An author who would do best to get out of the reader’s way completely is Sarah Glidden. Her graphic memoir Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq(Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95) documents a trip she took in 2010 with editors from the Seattle Globalist,an online news outlet, to report on Iraqis who had been displaced by the American invasion and its aftershocks. Recent portraits of Syrian Kurds by Molly Crabapple and Olivier Kugler are humane and urgent, crowded with the words of the refugees themselves. Glidden’s clean, spare cartoons take a behind-the-scenes approach. Readers expecting a book about the region and its recent history may be surprised at how many pages are taken up with heartfelt conversations on the theme, “What is journalism?” Most curious is the role played by one of the editors’ friends, Dan, a former Marine (he ran convoys out of Ramadi), who has also tagged along on the trip; while Dan makes a video blog, the Globalist, editor fails to provoke him into admitting that ousting Saddam Hussein was a mistake. Dan contains multitudes — he protested against the war, then enlisted— but what’s really notable is how his journalist friend can’t hear what he’s trying to say.
The book comes alive when the Americans recede from the frame. Glidden draws excellent grimaces, arched eyebrows, and narrowed eyes; her smiles are good, too, but she has less cause to use them. We meet Momo and Odessa, art students who had to leave Baghdad when their friendship with American soldiers put them at risk; Hiba, who volunteers at a women’s center; and assorted middle-aged professionals who have fallen into poverty. The Americans spend several days with Sam Malkandi, a footnote to The 9/11 Commission Report. Malkandi fled to Iran during the Iran–Iraq War, later registered as a refugee in Pakistan, and — after lying on his asylum application, a common practice — was resettled in the United States in 1998. He allowed a man he met at a mall in Seattle to use his address on a medical form; the man was later identified as a bin Laden operative. Malkandi, who denies any foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, was deported in 2010 on immigration charges. The Globalists are on the case. “It can’t just be random. It can’t just be terrible luck,” the editor cries, eyes bugging, cigarette cocked. “There’s got to be some sort of explanation!”
It was not so long ago that Syria was a refuge. “You see people on the street here and everyone seems happy,” Dan unwittingly prognosticates, “but I’m sure you could find something that would make them all pick up guns and kill each other.”