Lena Merhej is a visual artist who focuses on images in sequences and community work. She was a Ph.D. candidate at Jacobs University, Germany, doing research on visual narratives. She taught illustration and animation at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, and gave workshops in animation, illustration and comic books. Now she teaches at the Lebanese International University and she's illustrated over 20 Arabic children’s books. War is a recurrent theme in her work and the subject of her first comic book, I think we will be calmer in the next war (2006), which was rated the highest selling book in Lebanon in 2007. Her animation “Drawing the War” won the Jury Award at the New York Exposition Festival and was screened in various local and international venues. Her comic book, "Kamen Sine" took the award of best comic book at FIBDA 2009, in Alger. She is part of the Samandal organization for the promotion and publication of comics, where you can read her story “Yoghurt and Jam, or How my Mother Became Lebanese".
Merhej was one of the founding members of Samandal when it was first started in 2007, and to this day she is still heavily invested in it. Recently, EXPERIMENTATION (2019) from Samandal won the Angouleme prize in France. The Angouleme prize was really important for Merhej because of its significance as the biggest comic festival in France. She says that there are three types of comics, the traditional American comic, the Franco-Belgian comic and the manga; she mentions that Arab comics are still very much on the sidelines. This is why Merhej believes that the Angouleme prize is important not only for her, but for Samandal comics as a whole. Their work now reaches even more places around the world, although she admits that it implies a greater responsibility for the editors in that they will always have to offer new and thought provoking work. Merhej believes that comics are a simple way to inform with images and words, and Samandal is a channel to tell everyone what happens in the Arab world. This award allowed them to accompany and highlight the work of the artists who have been published in the magazine. All they have done has been accumulating experience that should have been available to other artists so that they can learn from them, and even overcome them on an artistic level, in order to create a comic market in the Middle East. Therefore, she believes that the Angouleme prize is the first step to make a space for Arab comics in the international market.
Comics are a western tradition that is mainly found in France, Belgium, Japan, and the USA. There is a considerable market for comic in all these nations and when a book works, sometimes it can sell up to a million copies. People read and buy comics. There is a kind of cultural pride in which the market for games, electronic programs, movies is built. The interest in comics, however, is very weak in the Arab world. To find comics you have to look for them. Merhej holds writers and artists responsible for this situation and as an artist working in that field, she's also prone to self-criticism. She asks how can new projects be started without previous experience? She believes that the image in comics is not valued and the work is put in the text. She uses children's books as an example. The children's book editor does not give importance to illustrators and it has taken a decade for publishers to be aware of the importance of the artist. Now the battle is maintained by comic culture to be considered a literary genre; awareness must be made in schools that the comic is an important literary genre, that comics are liked by young people and an adult audience, and it has many readers in the Arab world, for example, there are 160 million of young people reading in Arabic.
Jacobs University Bremen - Ph.D. in Visual Studies 2010-2015
Duke University - Ph.D in Visual Studies 2011-2012
Parsons School of Design - Masters of Fine Arts in Design and Technology 2000-2002
American University of Beirut - Bachelor in Graphic Design 1995-1999
Teaching storyboard illustration, character design and follow up with senior students in Graphic Design at the Fine Arts & Design Department.
Co-founder and co-editorSamandal 2007 – Present Beirut District, Lebanon
Samandal is a volunteer-based non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the art of comics in Lebanon and the rest of the world. Based in Beirut, we have published 15 magazines, and two comics anthologies and hosted comics-related events since 2007.
The studio allowed her to do thorough research on the process of animation series, working on "Codename: Kids Next Door" for the Cartoon Network.
Art Director Cleartag Jun 1999 – Jun 2001 (2 years 1 month)
Cleartag, Beirut, Lebanon. A web based company, where she worked on major projects pursued by the company such as beirutdelivery.com, and lebanonforkids.com.
Animator and Coordinator Parsons School of Design Feb 2001 – May 2002
Performance and Motion Capture; A collaborative team's project for the Parsons School of Design, where she worked and coordinated with the creative team, on a motion capture and 2d combined animation piece.
Art Instructor and Program Coordinator Step together Lebanon Sep 1999 – Jul 2000 Lebanon http://www.steptogetherlb.org/ Taught craft, visual and physical expression, and worked on the art curricula for the learning disabled.
Men with Guns - Postcolonial Comics: Texts, Events, Identities, Routledge January 1, 2015
Segmentation-free detection of comic panels - ICCVG'12 Proceedings of the 2012 international conference on Computer Vision and Graphics January 1, 2012
Stories from Here and There - Takam Tikou, France January 1, 2010
Illustrators as Authors - What a Story, Bahithat Lebanese Women Researchers Association January 1, 2009
Under the Bombs
Dessiner La Guerre
Dessiner la Guerre is a very short animated film that presents us with daily life in the war: objects, games, and children's memories. In this film, Lena Merhej delivers her questioning on a blank page that she fills with meaningful imagery.
