Brigitte Findakly begins her wise, touching and wonderfully vivid graphic memoir, Poppies of Iraq, in the archaeological ruins of Nimrud, which lie outside Mosul where she grew up. Founded by the Assyrians more than 3,000 years ago, Nimrud holds a special place in her memory, for as a girl it was often to its dusty remains that her parents – her Iraqi dentist father and his French-born wife – would drive their family on Fridays, a picnic stowed in the back of their car. There she would climb on the ancient stones, and sometimes her father would photograph her by the huge man-headed winged lions that guarded what had once been the city’s palace gates.
This was a long time ago: Findakly was born shortly after the 1958 coup in which King Faisal II was executed, and almost a decade before Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party came to power. Things have changed in the years since. In the 60s, the Iraqi government was so keen to preserve the site that those leaving it, and the ancient city of Hatra a little further away, were subject to searches so soldiers could check they had not removed some precious artefact.
But no longer. Who would visit Nimrud and Hatra now? In 2015, Isis bulldozed much of what remained of both, on the grounds that their “idols” were blasphemous.
Findakly’s memoir covers an extended period in Iraq’s recent history; by the time it ends it is 2016, and the cousins she left behind when her family moved to France in the 70s have finally followed her out, worn down by years of war. Yet the half century ticks by with amazing ease, its author managing to tell both the story of a (complicated, fearful) nation, and that of one family of exiles coping with a new life in Paris. Some of this seeming effortlessness she owes to the warm, deft drawings of her husband, Lewis Trondheim, whose cartoons have a marvellous economy. Mostly, though, it is thanks to the dexterous way she flips between disjointed memories of her Orthodox Christian childhood in Iraq and the holidays she spent there as a young woman, when the country was descending into totalitarianism.
As the gap between the two time frames grows ever wider, there is a melancholy letting go. Although it was the Gulf war that put her return visits to an end, she knows that even had they continued, she would have felt increasingly distant from her birthplace: having become a French woman, she ceased to be cut out for the restrictions of Iraqi life. These days, Findakly’s contact with Iraq consists solely of the sometimes painful phone calls she has with her relatives, now living in America, Canada and Sweden. Their Islamophobia, born of their experiences in a country where Christians are increasingly persecuted, is hard for her to hear. In her day, people got along; her mother could walk down the street with her head uncovered. But still, she will not argue. Their voices are all she has left of Iraq now. She is determined to go on loving them exactly as they are.