Graphic novel brings human side of Yemen to life

Despite the ravaging war, real life in Yemen remains mysterious to outsiders, and two Italian authors are sharing their take with "The Yemeni Bride."

al-monitor The cover image of the graphic novel "The Yemeni Bride" by Paola Cannatella and Laura Silvia Battaglia. Photo by Paola Cannatella/Laura Silvia Battaglia/BeccoGiallo.

Dec 29, 2017

When Guido Ostanel, the editorial director of the Italian publishing house BeccoGiallo, found a book proposal about Yemen waiting on his office desk two years ago, he was immediately captivated. “In Italy, and in the West in general, this country and the current war haven’t made headlines in newspapers, let alone books lately,” he told Al-Monitor.

The proposal consisted of a storyboard and several sketches — a true teaser for an unusual graphic novel about an Arab country about which little was known except the violence and suffering caused by the Yemen war. It was the work of two women, cartoonist Paola Cannatella and documentary filmmaker Laura Silvia Battaglia.

It took another year to put everything together. “The Yemeni Bride” came out in 2016 and was reprinted in 2017. It's set to come out in English in 2018.

“We tried to explain Yemen in its entirety, from stories of daily life to bigger socio-political events currently taking place in the country,” Battaglia told Al-Monitor in a phone interview.

The book is based on Battaglia’s first-person, on-the-ground reporting in Sanaa. The stories, all independent yet tied to each other, describe daily life in Yemen at the beginning of the 21st century, with all its contradictions and human suffering.

It begins with a wedding rite and, as the title indicates, weddings are a recurrent theme throughout the novel, presented from different perspectives, each unveiling a new aspect of this Gulf society. In Yemen, weddings last three days, and men and women celebrate separately. While in Sanaa, Battaglia was invited to a ceremony reserved for female guests, where she received a red rose, traditionally meaning that she’ll be the one getting married next. Later in the novel, she also gets exclusive access to an all-male celebration.

Each story addresses a new subject, including Islam, terrorism and kidnapping of foreigners. Battaglia said she wanted to touch on all of the topics that readers might expect to find in a book about an Arab country, "but then addressing them in a way that makes them understand that they knew nothing about them.”

As the story develops, the co-author and main character will debate Islam and its perception in both the East and the West with one of the most important sheikhs of Sanaa. Other topics include drugs and child trafficking between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, child marriage, drone massacres and the Islamic veil.

Battaglia’s account is based not just on personal impressions, but also thorough research and interviews. Each story is depicted in a color indicating its theme: There is red for daily life events, blue for on-the-ground reporting on complex issues, and yellow for spirituality and the comparing of Eastern and Western values.

Cannatella and Battaglia met in 2010 while working on separate projects on the same topic: the life of Maria Grazia Cutuli, a famous Middle East reporter who was killed in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan in 2001. From that moment, they developed a lasting friendship and collaborated professionally. In 2013, Battaglia asked Cannatella to draw some scenes of her reporting in Yemen for her website.

“One of those scenes was a Yemeni wedding I attended — the one mentioned at the beginning of the book, a scene of daily life that is not a headline but sums up Yemeni society in a nutshell,” Battaglia explained.

Many aspects of Yemeni society are in the novel, including the increasing plight of child marriages. “Unfortunately, early marriages increased because of the poor living standards under the war. The media don’t say anything about that. There needs to be more awareness on such an overlooked but important topic,” explained Hayat Al-Kainaeai, the head of the Yemeni Women’s Union - Ibb branch, a nongovernmental organization featured in the book.

“Laura wasn’t allowed to take pictures or videos at the wedding, so she told me what she saw in her own words, following her memory, and I recreated the scene with drawings,” Cannatella said. The project gave birth to the idea of transforming Battaglia’s many short stories into cartoons. “We chose graphic journalism as we believe it’s the best medium to tell difficult stories of current events with simplicity and can reach a wider audience, from youngsters to adults,” Battaglia said.

Cannatella explained that the two selected the stories together. For each story, Battaglia provided video and photographic material. She would then identify the elements of the story that most stimulated her. “I knew Yemen just superficially. To create the cartoons, I began to do deep internet research starting from Laura’s stories and the stories of the people she met. So in my very own way, I’ve been to Yemen, too.”

Ostanel, their publisher, said he was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the work, a result of the use of realistic and fully documented sources.

“I hate to invent the faces of the characters. It happened sometimes, when there were no photos but only the words of my colleague. But she, who had met them in real life, told me that I managed to give all of them the right characteristics,” Cannatella said.

The two authors, despite the physical distance that often separates them for work reasons, always keep in touch, especially about any developments regarding their creation. Lately they've been talking even more, as the duo prepares to enter the English-speaking market: They’re currently negotiating a contract with an American publisher, which means their graphic novel, now only available in Italian, will soon have an English version for a wider audience in 2018.

“The interest this book generated — testified by a reprint in such a short time and meeting requests with the authors from all over the country — are a sign that there’s an interest, increased by the lack of available material on Yemen,” Ostanel said.

Judith Brown, a former humanitarian worker in Yemen, is among the few Western activists on social media speaking out to raise awareness on the current situation in Yemen. Innovative material with mass appeal like “The Yemeni Bride” can help reach that goal.

“If the English version will be well-received, we could also consider an Arabic edition as our next step to also reach a new and crucial readership portion: those [affected] by the stories narrated in the book,” Battaglia concluded.

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