Going to Jerusalem with Guy Delisle

Life in The Holy Land & Why I read Jerusalem

I wish I had gotten the chance to hang out with Guy Delisle, but even if the 40 or so miles between Amman, Jordan, where I lived, and Jerusalem didn’t take hours to cross, he left several years before I arrived.

When I look at the photo of Beit Hanina, above, where Delisle lived with his family, I am reminded of the many mountain views in Amman.

While Jordan does not have the tensions and pressures of Israel, where two states simultaneously occupy the same land, living in the nearby country helps you understand the contradictions that everyone lives with everyday.

Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem

Guy Delisle is a Canadian cartoonist who is mostly known for his travelogues.  Even though they are in graphic form, reading one is a bit of a commitment because they are not short.  On the other hand, they are pretty spare in design and dialogue, so they also are not as long as you would think.

 I first read Delisle when I was preparing for a move to Jordan several years ago, and I was excited to find his book Jerusalem in my school library in Tokyo.  So now, after six years in Jordan and three visits to Palestine and Israel, I wanted to read it again to see how it compares. 

 Delisle wrote Jerusalem about his year living there with his partner and two children while his partner worked for Doctors Without Borders as an administrator. 


I have to admit, when I read this book the first time, I understood the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in only the most general way.  Even after more than half a decade in the region, I can say that I still find it really complicated, but what I do get it that there are the parts of Israel and Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) that belong to each state by treaty, and then there are the parts that the Israelis illegally occupy.  It’s also important to have a clue about the citizenship thing.  As far as I know, the Jewish people are pretty much Israeli citizens, but the Arab people can hold one or more passports: There is the Palestinian passport, Israeli, and believe it or not, Jordan.  It all depends on where people were living at any point in time, and for various reasons, there are people who hold Jordanian passports who have never lived there.  I have also met Arabs who tell me they are entitled to Israeli passports but won’t get one for various reasons.  In the case of one gentleman I met, he said he wouldn’t be able to visit his sister, who lives in Dubai, if he got an Israeli passport.


The added wrinkle (that Delisle doesn’t really get into) is that none of the other countries in the region like Israel, and it can be tricky for foreign nationals, such as Americans, to visit certain Arab countries if they have been to Israel, but for this reason, Israel doesn’t stamp passports; they give you a little bookmark thing to keep in your passport while you are there. 


Ok, so back to the book: the contradictions Delisle encounters aren’t exactly the same as those I encountered, but also I spent very little time in Israel/the West Bank.  It can be nice while you are there because the Israeli sections, in particular, are very first world: you feel like you are in New York.  But it is expensive (being a tiny country who doesn’t get along with ANY of it’s neighbors makes things expensive), and you have to get used to the constant gun toting and road blocks. 


If you’re coming from a first world country, the Arab areas can be jarring.  They can seem messy and confusing, but I was used to living in Jordan, and the Arab areas in Israel/Palestine are much the same.  In fact, I really got to where I preferred to be there.


You might think you understand the big picture, but everytime you think you do, you find some other strange quirk that changes everything.  One of the sections that jumped out to me at this reading is Delisle’s visit to a Samaritan community.  If you have heard the story of “The Good Samaritan” from the Bible, you might think of the Samaritan’s as a sort of unclean culture that is meant to be avoided.  But what Delisle discovered is that they consider themselves to basically be a more ancient tradition of monotheism than the Jews, who in general, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims all generally accept as the first.


And of course, what surprised Delisle and surprised me, even though it shouldn’t, is the fact that there is a pretty significant minority of Arabs who are Christians.  There would actually be more except that there were times when Muslims forced conversions, and only the very wealthy Christians could afford to pay the tax that allowed them to stay Christians.  So although the Christian Arabs are a small group, they are a powerful group. 


So many Christians in the west who think they are mandated to assist the Jews don’t realize the role that other Christians have in the Middle East.


Some of the things Delisle encountered in the West Bank are exactly the same as Jordan, in particular the traffic althouth my experience with the traffic in the West Bank is that it’s calmer than Jordan.  But it seems we both spent some time sitting in the massive traffic jams, and we both got good at mapping out alternative routes home that allowed us to skirt it.  In that ways it seems we both went local. 


I would say that the only area in which I really disagree with Delisle’s perspective is his take on what he calls “veiled” women but what I call “covered”.  I was a bit annoyed by the impression that a hijab (head covering) on the outside denotes the character and abilities of the woman underneath. Frankly, I find this perspective prevalent outside of the Middle East in general, and I don’t like it.  But to be fair, I got to work closely with Jordanian women, and that exposure alone is much different from Delisle’s. On top of that, I am a woman, so that gave me still more opportunity to really get to know local women and their wide variety of perspectives, whether “covered” or not. 

About Guy Delisle

1 February 2015 Guy Delisle

1 February 2015 Guy Delisle

Guy Delisle is Canadian and was born in 1966. He currently lives in France.

This is a trailer for a 30 minute documentary about Guy Delisle’s writing of Jerusalem below, which is currently available for rental on Amazon Prime in the U.S.




Pyongnang and Burma Chronicles

I also really liked Delisle’s book Pynongnang, in which he documents his opportunity to visit North Korea as a tourist.  His book Burma Chronicles is quite good too although I read it several years ago and don’t remember the details.

Pyongyang is memorable because he actually got the chance to go to North Korea as a tourist…and got out to write about it.

This book was supposed to have been the basis for a Steve Carell film in 2015, but it was scrapped after the scandal involving the film The Interview.

Free Read

This article from the Hollywood Reporter, ‘Pyongyang’: The Book Behind the Shelved Steve Carell North Korea Movie has excerpts from Delisle’s book.

The Owner’s Manual to Terrible Parenting

The Owner’s Manual to Terrible Parenting that I also read was a miss for me, but I think the small vignettes are better suited to periodicals than to the book format.



I also didn’t care for Hostage as much, but that’s probably because I don’t really care for the genre.  In fairness, I used to feel annoyed with people who let themselves get captured because quite often it has to do with people’s not taking enough precautions in a hostile situation, but now, after having lived in Jordan, I can see how it’s easy to get a lassiez faire perspective.  To be clear, Jordan is an ally of the United States, and I always felt quite safe there, but I did get used to seeing certain kinds of civil unrest to the point that I did take it lightly, and I know of at least one situation in Jordan where foreigners were told to stay away (which let me say I did), and many people had to be stopped by soldiers when they attempted to enter the demonstrations.  I wasn’t bothered enough to stay home; I still went about my life, but I didn’t try to enter the area where the demonstrations were happening either.

More from The Lois Level

Graphic Literature is a great way to read about different places because the author/artist can actually show you things that might be hard to picture yourself. Check out these great articles from The Lois Level under the category Graphics For Grownups.

These are great options for Teens and Adults.

About the Cover Photo

Today’s cover photo shows Beit Hanina, the area in East Jerusalem where Guy Delisle lived with his family. Look closely, and try to spot the difference between the Palestinian sections and the illegal (by international law) Israeli settlements as described in Jerusalem.

יעקב / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

יעקב / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)