Almost a quarter century has passed since two French brothers – in their early 20s at the time – decided to visit their Aunt Thérèse in Lebanon. In September 1990, the country is a 15-year-old war zone, but the brothers plan to deliver supplies, medicine, and a wheelchair to the Red Cross where Aunt Thérèse works. Their decision seems almost quixotic, with little concern about personal safety, as the brothers tease one another about when and what they will tell their parents, glibly explain the trip to friends, pore over maps and newspapers while sharing a few smokes, and laugh over their own silly behavior at the airport just before boarding their flight from Paris.
Over the three weeks of their journey, the brothers travel between various cities, never getting the opportunity to use any of their first aid training. The closest they come is the back-breaking task of clearing out giant rocks in a dilapidated hospital courtyard so that patients might have safer access to a little fresh air. Much more memorable to the brothers are the people, and the shocking, tragic, absurd, and yet still joyful moments of the people’s daily lives: “The daily life of those who the media does not discuss and whose voices are never heard. … The reality of those who have slept in death’s shadow for countless years, but who still dream that the Lebanon of tomorrow will be like that of yesterday: the Switzerland of the Orient … “
Fourteen years after their safe return home, realizing that they “can’t forget … [that they] need to put it to some use,” the brothers teamed with award-winning graphic artist Christophe Gaultier (with whom brother Sylvain collaborated twice before Beirut) to produce this resonating travelogue. Gaultier’s style is at once immature and poignant, an ideal representation of the brothers’ youth – the frantic ducking under a window after being warned about snipers, the innocent fun of giving a group of Sisters silly nicknames, the uncontrollable rage at fruitcake-stealing inspectors. The trio’s collaboration debuted in France in 2004; it took another nine years to arrive in English translation across the Pond.
The brothers’ experience treads somewhere between naively well-intentioned privilege and creating necessary testimony of invisible real lives; thankfully, it veers toward the latter. Even as it reveals the brothers’ seeming ineffectiveness, their book is ultimately an eyewitness account “of people’s kindness, of their unstoppable love of life, of their humor even in the darkest hours of unhappiness, of their joyful Mediterranean blood,” as Aunt Thérèse writes in an afterword from Beirut in 2004. “They saw with their own eyes what it means to live dangerously, to be afraid, to skirt the absurd, and to discover the value in every moment of existence.” Inarguably, we can all learn a life lesson in that!
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2004, 2013 (United States)