Interview with Lena Merhej

Will the Salamander be saved? 

The story of this Lebanese-based comics collection is both inspiring and infuriating. We ask co-founder Lena Merhej to tell us more about the comics/animation ‘scene” in the region and relate her personal experience with the Lebanese judicial system. Intrigued? Read on.

SoBeirut: As an illustrator and visual storyteller whose stories center on Lebanon and the Middle East, what can you tell us about the local comics/animation scene?

Lena Merhej (LM): Children's comics were printed in Lebanon quite early on and boomed in the 1950s and 1960s. The first comics’ festival in Lebanon took place in 1988. Since then, comics have had a wider presence, both in art galleries and in literary circles. Several new publishers are venturing into comics addressed mainly to an older audience. Also, a new kind of comics artists are emerging in addition to various burgeoning collectives that are generating buzz and promoting creative exchange and support. That said, the market and distribution of comics in the region are still poor and have yet to be developed.

SoBeirut: How did you decide to become a visual storyteller? And what does that entail exactly?

LM: I tell stories with images… In other words, I use images that I draw and/or manipulate digitally to tell my stories. Sometimes they are comics, sometimes they are children’s books and sometimes they are animations. I recognized that this was my vocation early enough. I studied graphic design because I loved drawing and wanted to make a living out of it. But it was not until I was at Parsons NY for my Masters degree that I realized that stories are what drive me. Everything there encouraged me to voice my opinion. Tinged by the US invasion of Irak and Afghanistan, and drawing parallels to my own country’s invasion by Israel in 1982, I was keen on telling the story of growing up in wartime. That’s when, in 2002, I wrote my first story, the animation film,"Drawing the War". 

SoBeirut: You co-founded Samandal in 2007. Can you tell us more about how it came to be and how it evolved since its inception?

LM: We began Samandal as a volunteer-based, non-profit organization in 2007 because we felt that comics were an underrepresented medium in our part of the world. We wanted to create a platform to tell stories from Lebanon and the Middle East, as well as to bring independent comics from around the world to a local audience. Alongside publishing comics, we also organized countless workshops, comics jams, international artist exchanges, and lectures, opening up the dialogue to include artists from different disciplines, and along with Metropolis Art Cinema have co-founded Beirut Animated, the biennial animation festival in Beirut.

SoBeirut: Why the name Samandal?

LM: Samandal is the Arabic word for salamander, which is an amphibian. One day in 2007, one of our co-founders, Omar Khouri was coming down from Tripoli with the sea on his right and the mountains on his left. He saw something bright in the middle of the road and felt compelled to stop, only to discover a tiny black and yellow creature, a salamander. The name was a match since like amphibians, comics lie between text and image, between so-called high art and low art, and between the experimental and the traditional.

SoBeirut: What challenges, if any, did you face starting the business?

LM: I am currently in Barcelona with three other publishers of comics magazines that started recently. They are from Egypt, Tunis and Morocco. We are in the process of developing a comic book about this question and we will be sharing all the ins and outs of the publishing process and its challenges. 

SoBeirut: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

LM: My experiences are my first source of inspiration, often triggered by music, design and literature. Right now, I am reading Joumana Haddad's "I killed Scheherazade" and thinking about the role of the storyteller being a woman, being Arab and being from Beirut, in addition to my expertise in narrative perspective. So, I use writing and drawing as a way to reflect on my experiences, capture significant moments and revise them. Of course, this comes hand-in-hand with the people that I am surrounded with, my family, my friends, my colleagues and my students, and Beirut is always a vital source of inspiration to artists from all over the world.

SoBeirut: You have been sued by the Lebanese government because of some of your drawings. Can you tell us why? What was the outcome of the lawsuit?

LM: Three members of Samandal, Hatem Imam, Fadi Baki (aka the Fdz) and Omar Khouri, were charged by the public attorney with inciting sectarian strife, denigrating religion, publishing false news and, defamation and slander.

A letter was sent by the minister of information to the minister of justice requesting litigation against Samandal on account of “Christian personalities” finding two panels in two separate comics offensive to religion.

After five years of legal proceedings, the three members of Samandal were found guilty and were fined 10,000,000 LL each.

The comics themselves address religion only tangentially and deal satirically with completely different subjects. However, a handful of panels were selectively taken out of context as proof of blasphemy. You can see "Lebanese Recipes for Revenge" that I made & "Ecce Homo" made by Valfret on our co-publisher’s website grandpapier.com

SoBeirut: How do you move forward from the lawsuit both in terms of Samandal’s viability and in terms of the ability to create freely, unencumbered by censorship?

LM: In terms of Samandal we are acting as a collective and joining our efforts to sustain the magazine as we have new and young members in our team that have many new projects and wonderful ideas for the future. In terms of censorship, I will only speak to myself and say, I will not be silenced or encumbered by injustice.

SoBeirut: What’s next for Lena Merhej?

LM: Since I finished my PhD, my conviction is that there is a need to develop educational programs in comics and animation. For example, I see the need for professional programs that specialize in specific areas in the field and produce artists who do particular jobs in the processes of making visual stories. I am currently working on this aspect, doing research and approaching different institutions that may be interested to collaborate. I also wrote a poem called " The Monster in Me" that I would like to animate, and already put down all the notes and research for my new graphic novel.

SoBeirut: What advice would you give to a fledgling artist just starting out in the illustration business?

LM: Develop your voice and be disciplined. Make your work as true and as honest to who you are as possible, because it is when you open your heart that you can reach others. Also, your work can always be perfected although time can be a drawback. So, work consistently and in an organized manner with your clients, record when you are not drawing, and always push yourself towards limits and places that scare you. This is where your creativity will blossom.

SoBeirut: You’ve been based in Beirut for many years now. What are your favorite places in Lebanon and why?

LM: I love the Corniche. It is my refuge and my haven. I think every driver in Beirut should take daily minutes there to escape and feel at the edge of the city and the big blue. The same thing in the mountains, anywhere there is a fountain, a water source or a river, this is where I want to be, especially if there is a mulberry tree besides the water. In Beirut, I go out regularly to Bardo where my friend DJs and Metro al Madina that has fantastic cabaret shows. Dawawin is also another great alternative place that screens films and organizes different cultural events around books, including Samandal, in the middle of a cafe.

SoBeirut: What is a question you would like to answer that we didn’t ask you?

LM: I would rather make a comic about the answer but maybe another time (smiling)

 

If you would like to know more and/or contribute to the Samandal cause, go to 

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-people-vs-samandal-comics--2#/story

 

 

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