Lena Merhej is the co-founder of Samandal, which is located in Beirut. This volunteer collective of animators, illustrators and graphic designers use the genre of comic art, society, and politics. Since its inception in 2007, Samandal has published the work of over 300 artists from the Middle East and its Diaspora. Unfortunately, it is still recovering from a lawsuit by the Lebanese Government that lasted from 2010 to 2015.
The lawsuit in question was given to Samandal because of two comics, Ecce Homo by Valfretand Lebanese Recipes for Revenge by Lena Merhej. Merhej's comic uses the phrase "yahriq deenak" which means "[May God] burn your religion" which is usually meant as a phrase of exasperation similar to "Oh my God", but
After five years of fighting against censorship, while continuing to produce award-winning comics, the founders of Samandal Hatem Imam, Omar Khouri and Fadi Baki were found guilty and fined a total of 20 million Lebanese pounds each (today approximately US $ 15,000). For an alternative publisher by its size and scope, it marked the end of the end. For Macaron, it was "an immediate explosion of the bubble" with a look at the philosophy he had built around comics. Maybe it was not such a safe place after all.
"The laws on censorship in Lebanon are vague and subject to interpretation," says Imam from his study studio in Beirut, Safar Studio. "We were always worried about our representations of drugs, nudity and sex, but nothing ever happened. Without many other options, Samandal launched a fundraising campaign to raise funds for its next issue. The publisher was already revered in the world of comics, but with the media attention around this, the platform suddenly had more eyes than ever. "We feel the love and support of people around the world; it was incredible," says Imam.
This wave of attention and support coincides with the transformation of a quarterly magazine into an annual comic book, edited by a different publisher in each issue. The decision was made by a decision to work "a little more slowly," writes Macaron, and to work with taxpayers for a longer period. Lena Merhej, one of the offending artists, was the editor for this issue and explored a theme "youth, sexuality and poetry". Although it is not what Imam would have described as revolutionary, it was a definite challenge. "The case has made me firmer about not censoring content," Imam says. With the significant increase in the number of its readers, "now, if we publish a statement on another case of censorship, the impact in the media would be significant. . "
Beyond her personal projects, Merhej also has a few IMDB credits under her belt. She's listed as a production intern for eight episodes of Codename: Kids Next Door, a visual effects artist for Sheoeyin Kenna, and as an animator for Cultures of Resistance.
Cultures of Resistance follows director Iara Lee on her journey to discover whether gestures, music, and dance can actually be used as weapons of peace, and Merhej contributed with her work as an animator. Lee begins her journey in 2003, and for a few years she travels through five continents, and along the way she showcases several people who've spent their entire lives promoting change against violence. In Sheoeyin Kenna, or We Were Communists, Merhej worked as a visual effects artist. This movie follows the stories of four disillusioned men, and it focuses on the legacy of the civil war in Lebanon, along with the post-war state of Lebanon. Lastly, Codename: Kids Next Door is actually what inspired Merhej to dive deeper into animation, and it allowed her to further understand most of the procedures involved in the making of animation.
Jam and Yoghurt
In Lebanon, yogurt has always been eaten with salt and grated cucumber. One day, Lena Merhej saw how her mother ate yogurt with jam and was shocked. Years later, she drew this beautiful story about her mother, a German from Hanover, and portrayed the "peaceful cohabitation of contradictions" that was her family and - perhaps not so much - her country. An approach to the Arab world through the eyes of an old European woman who proves that the East is not so far away and also has memory, nostalgia and open wounds.
From the little things of everyday life, Lena Merhej draws the path of her mother, who came to settle in Lebanon at the end of the sixties.Through family anecdotes and childhood memories, Lena questions the identity of her mother, a militant and committed doctor, in a war-torn Lebanon. With humor and poetry, she transcends her personal history, and plays clichés on East and West, questioning us on the double culture and the plural identity. A funny and moving work, hailed by the critics in Lebanon and in the Arab countries . His black and white boards were published between 2007 and 2010 in the journal Samandal. Published in Arabic language in 2011, in Beirut, by Samandal.
It is a recurring theory that the artist will have creative blocks when it comes to memory, often from their childhood, when they're in search of inspiration, help, and leverage with which to wade an obstacle. In the case Lena Merhej the appeal was extended to the figure of her mother, which in this narrative tells the story of how a woman of German culture born in the Czech Bohemia decides to settle, take root and create her own family in that corner of the Eastern Mediterranean called Lebanon. Of course, there is the first impulse that is love, but there is much more, the determination, the ability to adapt, the need, above all, to fit adversities and continue to make life a better place for oneself and For those around.
