In Conversation with Brigitte Findakly on ‘Poppies of Iraq’

Brigitte Findakly with husband and co-author Lewis Trondheim (Photo by Nicolas Guérin)

Brigitte Findakly can trace her father’s family history back to the year 300. She is a descendant of the Banu Taghlib, a Christian Arab tribe that left the Arabian Peninsula around that time and settled in what was then the center of Syriac Christianity, only moving north to Mosul a millennium later because of Mongol invasions. How far can you trace your ancestry? And what do you know of who these persons were?

Seven generations ago, Brigitte’s forefather was a mason and a stonecutter by the name of Alnakkar, which means “sculptor.” When the Persians tried to invade Mosul in 1743, her forefather’s gate withstood the attack, earning him a new name from the pasha: Findakly, which means a kind of precious gold. Generations later still, Brigitte’s grandfather was also a sculptor. Just recently, the Wahhabi Islamists of Daesh destroyed an 11th century Mosque that he had helped to restore. And so, in Poppies of Iraq, Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim weave together past and present, heritage and history, and the personal and the political to tell Brigitte’s story.

More than a graphic memoir, Poppies of Iraq is a feminist memorial project: it tells (and shows) history through one real person’s recounting of her life, with loving attention paid to the quotidian details that reveal both culture and the individual, and with consideration given to the personal, communal, and national consequences of how power has been wielded—in this case, brutally. Readers come away with an appreciation for what it was like to be Brigitte, to grow up as a happy, middle-class child in Iraq with a French mother and an Iraqi dentist father whose army affiliation sometimes helped the family and sometimes hurt. We learn that despite growing up amidst the dizzyingly incessant, violent coups of the 1960s, what Brigitte lived was “not a horror,” as she says in our interview, although the devastation to her culture now, after decades of continued violence, she would likely categorize as such. She doesn’t think she can ever return.

Subtle, nuanced, and multilayered, the graphic text eschews linearity. Findakly and Trondheim opt instead to piece together the story as one might recollect it—in individual micro-narratives, out of chronological order, and conveyed simply through clever combinations of image and text. The book feels generous, as though written with the intention to help an outsider imagine, and also perhaps to help an insider remember. None of Findakly’s family or friends has stayed in Iraq; those who grew up there were trained not to express their own opinions (making it hard to even think them), and knew never to speak critically about the government, even behind closed doors. “The national pastime in Iraq was gossip,” Findakly writes, “and it still is.”

So, using her voice, which she began to discover in the secondary education system in France, and with the help of her partner in work and love, Lewis Trondheim, Findakly tells her story. Expressed through personal vignettes that intersect with unfolding political turmoil in Iraq, and interspersed with scrapbook-like collages of actual family photos and panels that depict customs from daily life in Iraq, Poppies of Iraq is the poignant result.

It is a story of realizing the home of one’s childhood memories no longer exists. It is a story of the maddening destruction of dictators and the ever-widening ripples of grief and loss they cause. It is a story of piecing together one’s story, a story of growing into oneself, in exile. Never didactic, always inviting, and often heartrendingly charming, this graphic memoir is a brilliant and tender gem.

The Interview

Interview conducted and translated by Britt Starr, with French editing support by Julia Pohl-Miranda. 

Read the original interview in French here.

BS: You have an impressive career as a colorist, but Poppies of Iraq is your first written work. Was it difficult to write? How did you find a creative process that worked for you?

BF: Yes, this is my first time writing a graphic novel. Several events led me to write this book: the situation in Iraq, which has not relented, and which has no hope of improving any time soon; my cousins’ decision to emigrate so that their children could have a future; and Daesh (ISIS)’s invasion of Mosul, my hometown, on July of 2014, and the destruction that followed.

At first, I didn’t know how to broach the subject. Should I begin from my birth, or from when we moved to France, with flashbacks? But what I wrote seemed too flat, or too sentimental—I wrote with too much feeling/nostalgia and it just wasn’t working. That said, all of these first attempts at writing helped me figure out the important and noteworthy things that I wanted to talk about in the book.

BS: It’s also the first time that you and your husband (celebrated animator Lewis Trondheim) worked together, right? How did that go? How do the two of you work together?

