River Jordan: Cross-Cultural Pollination and Tragedy
If you ever want to, you can take any history book, cross out the title and scribble “Why The British Are Dicks” on it and it would suffer no loss in its accuracy. Most history after 1600 can be attributed to explaining the meaning of that sentence; Britain and France were the biggest colonial powers in the last couple centuries, and when they started to realize that they couldn’t actually tell others what to do, they mashed a few cookie cutters on a globe and created a whole bunch of countries that quickly fell into ethnic civil war because their borders were based on the location of natural resources and not tribal boundaries. Ergo, the common governments that were set up by imperialism became mechanisms for conflict as different ethnic groups fought to control it for their own interests.
Oh don’t get me wrong, the British and French produce cool things like “That Mitchell and Webb Look” and Daft Punk, but as far as geopolitics go, don’t bother reading about them unless you want chronically high blood pressure.
Jordan didn’t really have this ethnic problem as badly as, say, Nigeria. The kingdom was made in the early 20th century, and its borders were and are fairly stable. Some extremist elements would say that Jordan deserves to be folded into Greater Israel, but this isn’t a widely discussed idea. The Golan Heights is about the only thing anyone is still arguing over for ownership, at least in the immediate vicinity of Jordan. Otherwise, the kingdom has enjoyed unity ever since its creation.
I only really know Jordan as “one of the countries that got pulverized by Israel in the 1967 war”, so Merik Tadros’ graphic novel “The River Jordan” is an interesting look into a country I have little current knowledge of. It only spends a little bit of time in the country, but it still plays an important role in the themes of the novel.
Illustrated by Greg Houston, this book is based on actual events, and is semi-autobiographical. It follows the story of two families of the Nasir brothers and the tragic events that tear the two families apart. The narrative specifically views the story through the eyes of Rami, the youngest son of one of the brothers. The plot follows the events of the story almost like a documentary, with a voiceover box stating things in plain, factual exposition, even when it lets us see what characters are thinking.
The dialogue feels a lot like what you might expect to hear from first and second generation immigrants to the US. It’s all very clean English with no slang or idioms; in other words, the kind of English you learn in class. Thanks to this, dialogue is very direct and clear to follow, with no frivolous tangents. Characters still feel very lively, authentic and interesting, though, and the interactions between characters will remind you of your own friendships and sibling rivalries. The very academic use of English actually kind of enhances our ability to relate to the characters since their feelings are all laid out in plain speak. The text is also sprinkled with historical facts that provide some interesting background and help flesh out one of the biggest themes of this story.
Of those themes there are two major ones: ethnicity and acceptance of death. The two families are Arab Christians, a minority in Jordan as well as in the US, and so to them their heritage is extremely important. This theme pops up every now and again to show us how Rami has integrated these two cultures into his identity, making friends with kids on his football team while looking to his father to explain his familial roots.
The story is set up to familiarize us with the two families before disaster strikes, then showing us how everyone deals with the aftermath. It’s a pretty tragic story, but Rami’s journey through grief leads us to the second theme, which, while leaving us with an ending that isn’t very positive, still manages to console us by forcing us to meditate on the impermanence of life. The title of the novel comes from Rami’s turn to art to help express his grief, in which he tries to learn art to help a family friend paint his last artwork centered on Jordan’s main terrain feature- and with it give us a lesson on life and death through the metaphor of the river.
Because of this theme of accepting death, I wouldn’t say the tone is dark, as that would imply hopelessness. There’s some kind of comfort to be found at the end of this, in spite of what you see.
I’ll be honest, before I knew it was based on true events the art kind of took me aback. It looked goofy. Heads are frequently a bit too large for the body, facial features are heavy with lines and the geometry of the faces are pretty hard and jarring. Huge lips, huge noses- it can be comical if you don’t have the right context.
In context, though, this work feels right. It accentuates the ethnicity of every character, which helps add to the theme of heritage and ethnic roots. It kind of looks like the kind of work you’d see from a kid in grade school: skilled, but still learning to draw, like Rami- and it feels as though it elicits trauma, like each scribble is ingrained with pain, even when depicting better times. Perspective and poses can be slightly awkward sometimes, but I think this too is part of the stylistic choice. Somehow the slightly caricature-ish nature of the people helps convey the aesthetic tone of the comic.
“The River Jordan” is one of those kinds of novels you should read a few times to absorb fully. I keep going back and I find scenes can elicit emotions from me better each time. Considering how little exposure I’ve had to Arab and other Middle Eastern narratives in popular media, I’d suggest you pick it up at least to find a new perspective to read from, but it’s a quality work in its own right that should be enjoyed for what it is and not just because it’s different.
All right, I should wrap this up before I collapse from exhaustion.
TL;DR River Jordan is an excellent work about identity and loss with a little historical education thrown in the mix, and I suggest you pick it up if you like sad stuff with life lessons.
A review copy of River Jordan was graciously provided to Spandexless by the author.