a completely inferior and superior form of art, because it really doesn't relate to anything else, and it exists only in the moment. Of course, now we can record it, but it doesn't exist. It's really exhilarating for me, who grew up with something as rigid as drawing and writing together, to arrive at this music, which is totally free.
WWB: What are you working on now?
MK: I've been working on a new graphic novel that’s being serialized in short chapters. It's called Antoine, and it revolves around my father and the history of the golden age of culture in Lebanon and Beirut in the '60s and '70s. It’s being published chapter by chapter by a Lebanese publisher called Samandal.
But each time I start a new chapter, there's a catastrophe. So one part took me a year to finish instead of two weeks, because I started it, then went to Beirut, and then the 17th, the revolution, started when I was there. And I stopped everything and went out on the street of course. Then, the coronavirus started. In Lebanon, there is this catastrophic economic crisis, and then the stakes are raised by the new explosion, because it's so huge that you cannot think about anything else.
When I'm in something, I do not know what's next. Especially now, because Antoine is eighty-five years old and has Alzheimer’s. I'm dealing with his memory, and it's really very difficult. Working on it, it's cathartic, and at the same time, it's a burden. It's really too much. I'm so happy to be able to make a new chapter each time, but I also feel the responsibility. My father is very well-known in Lebanon, very, very known. So, it's like saying I'm Mazen de Niro in America.
“I'm here to take the relay from him, and to keep it somehow alive.”
Ever since I was very young, people said, “Oh, are you his son?” So I do not want to be overly nice with him, just because it's him. But at the same time, I do not want to revisit my problems with him when he can’t answer anymore. It's very delicate to deal with this in comics.
So far, so good. I'm good, but it's getting complicated. Somehow, I feel I waited for him to be like this to do it, because I’ve wanted to work with him for years, but something always held me back.
WWB: As he's losing his memory, you're preserving it.
MK: I didn't think of it like that, but more and more, I feel this is what's happening. I'm here to take the relay from him, and to keep it somehow alive, even though it's not his memory anymore, it's my memory. It's him in my memory, which, again, is a very interesting subject for me, how memory functions, how we exist in the memory of somebody else.
WWB: Is that something that's also easier for you to do from Berlin, as opposed to Lebanon?
MK: Maybe. Maybe it's easier because I am also less in demand for other things. I have more time for myself. I want to keep this openness, where I can really surprise myself, and be experimental, and challenge the medium, and challenge the story, et cetera. Each time I put the bar very high, and I say, “What's next?”
Mazen Kerbaj is a Lebanese comics author, visual artist, and musician born in Beirut in 1975. He also works on selective illustration and design projects and has taught at the American University of Beirut. Kerbaj is the author of more than fifteen books, and his short stories and drawings have been published in anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. His work has been translated into more than ten languages and has been shown in galleries, museums, and art fairs around the world. Mazen Kerbaj is widely considered one of the initiators and key players of the Lebanese free improvisation and experimental music scene. He is co-founder of Irtijal, an annual improvisation music festival (www.irtijal.org), and of Al Maslakh, the first label for experimental music in the region operating since 2005. In 2015, Kerbaj was the recipient of a DAAD one-year artist in residency in Berlin. He has lived and worked in the German capital ever since then. Since his move to Berlin, Kerbaj has developed several new projects in different fields, such as Borborygmus, a play co-written, directed, and performed with Rabih Mroué and Lina Majdalanie; Synesthesia, a concept for a live graphic score for an improvising ensemble; and Walls Will Fall, a composition for forty-nine trumpets. He also started working on Antoine, his most ambitious graphic novel to date.