Sarah is an arts graduate in her 20s who lives in New York, and is on her first ever trip to Israel. On collecting her luggage in Tel Aviv airport she sees the other travellers looking for their suitcases and thinks “Wow, so many Hasidic Jews! It's like we're in South Williamsburg!”
This panel came nine pages into the new Vertigo book, 'How to understand Israel in 60 days or less' by Sarah Gliddens, based on her own travels. Fearing yet another irritatingly unselfaware travel story in which the plucky author encounters hilariously kooky foreigners and local customs which are incomprehensible in a Western context, I nearly stopped reading the book right then. Nearly. But – I persevered and am glad to have done so.
Unlike the creators of similar naval-gazing autobiographical traveloges, Gliddens is blessed with a high degree of critical self-awareness, and it is this which lifts the book into a fine piece of storytelling. Sarah is naïve and from a highly privileged background, but Gliddens recognises her to be that way. The airport scene is one of many designed to induce cringing at the youthful self-righteousness of our narrator, and make us recognise that none of the many narrators who speak to us in this complex and messy tale are wholly reliable or 'right'.
The story follows Sarah as she travels through the country on a 'Birthright Israel' tour, run by a charity which takes young Jewish folks around Israel and teaches them about their history. Sarah and her group are shunted from the Sea of Galillee, to the Bedouin, to the Dead Sea, finding out about the history of each place, but also about each other.. Again, no romanticised bonding or brotherhood here, but instead the bickering, gossiping, drunkeness and fledgling romances found in any group of young people away from home. Sarah however is having none of this – having signed up with a blunt pro-Palestine perspective she is firmly determined to expose what she sees as the 'brainwashing' of the tour. As the trip progresses, Sarah begins to realise that what she thought about the history and politics of Israel is extremely different to what she finds there.
The story slides back and forward in time – not only through Sarah's own life and her previous travels, but also to encompass events in Israeli history. Rather than sharp jump-cuts between panels, the shifts in space are seamlessly incorporated into the story. Frames zoom in on the scale model in a tourist centre which becomes populated by the people of Golan Heights as a tour guide recounts the Six Day war; and a child playing with toys in the street unwittingly illustrates the violence that errupted when the British withdrew their troops from Jerusalem.
The story is also beautifully illustrated – simple line-work for the characters is paired with gorgeous watercolour skies, sunsets and landscapes. Sarah's petulance, amazement, confusion and upsets are conveyed through her eyebrows and pout. There is also an appearance from very good and entirely unexpected T-Rex, but I'll leave you to find out where that is.
This is not a story with a strong pro-Palestine or pro-Israel stance; the book doesn't even come close to addressing the full complexities of the history and politics of Israel, but nor does it attempt to. Instead, it follows Sarah's dawning understanding that her initial political views are not so clear-cut and straightforward as she would like to think. The book also grapples with difficult questions around how well-placed certain groups are to pass judgement on complex political situations if they are not living there themselves. As one of Sarah's tourmates snidely asks why the Muslims don't just 'go away', Sarah retorts that the viewpoint of someone who grew up in squalor doesn't necessarily match that of someone who grew up in Orange County. GV
How To Understand Isreal In 60 Days is hardcover £19. Link here for an interview with Sarah Glidden.