BF: Lewis saw that I had a deep need to put my memories to paper, and he witnessed how hard it was for me to write anything that felt satisfying to me. So he offered to help me articulate what I wanted to say. I showed him the photo of me as a little girl in front of the Nineveh Gate, with the lion that had been decapitated by a jackhammer by Daesh. Right away he knew that was the starting point, and that we should use that photo in the first story of the book.

From this first story, I was convinced by the narrative trajectory and design that Lewis envisioned.

My life in Iraq was not horror, it wasn’t a tragedy; it was just the story of a family. I didn’t want to romanticize it, so there aren’t overly dramatized scenes. I didn’t want to invent dialog or overly reconstruct scenes. To deliver a narrative that was pragmatic and efficient, without overly dressing it up, seemed necessary and possible with Lewis.

Every anecdote we told came from some note I had taken. We would discuss it, Lewis would give it form, I would look over it to make sure it cohered with the narrative as a whole, and then he would draw out the page and I would color it.

BS: Is it easier to work together with Lewis or alone? What surprised you about working together?

BF: We have worked by each other’s side for 25 years– not always on the same projects, but we know each other well. Lewis puts himself fully in the service of a story and he’s an attentive listener.

Me, I’m more the type that asks myself a lot of questions before deciding, whereas Lewis is someone who dives in as soon as he’s found his angle.

Truly, I had complete confidence in Lewis, which was very important since the story was so personal.

Life in Iraq

BS: Staying on the topic of marriage, would you tell the story of how your parents met? You say in the book that they met at the St. Lazare train station. That sounds very romantic, to meet the love of your life at the train station!

BF: When I told my mother I was going to write a book on my memories of Iraq, she was very happy and she even started to tell me her own memories (including how she met my father). It was surprising because my mother had always been very private about her past. But with this, she really opened up to me, and I was so touched and happy.

BS: You say that in Iraq today, 95% of marriages are arranged, and you describe how your idea of arranged marriage changed after living in France for a few years as a young woman. How did you think of arranged marriage as a young girl in Iraq?

BF: The idea of arranged marriage always bothered me. I knew that my parents got married for love and I found that beautiful and normal, even if people in Iraq said that love comes after marriage, in the course of daily life together!!! Since the age of 9 or 10, I would tell everyone in my family loud and clear that never in my life would I marry someone if it was arranged. But because I was a little girl, it made them laugh.

BS: In one particularly sweet illustration, you remark that because of the shoeshine man who came to your neighborhood, you wanted to be a shoeshine woman when you grew up. What were some of your other aspirations? What did other girls in Iraq imagine for their futures, and how did their aspirations change alongside the decades of turbulence?

BF: When I was in Iraq, I wanted to either be a shoe-shiner or a surgeon so that I could open people’s stomachs and see what was inside.

However, I don’t remember discussions with my friends or my cousins about their professional aspirations. My cousins, all being older than I, mostly talked about prince charming.

BS: You mention in the book that people can’t talk about politics in Iraq because the government has so successfully instilled in folks the fear and suspicion of neighbors and friends. What happens to friendship in this climate? What happens to one’s identity?

BF: Ultimately, humans can adapt and become habituated to anything, even to not talking about politics, especially when one knows the potentially dire consequences of expressing disagreement with the party in power. People become fatalistic and content themselves with talking about personal lives (both their own and those of the people they know) and which products are missing from the grocery store [on account of the political turbulence].

Life in France

BS: As a student in Iraq, you were supposed to be quiet; then as a student in France, all of a sudden you were supposed to express your opinions (through writing and speaking in class), and it was extremely difficult to start voicing opinions after never having done so before. Can you say more about other differences in the expectations at school in France versus in Iraq? Also, were expectations different for students of different genders?

BF: In Iraq, one of the goals of public education was to teach students discipline and respect for authority. To shine in class, you had to memorize lessons. Obviously in France, as elsewhere in the Western world, students are pushed to develop their own critical spirit.

I think I was so well trained within the Iraqi system, that even today, expressing myself doesn’t come as naturally as it could.

BS: In the U.S., even though most people are racist (I would argue), it is shocking to imagine a teacher making overtly racist statements to his or her class, like the teacher you had in France. In the US, people tend to keep their racist views private (although people seem to be more comfortable going public with their racism now since the last election). Have you spent time in the United States, and what were your impressions vis a vis racism here?

