The Pride of Baghdad
I’ve been tasked with writing a paper explaining the connections between imperialist ideology and the medium of graphic novels. Since September 11, there has been a whole slew of media artifacts concerning the Middle East and the role of the United States in the region. I have chosen several of them written by both Western and Middle Eastern authors (albeit Westernized in the case of Marjane Satrapi–on which more in a later post) and, along the lines of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, attempted to articulate what he calls a “contrapuntal” analysis, taking into account both the ideology of the metropole or colonial centre and the inevitable protest or response from the colonized world. This is a fairly complex task in this case, since the production of graphic novels and their translation or writing in English is dominated by publishers headquartered in “imperial” territory. However, I also believe that it is a worthwhile effort because, especially in the case of graphic novels, there has not been enough critical writing situating them in American/British/Western imperialist discourse.
My first review, as indicated above was of The Pride of Baghdad, written by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and drawn by Niko Henrichon. A brief outline of the plot follows. A group of four lions, a younger and an older female, a male, and a young cub, live as prisoners/residents of the Baghdad Zoo. When American fighter planes begin their bombing campaign, the destruction of the zoo walls allows the quarter of carnivores to escape. Plodding their way through the war-torn streets of the city, they encounter many hostile elements but overcome them one by one until they are gunned down by American soldiers. This is all based on true events, recounted here.
Before getting more specific, I need to establish a few principles that will guide my analysis. First, we nut acknowledge that The Pride of Baghdad exists primarily as a response to the imperialist 2003 invasion of Iraq. It would not exist without it, and is indeed unimaginable without that ill-fated campaign. This is true not only because it takes inspiration from real events but also because the authors would probably never have thought to tell this story without the actuality of the invasion. Second, the writer and artist, being American and Canadian, respectively, produce their work as individuals but always contextualized within an existing Western discourse about the Middle East. While we must not forget the individuality of this particular book, our analysis will not be properly critical unless it acknowledges that The Pride of Baghdad is the product of a society and not just of two separate wills. Vaughan and Henrichon are implicated in a complex apparatus of production, editing, and distribution that involves a huge number of socioeconomic factors beyond their control. We need to follow up Said’s proposition that all cultural production from the metropolitan centre, in this case the United States, participates in imperialism.
This book takes what is now the conventional frame of the Middle East and represents it to a Western audience. That conventional frame is one of war and chaos. Vaughan’s story privileges the perspective of the animals, dramatizing their plight. These animals do not understand what is going on around them and try to survive as best they can. Since the animals speak, they are also able to embody differing views on political and philosophical matters. Zill, the alpha male, is mild-mannered and pragmatic, a voice of reason mediating usually mediating between the two females. He also takes on the role of protector and avenger later on in a confrontation with a large bear that threatens to kill the two females. Of those two females, the younger, Noor, is a youthful idealist who longs for freedom. Safa, the older, is deeply cynical, one-eyed, and constantly arguing with Noor. The cub, Ali, mostly gets kidnapped or otherwise imperiled, though he does set of a stampede and defeats the bear with the help of his father.
Human characters are sidelined and, with the exception of American soldiers, silent. This is curious. No native Iraqis have the privilege of speaking, or even showing their faces, and they are mainly portrayed as passive victims of the bombing. The Iraqi with the largest role in the story is Saddam Hussein himself, though he never appears in the flesh. Instead, he is present to the narrative through his statue, looming proudly over a rapidly disintegrating city, and his palace, which is portrayed in alternately Edenic and horrifying ways. It is the lair of the bear, a false paradise for the lions, and ultimately the space where the narrative reaches its conclusion, just as Kurtz’s compound is the final destination on the winding journey in Heart of Darkness. The fact that the bear, black and demonic, lives in the presidential palace is not a coincidence, but perfectly logical considering the campaign to paint Hussein in almost Satanic terms that took place in the West.
Of course, American armaments, in the form of bombs, lumbering Abrams tanks, and gunfire instigate the plot and provide most of the terror. In one poignant scene, a wise and ancient turtle laments the plagues the “black stuff” has brought to the region. As the voice of history in the book, the turtle criticizes the frenzy over oil and the wars it causes. In this way, the story tells us, the very animals and the Earth itself have felt the bane of human exploitation, the latter of which is a pervasive theme in The Pride of Baghdad. Humans are simultaneously seen as providers, as in the example of the zookeepers, and agents of destruction and oppression. While the latter predominates, we do see that the narrative sympathizes with Iraqi people even though it denies them any agency on their own lands. While the American incursion is portrayed in horrific terms, the book says very little about them, since the animal protagonists do not understand national divisions or the nature of the war raging around them.
Therefore, The Pride of Baghdad represents and reinforces dominant stereotypes about Iraqis as passive victims of Saddam’s repression on the one hand and American violence on the other. We see stereotypical ruined streets, sumptuous palaces, faceless and voiceless dead bodies, and hubristic monuments, but the authors have displaced the real human cost of the war onto the animals, who stand in a conveniently neutral and ignorant position. Their land, and their oil, is represented as a curse. The author and artist, while critical of the war and its infliction of human suffering, fall into tired and familiar patterns when constructing their narrative. How much easier it is to sympathize with a troop of slaughtered lions than hundreds of thousands of Iraqis!