Despite the multiple devastating crises that have plagued Lebanon since 2019, its dynamic cultural scene continues to grow. Historically, Lebanon has been a cultural beacon in the Arab world, a place of refuge for diverse artists from the MENA region, and a source of inspiration for its religious and cultural pluralism and the beauty of its landscapes.

Today, Lebanon is once again in the forefront of an artistic field that is evolving in the Arab world: comics and cartoons. This art was honored in the recent “Beyrouth BD Festival” (BD stands for comics or Bande Dessinée, in French). Organized by the French Institute of Lebanon, the festival brought together more than 40 artists with no less than ten exhibitions, six animated concerts, and a dozen meetings and conferences about comics in the Arab world.

Lebanon is again in the forefront of an artistic field that is evolving in the Arab world: comics and cartoons.

According to Marie Buscail, director of the French Institute of Lebanon, the festival carries a “modern, lively and committed vision of comics,” an art form that “has taken on a particular international dimension over the past 15 years in the Arab world.”

The drawn concert at Sursock Palace which opened the Festival.

The Drawn Concert at Sursock Palace which opened the Festival. Photo credit: Eszter Szép

Lead organizer Mathieu Diez said that “the festival shows the richness and talents of this small country.”

The Cedar country is indeed an important center for comic and cartoon production in the Arab world, with authors such as Mazen Kerbaj (“Politics”, “Beirut July-August 2006”), and the Art of Boo (“Anatomy of a hummus bowl”). They illustrate with irony and humor all the contrasts of Lebanese society, as well as its past and present tragedies. Other efforts include the Samandal collective, a quarterly magazine launched in 2007, and the Alifbata publishing house, founded to bring Arab comics to the international public by Barack Rima and Léna Merhej.

The festival featured a mosaic of Arab and French cartoons, and addressed the history of the art, recent developments, the relationship between art and politics, and the challenges faced by cartoonists.

“The New Arab Comic Strip” festival demonstrated the dramatic rise of the Arab comic strip since the Arab Spring. Indeed, a real artistic ecosystem is emerging throughout Arab countries, with networks of artists and publishing houses producing diverse content that addresses the sensibilities of audiences of all ages.

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While Egypt was the precursor in cartoons before the Levant and Maghreb nations, innovative forms of comics are appearing throughout the MENA region. They evoke the suffocating daily life in big cities, the challenge to intimate relationships, politics, violence, and the culture of “haram” that is rampant in the Arab world. The exhibition featured several dozen magazines classified by country, from Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, to Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Cartoonists from Syria documented the Syrian revolution, denouncing the repression and horrors of war, before being forced into exile a few years later.

The festival also showcased animated concerts that combined music and drawing, giving life to the sound of instruments through breathtaking illustrations. Six such concerts, accompanied by live drawings, depicted how comic strips can constitute an extraordinary platform of self-expression.

No less than 30 events were spread throughout the city of Beirut, each featuring a different neighborhood

No less than 30 events were spread throughout the city of Beirut, each featuring a different neighborhood. Exhibits, conferences, and workshops took place at the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, the Dar el Nimeh Institute, the French Institute and the National Museum of Beirut.

The festival was also decentralized with performances and expositions throughout the country. Tripoli, for example, hosted an exhibit entitled, “In the port of Tripoli, there are bubbles.” Saida saw workshops and an exposition examining the relationship between comics and manga, the graphic novel/comic art form emanating from Japan. Other events were held in Zahle, Jounieh, and Deir el Qamar, offering a beautiful way to salute the cultural and artistic richness of Lebanon, a country where attention has been concentrated around Beirut for too long, at the expense of artists from other regions.

Artists of 14 nationalities participated in the festival, highlighting their common Arabic identity, language, and personal and political challenges. Invited authors mentioned the emergence of an “Arab scene” in comics, an art that has long remained concentrated in the West. They see comics not only as a means of self-expression, but also as a way to reclaim their space and identity.

Artists of 14 nationalities participated in the festival, highlighting their common Arabic identity.

As artists struggle to make a living from their work, due to the lack of local funding and interest from a broad audience, with this festival they seek to give more visibility to an art form that is still not widely recognized in the Arab world. Both censorship and political threats continue to hinder this art form marked by its insolence and total freedom of expression.

French Ambassador Anne Grillo stated in her introductory remarks that the festival created “bridges between French and Arab artists.” Indeed, the Institute has been involved for years in supporting Lebanese artists, particularly through financial grants, but also through the program “Nafas” which brings 100 Lebanese artists to France every year and assists them in developing research and creative projects.

The festival provided another opportunity for the French to discover the Arab cultural scene and to create lasting links with Arab professionals. It also served as a bridge among Arab artists themselves.

A photo of the Thawra Revolution exhibit.

A photo of the “Thawra” (Revolution) exhibit. Photo credit: Eszter Szép

Gradually, the popular perception of the Arab comic strip is changing. Once thought of as childish entertainment, it is now seen as a committed art, an illustrated documentary that can denounce state actors’ malfeasance and raise awareness on burning issues. In a country plunged into political turmoil, drawing has been used as a tool of protest, conveying an idea in a nanosecond.

In a country plunged into political turmoil, drawing has been used as a tool of protest and revolution.

The “Drawings of the Thawra” (Revolution) exhibition displayed the work of artists and art students from the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. It underlined the creativity of a youth deprived of political expression for years and stuck in a society trapped in confessionalism and authoritarianism.

During a session on comics and journalism, Kamal Hakim and Nicolas Wild talked about their works as vivid illustrations of the mass protest movement that shook Lebanon in October 2019. They discussed how to draw the revolution, who to portray, what scenery to display, whether it was an autobiographical account or a travelling reportage. The drawing was intended to be revolutionary, to give a voice to the downtrodden.

Lebanon has regained its historical place as an intermediary between peoples, and a meeting place within various Arab countries. Fortunately, Lebanon remains a safe space for artists of the region. The crisis and the difficulties of everyday life have not disrupted their work as they show the world how the Arab cultural scene is a space of innovation and creation, deeply connected to international cultural developments.