BF: I have been to the US five times since 1993. I’ve never experienced/felt racism from people, but at the same time, they didn’t know that I am originally from Iraq. However, the difficulties I experience every time I come to the US are at the airport (in France before boarding) when I show my French passport in which it’s written that I was born in Iraq. I am always then subject to further interrogation, control, and waiting.

BS: You say that despite all the turbulence of the 1960’s, you only ever felt in danger one time in your youth, and it was in France. I find this detail and your delivery of it wonderful in disrupting readers’ presumptions about terror, fear, and danger in Iraq. With that said, given the political turbulence, how is it that you felt safe during your youth in Iraq?

BF: I had a happy and carefree childhood surrounded by my parents, my family and friends, and yet, I lived in a country rife with political instability. The effect of all the coups d’états was frequent school closures for a day or two at a time, which always came as happy news to us kids!

Findakly on Feminism

BS: In the book you say:

In eleventh grade, I had a feminist German teacher. We would take time in class to talk about current events. I had experienced the huge inequalities between men and women in Iraq, but she made me realize that things in France were far from perfect, and that it wasn’t all inevitable.

What do you mean when you say, “she made me realize that…it wasn’t all inevitable”?

BF: She allowed me to realize that the inequality between men and women was not a foregone conclusion. That we women can contest, we can revolt against this inequality. In Iraq, when something wasn’t fair, one could merely think that something wasn’t fair. In France I discovered that when something isn’t fair and one is not okay with whatever it is, one can express one’s ideas and even protest to let everyone know that these inequalities are not acceptable.

BS: Does feminism continue to play a role in your life?

BF: Yes, feminism is still important to me. I find that unfortunately gender inequalities are still present in so many facets of daily life: inequalities in salaries and in job positions, in raising children, in housework, in the fact that  women are used to sell various products in advertising, etc…

I’ll tell you a little anecdote: in general, when we receive administrative mail, it is addressed to both my husband and me. A few months ago, the mayor’s office sent a piece of mail addressed to me only, but it turned out that it was to inform us that our garbage day was going to change: something which could only matter to the woman of the house!

BS: What has feminism brought to your life?

BF: Self-esteem has a huge value in my eyes. And when someone acknowledges you and respects you, it reinforces this self-esteem. [Feminism] also gave me self-assurance and allowed me to have conversations more easily with many friends and cousins from Iraq about their conditions as women in their marriages, as always inferior to their husbands, always submissive, still in 2017.

BS: What do you hope this book will do for readers?

BF: I made this book, first and foremost, for myself– to preserve my memories, memories which have been disappearing because of all these decades of chaos and destruction.

I hope that readers will have a different image of Iraq than the one they are used to seeing in the media. They will discover that it’s a country in which people lived happily (with their own customs) despite the different coups d’etats and the dictatorship.

BS: Do you have plans to return to Iraq? What would it take for you to return?

BF: Almost all of my family and friends have left and immigrated to various places all over the world. I don’t see myself returning any time soon and I especially don’t see myself finding all the people that I loved so much and still love today. I am also discouraged from returning by the fact that my hometown (Mosul) has been largely destroyed.

Britt Starr is The Rational’s Book Review Editor and first-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Maryland. She holds an MA in English Lit. from Mills College and a BA in Comparative Lit. and Arts from Washington University in St. Louis. She spent half a decade working in the wine industry between degrees, which was fun, but also helps her appreciate the privilege of being funded to study such topics as global feminist studies, 20th c. literature, critical capitalism studies, science and literature, critical thinking, critical pedagogy and lots more. She invokes Martha Graham and Virginia Woolf when the going gets tough.

Britt Starr is The Rational's Book Review Editor and first-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Maryland. She holds an MA in English Lit. from Mills College and a BA in Comparative Lit. and Arts from Washington University in St. Louis. She spent half a decade working in the wine industry between degrees, which was fun, but also helps her appreciate the privilege of being funded to study such topics as global feminist studies, 20th c. literature, critical capitalism studies, science and literature, critical thinking, critical pedagogy and lots more. She invokes Martha Graham and Virginia Woolf when the going gets tough.