Like any great memoir, the story is both about the author and not about her. Findakly’s gift is not so much an extraordinary individual life, but exceptional powers of observation during rapidly changing circumstances. Through well-paced vignettes, Findakly portrays a grown-up world of military coups, political propaganda, minority rights, Christian-Muslim tension, and reactionary sexual norms through a child’s eyes—or rather, through a reconstruction of herself as a child in light of her present concerns. Her literary style is often absurdist, favoring high-contrast juxtapositions. A charming tale of her mother’s popular French desserts in Mosul is followed on the next page by mass hangings of Baathist militiamen. Her brother’s school bus of nine-year-olds took a class trip to witness the hangings.
Many of us may still assume that “comic books” are for children, but adult themes emerge from almost every panel of this graphic memoir. Findakly is especially concerned with forms of surveillance and threats to freedom of thought. During her childhood in Iraq, her father’s phone calls home from his work as an army dentist were monitored: “Speak in Arabic, or hang up!” someone yelled when her parents spoke in French. Later, after the family had moved to France and Findakly returned to Iraq for a visit, she was alarmed by the new panopticon: photographs of the country’s rulers hung in every house and shop, and public conversation about the government was considered dangerous. Though reluctant to give up on her homeland, she refused to surrender her freedom of expression and so ultimately decided to remain in France as an adult.
Findakly’s childhood best friend was a Muslim who lived next door. Her friend’s mother helped the young Brigitte with her confusing Quran homework. Such stories of mutually beneficial religious diversity appear here and there throughout the book, but we see far more suspicion and conflict—between Christians and Muslims up close, with Jews at a distance. “The first time I heard the word Israel was in 1973 when we moved to France,” she writes. She describes the arrival, while the family was still in Iraq, of a new French dictionary in the mail. They looked up the page for Iraq, but it had been torn out, censored “to remove the entry about Israel included on the same page.” Even photographs of celebrities who were Jewish had been cut out of their French magazines.
Baptized Orthodox and then Catholic, the young Brigitte also learned the Quran in public school and later recited prayers for her first Communion in Aramaic, through a school run by Syriac Catholic nuns. She also took private French lessons with a Dominican priest, rounding out a variegated religious upbringing, but none of this “made me a believer.” Though a member of a Christian minority in Iraq and an Arab minority in France, she never felt the zeal of the persecuted. Instead, her adult self adopted the secularism of France, an attitude projected back into her childhood self in her description of her first Communion. “I got a watch,” the young Brigitte flatly remarks on that day, “and I’m dressed like a bride.”
Political turmoil provides the backdrop of the narrative, and Findakly successfully portrays it as a child would, focusing only on the concrete ways it affected her: how it changed school assignments, friendships, or the safety of her father at work. Only much later did Findakly learn about the constant threats to Christians during her childhood, and she confesses that, amid all the unrest of the 1960s in Iraq, she felt danger only once—in France during a student protest in the summer of 1968. She decided France was really the dangerous place. It was in Paris, a decade later, that the roof of their family’s parked (and empty) car took a bullet hole during a hostage crisis at the Iraqi embassy. After that, whenever her family drove in the rain, she would catch the drops of water in a glass.