What does the life of a refugee look like — not when they’re in the midst of fleeing, but once they’ve reached temporary safety? What do they do day to day? Who were they before they got there? The inability to conceive of or imagine the answers to these questions is arguably one of the biggest failures of the modern Western world.
Cartoonist Sarah Glidden traveled to Turkey, and from there to Iraq and Syria, in 2010. By then, American troops had largely left Iraq, but the war they’d begun fighting in 2003, the invasion launched by President George W. Bush for specious reasons, had killed more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians and caused over 2 million to flee their country. According to Glidden, more than half of them sought shelter in Syria, which was still firmly under the grip of President Bashar al-Assad. But his country’s brutal civil war began only months after Glidden left, and today it’s estimated that 4.8 million Syrians have fled. It’s hard to comprehend how much has changed in the region in the six years since Glidden visited — and difficult to determine what effect, if any, that has on her book.
Published by Drawn & Quarterly, Rolling Blackouts is broken into seven sections, three of which are named for the cities to which Glidden travels: Van, Turkey; Sulaymaniyah, Iraq; and Damascus, Syria. The cartoonist embarks upon her journey — which is funded by a Kickstarter campaign — with two reporter friends, Sarah and Alex, who are among the co-founders of a Seattle-based journalism startup called The Globalist. The fourth member of their crew, Dan, is an American Iraq war veteran who grew up with Sarah. In Van, the group speaks with an Iranian refugee couple, Amin and Mina. In Sulaymaniyah, they talk to a host of internally displaced Kurds, as well as one, Sam Malkandi, who remarried and resettled in the US, only to wind up mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report and extradited back to Iraq. In Damascus, they listen to the stories of many middle-class Iraqi refugees who fled because of the American-led invasion and are now stuck in Syria. Along the way, Sarah interviews Dan several times about what it’s like to return to Iraq for the first time since the war.
If that sounds like a lot of elements, it is. Unfolding over the course of the three cities are three distinct but intertwined storylines: the accumulating accounts of all the refugees; the tale of Dan’s return to Iraq and his relationship with Sarah; and Glidden’s stated focus for the project, the very big question of “what is journalism?”
This makes for a fragmented, occasionally overloaded book. The former quality actually suits Rolling Blackouts; Glidden is a newbie journalist passing through a region she doesn’t know well, and her grappling with the amount of territory (physical, ideological, and historical) covered by the group translates most honestly, I suspect, into an episodic book. That structure also reflects the title’s term, which Glidden introduces in a thoughtful moment in her hotel room in Sulaymaniyah. Staring out the window at the nighttime city all lit up except for one “dark patch,” she explains in voiceover, “There isn’t enough electricity to illuminate the whole city at once. Rolling blackouts are used to ease the strain on the grid and keep things functioning.”
The book suffers, however, from its narrative excess. One gets the sense that Glidden was unable to determine which story she wanted to pursue, and so she decided to tackle all three — which has the effect of diluting the whole title’s focus. Dan’s narrative, in particular, becomes a distraction that she devotes too much attention to — especially Sarah’s mounting frustration with him as he consistently refuses to express guilt or responsibility for the destruction of the Iraq War. At one point, Sarah explains that “the only thing I look for in this story is that dynamism of someone engaging with something and then changing as a result.” By all accounts, Dan does not undergo this process, and the foregrounding of his stubbornly American story makes little sense in a book whose subtitle promises “dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.” This is, I would argue, a key lesson of journalism: sometimes the story that you think is there just isn’t.
At other times it is, and the work comes in trusting yourself to recount it. Glidden’s last book was a terrific memoir about a birthright trip to Israel; Rolling Blackouts, as she clearly states, is not a memoir — it’s a journalistic look at the practice of journalism. That makes for a lot of conversations about the profession, and though I can’t speak to the enthusiasm of non-journalist readers, I starred and underlined and “yes”-ed my way through most of them.
But the book’s strongest scenes, by far, are the interviews with refugees. In these, all the elements come together: the voices and stories we don’t typically hear in the US, presented carefully within the framework that allows them to be broadcast here. There’s Amin, a blogger, and his wife, Mina, living in Turkey, who tell the tale of their harrowing escape from Iran (with their dog) and then thank the team for being “the first journalists” they’ve encountered “who want to ask about the situation for political refugees.” There’s Sam Malkandi, who calmly narrates the tragedy of his first wife’s suicide after they had fled Iraq, while sitting for an interview in the home they used to share together. There’s the unnamed Iraqi refugee who laments that her children are unable to finish their college educations in Syria, before asking Sarah, “Why did you do this? Why did America invade my country?” Of course, there are no satisfactory answers, but it’s essential that the questions are being asked, not just to a group of Americans but, by extension, to American readers.
Glidden paints each of these people beautifully, in watercolors whose hues add incredible life to the book. Their faces evidence a range and subtlety of expression, and at various moments she homes in on a subject’s hands holding a cup of tea or illustrates someone’s past while they narrate it. The group’s last interview with Sam culminates in a powerful two-page spread that, simply through the use of talking-head panels, shows him cycling through a series of emotions.
The book doesn’t contain quite as many of these art-led moments as it could, perhaps because Glidden is an excellent writer who had to synthesize and edit hours and hours of recorded interviews to arrive at her final product. As I read along, though, I found myself hoping she would start to trust her images a little more. This is, after all, what journalism — especially comics journalism — can do: show us what we can’t see with our own eyes. It’s what makes the profession invaluable, despite many complications and problems, and it’s what keeps Rolling Blackouts unquestionably relevant, despite the fact that so much of the situation on the ground has changed. Especially for American readers, these are stories we need to know.