Leila Abdelrazaq Draws Social Justice Movements

Palestinian-American artist Abdelrazaq’s graphic novels address refugees, diaspora, nostalgia and home through the lens of the Palestinian experience.

By Nadia Eldemerdash
Illustration by Grace Molteni

There is something in graphic novelist Leila Abdelrazaq’s artwork that, as an Arab, is very familiar. It reminds me of the comics I would see in magazines and newspapers in Egypt when I would visit as a child: the rounded facial features, the way the figures are posed-curved postures that seem somehow pliable, the pencil-like strokes.

In some ways, that similarity makes Abdelrazaq’s work all the more political. A Palestinian artist based in Detroit, Abdelrazaq’s work focuses on social justice movements such as #NoDAPL, Black Power and the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions movement that seeks to pressure Israel into complying with international law in regard to its construction of settlements in the West Bank and its continued occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Syria’s Golan Heights.

In 2015 Abdelrazaq published her first graphic novel, “Baddawi,” about her father’s childhood in the Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon.

“I started working on the web comic because I wanted people to understand Palestinian experiences a little bit more, particularly refugee experiences and the importance of the Right of Return,” says Abdelrazaq, referring to the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their homes in Israel. “I was feeling like a lot of emphasis in the Palestine movement in the U.S. was put on what was going on in the West Bank and Gaza, which is important, but totally leaves out the enormous Palestinian refugee population currently living in diaspora—a population that was, until recently, the largest refugee population on the planet.”

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), there are five million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East eligible for their services, such as healthcare, primary and vocational education and relief services. Of these, one-third live in registered refugee camps, which are often overcrowded and lacking in adequate infrastructure such as roads and sewers. Conditions in Lebanon are particularly bad, and refugees have found themselves in the crosshairs of internal and external conflicts. Most infamous is the 1982 massacre of Sabra and Shatila refugee camps where nearly 2,000 Palestinians were killed by a far-right militia during the Lebanese Civil War.

Estimates of the non-refugee Palestinian diaspora are less exact, with numbers ranging from 11 to 25 million. These Palestinians live all over the world, with large populations in South America and Europe. Fittingly, therefore, “Baddawi” was translated into three languages including Arabic. For Abdelrazaq, that translation is the most crucial to her work.

“I think that the Arabic translation will allow fellow Palestinians [and] Arabs to read between the lines a little more and understand something about how Palestinians in the diaspora understand and process our culture and history, which is something that is a little lost on audiences using the book to learn about Palestine for the first time,” she says.

East Jerusalem is recognized internationally as the capital of the Palestinian state, and President Trump’s recent announcement that the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there undermines the Palestinian government and legitimizes the Israeli occupation. It is a decision that will reverberate throughout the region, escalating the risk of violence and with it — the risk to refugees within Palestine and neighboring countries. In this context, “Baddawi” serves as a reminder of the struggles of the Palestinian people to hold onto a life, culture and history that has been threatened since 1948.

Earlier this month, Abdelrazaq published her second graphic novel, “The Opening,” with Lebanese publisher Tosh Fesh. The 30-page, bilingual project explores the story of Abdelrazaq’s stillborn sister. “[The book is] using the story of missing a sister you never knew to also think about what it means to miss a place you’ve never been to (Palestine),” she explains.

“The Opening” is more abstract than “Baddawi,” Abdelrazaq says. It examines issues of religion and iconoclasm that are widely applicable but particularly pertinent to an Arab audience. It also explores the idea of nostalgia and how that can work against our aspirations for the present and future.

“It’s definitely an exploration of internal conversations that need to be had within our own communities,” she says.

In 2016 Abdelrazaq started Bigmouth Press and Comix, a blog and distribution project aimed at elevating the art and comics of women and non-binary people of color. The main goal, Abdelrazaq says, is to help these artists of marginalized backgrounds get the publicity and space she has been fortunate enough to have access to.

“I was getting a lot of tabling opportunities at big comics and zine festivals, but I would often be one of the only Arab/Middle Eastern artists—if not the only one,” she says. “I saw other artists of color—especially women and non-binary artists, self-taught artists—busting their asses making work, then being denied table space that was being practically handed over to me. So Bigmouth is the result of knowing that there is enough space on my table for other artists and feeling that if the door is being held open for me, it’s my responsibility to hold the door open for others in turn.”

Bigmouth covers shipping fees for distribution and facilitates artist presentations at exhibitions and fairs. It also prints the work of artists from outside the U.S. and distributes it worldwide. One of their recent comics, Marguerite Dabaie’s “The Hookah Girl,” was picked up by a publisher, and Abdelrazaq hopes to bring on more artists from the Middle East.

Abdelrazaq believes that comics are the best way to introduce people to often difficult subjects surrounding identity, race and politics. “Comics are engaging and non-pretentious,” she says. Most important, though, are the people who power Abdelrazaq’s stories. When it came to writing “The Opening,” Abdelrazaq’s mother was at the forefront of her process. “I kept her in my mind and focused on letting my accountability to her guide my storytelling,” she says.

When it comes to discussing subjects that are so politically charged and yet so close to home—family and community, refugees, stillbirths—that accountability is more important than ever. “For me the most important thing is to be accountable to the people whose stories you’re writing about,” she says. It is a heavy responsibility but one that Abdelrazaq carries with honesty and grace.

Nadia Eldemerdash is a writer and editor based in Las Vegas. She is managing editor at The Tempest and has written for Muftah, Broad Street Review and other publications. She blogs about pop culture and creative careers at Creative Quibble and tweets about politics, writing and the many pros of tea at @DemerN.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.