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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Book Review: Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle


Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

One of the magical things about a Guy Delisle book is the fly-on-the-wall perspective of countries that are inaccessible (or relatively so) to Westerners.

His previous graphic travelogues were about Burma, Pyongyang and Shenzen. I loved both Pyongyang and Shenzen, but Pyongyang has a special status as it was my first Guy Delisle encounter.

I’m not sure if having been to Jerusalem aids in the enjoyment and depth of Delisle’s account of the Holy City but I’d still recommend it to anyone curious about Israel or the Middle East in general as I think there’s a tone that runs through the region that is incomprehensible to most outsiders.

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The book opens with the introduction of Delisle’s children. His parner Nadège is working with Médecins Sans Frontières and the family is on their way to Jerusalem for the year. Guy hopes to work, as he’s done on other trips, while minding the children. (Good luck with that!)

The opening scene portrays a seemingly Russian Jew with concentration-camp numbers on his arm distracting Guy’s collicky child. They don’t share a language but Guy makes a ton of assumptions, and checks himself, all within a few frames, which really sets the stage for what’s to come. Jerusalem is a land of mixed emotions, assumptions, perceptions and deceptions.

Throughout the travelogue, we get treated to the differng points of view Delisle encounters: Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, and Muslim, as well as those of Médecins Sans Frontières staff, Nadège, their cleaners and childcare providers, tour guides and reporters he meets along the way.

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Delisle doesn’t claim to understand each of these perspectives and he has a certain skepticism or cynicism whenever strong binary positions are presented, but it’s a real treat to see Jerusalem from his vantage point of a year-long adventure vs a few days or weeks as a tourist. Delisle is in the region long enough to have some of his initial ignorance disappate and he has time to see the underside of the official messages or points of view in the press.

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Although Delisle doesn’t offer a completely neutral account, he’s not judgmental either. Jerusalem is subjective observation but from a rather level head.

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