Building Bridges: The Hookah Girl,Volume 2

Posted by on April 28th, 2010 at 5:27 AM

Rob reviews the second volume of stories from Marguerite Dabaie about growing up and living as a Palestinian-American, THE HOOKAH GIRL, Volume 2.

Marguerite Dabaie is a young artist whose hook in her personal work, THE HOOKAH GIRL, has been relating anecdotes on growing up “Christian Palestinian in America.”  This attractive, 34-page book has an unusual format: 9×9, with a glossy cover.  It looks less like a comic and more like an illustrated book at first glance.  Dabaie has really smoothed out her line since I reviewed the first volume for the old sequart.com site a couple of years ago.  She combines a confident clear line with a high level of detail on some pages, mixing naturalistic imagery with cartoony and even rubbery character design.  Working big allows her pages to breathe and let the reader soak in the details of her intense hatching and get the full effect of some of her unusual panel composition.  I did find myself wanting more after reading this volume, as Dabaie threw in header pages and the occasional blank page, with the result being just six very short stories.

Dabaie’s anecdotes are personal, but address wider areas regarding Palestinian culture.  For example, her strip about legendary cartoonist Naji al-Ali details her lifelong fascination with the character, even when she didn’t understand what the cartoons meant as a child.  al-Ali was the real deal, a independent truth-teller who managed to anger Arabs and Jews alike–and was eventually assassinated.  As someone who has a nuanced understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Dabaie wished out loud for another cartoonist like this to emerge in a time of political double-dealing in the Middle-East.  To a certain extent, Dabaie’s simple act of addressing cultural differences and building bridges of understanding is in itself a political act, in addition to being a personal one.

As I noted, her take on Palestinian culture is affectionate but not all-forgiving.  In the intensely-hatched strip “Domestic Goddess”, she related her resentment toward her father’s culturally-inspired sexism.  Dabaie’s lettering in particular takes on an immersive quality.  In some panels, it’s written as a child writes in a primer when they’re learning how to write.  In other panels, the text doesn’t appear in word balloons, but rather snakes across the page and interacts with the images as she tells her story of frustration and rebellion against the attitude summed up as “This is all a waste.  She’s only a girl.”  In a beautifully-composed strip called “Music”, (where each panel is actually a musical note on a scale), she relates her love of music as well as the frustration she felt when she couldn’t play as well as her father–and she was actively discouraged from learning, because she was a girl.

There are lighter notes sounded in the comic as well, like a clear-line strip with no shading called “The True Arab Experience”, which gently pokes fun at certain Arabic tendecies, like talking too loud, having at least one relative who owns a grocery store or restaurant and the intensity of Arabic coffee.  It’s a piece that’s made through the rubbery nature of her character design, selling the gags.  “Textiles” is a two page strip that simply shows off the intricate designs to be seen in Palestinian cloth and clothing, that also serves to show off Dabaie’s chops as a draftswoman.

Dabaie has developed a distinctive voice as well as a versatile art style that’s appropriate for any kind of story she wants to tell.  The mix between nuanced and forceful storytelling choices serves well in dealing with a topic that’s not exactly known for bringing out restraint in those that have a stake in telling its stories.  Dabaie walks that line carefully, creating a tension in her work that she skillfully can turn up or down depending on the subject matter at hand.  THE HOOKAH GIRL is specific in detailing aspects of a certain culture in a way that anyone can understand, relate to and share.  She manages to encourage understanding while never ceding her unique identity.

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