Yogurt with jam is, therefore, an investigation that is to remember, in personal experience and in family heritage, an immersion in that slippery and uncertain area to capture memories that are not very well known how they got there. Jam and Yoghurt is a comic that portrays the author's mother, herself and her family, and, in part, the society in Beirut, which is a curious amalgam of different ingredients. The case in point is whether this cohabitation of contradictions is achieved peacefully, or not.
The protagonist of this story came to Beirut in 1967. Daughter of an Anglican Austrian and a Czech Catholic, she adopts Islam as faith to be able to marry the father of her first three children, of whom she is a widow seven years later. From her second nuptials, two more daughters are born, one of them the author. Lena Merhej is reconstructing her mother's career, how she found her life in the urgency of everyday needs, how her decision to take her place in Lebanon was not a single decision, but a set of them that accumulated day after day, in which the protagonist found a space for herself. A strict and mysterious but very funny mother, who does not abandon her passion for black novels in German or for apfeltrüdel - a sort of apple pie - but who also identifies with curry rice every Sunday or with the most stale prototype of a Lebanese mother, who, when her daughters go abroad, tells them not to even look for a foreign boyfriend.
The narrative uses different approaches although the fragmentation of its chapters, since it was initially published by deliveries in Samandal, the first magazine regularly published in the Arab cultural field. Two of the plot axes are especially striking: how to face fears - bombs, kidnappings, pain, shortages, violence - without letting them become traumas and how to manage the conflict of the emigrated; from the nostalgia of those who live among theirs or from adaptation and integration in the new place. In this case, there was a firm decision to avoid suffering and bitterness as much as possible when the protagonist chose, for example, not to teach her mother tongue to her children.
A City Named Beirut
In times past known as the Switzerland of the Orient, Lebanon was the scene set for a devastating civil war lasting from 1975 to 1990. It's capital, Beirut was devastated by the conflict, and one of the defining moments was in the summer of 1982. The axis on which current geopolitics is based is born from the Iranian Revolution, the War of Afghanistan and the Civil War of Lebanon. The revolution would turn Iran into a regional power and end it by aligning with the Shiite forces of the Middle East and with world powers such as Russia and China. From the war in Afghanistan, the defeat and last crisis of the USSR would be obtained as well as the creation of contemporary jihadism that was born with Al Qaeda and continues to develop in philosophical and political terms in the Islamic State, and the last pillar of modern geopolitics is in the Lebanese Civil War, which would last fifteen years, from 1975 to 1990.
It is perhaps the most decisive conflict of the last fifty years in the Middle East because from it would be born the greatest opposition to Israel and one of its fiercest enemies. Hezbollah would be the great winner of this war of attrition between multiple factions in Lebanon, the Shiite militia would receive the unconditional support of Iran and Syria and would eventually expand to Iraq. This conflict would also mark the second expulsion of the PLO (the first in 1970 when they were expelled from Jordan) and the beginning of the change of Palestinian resistance strategy towards the intifadas.
Lebanon was in religious chaos. The country, with 10,452 square kilometers, is the most diverse and complex country in the Middle East. It is divided around 47% for Christians and another 47% Muslim and 6% for Druze. The Christians are divided into several branches, predominantly the Orthodox Christian and the Maronite, although with Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Protestant, Assyrian, Rum and Armenian Christianity. mixed throughout.
In the Islamic part there is 31% of Shiites, 15% of Sunnis and around 1% of Alauís so that the religious fracture is assured, this diversity has generated not only a few conflicts between Muslims and Christians, which in the rest of the Middle East are traditional minorities and do not usually defend themselves. In Lebanon, their Muslim compatriots have had a tradition of self-defense, friction and conflict that have been common, although the relationship between Christians and Shiite Muslims has been traditionally cordial.
In Lebanon there is a rather large group of exiles, predominantly Palestinians and Armenians, but there are not only religious differences. In Lebanon there is a tradition of political movements. Lebanese communists or socialists have participated in clashes that have only served to reinforce the different Lebanese factions and weaken the government, with which its army was unable to control all these factions.
Since the beginning of the seventies, after the killing of Palestinians carried out in Jordan by troops of King Husein of Jordan (the Black September killing). Palestinian refugees and members of the PLO settled in southern Lebanon, created refugee settlements (Sabra and Chatila, the most famous) and training camps to fight against Israel. While the PLO harassed Israel by attacking it from Lebanese territory, the Palestinians began to face the government and the Beirut army against which it came to fight several times before the outbreak of Lebanon's civil war in 1975. Christians were also harassed by the PLO forces and the elite of their army, the Castel Brigade.
The Palestinians, who already had 400,000 refugees in Lebanon at the time of the six-day war, were armed and threatened the traditional power of Lebanese Christians, who frequently identified with the West and also with Israel (who would not hesitate to ally with them later). Israel watched weakened government and an army overflowing with the activities of the Yasser Arafat militias, and they also watched the Christians, who were armed before the constant friction with the Palestinians. The massive arrival of Palestinians towards the south of Lebanon worsened the situation of the Shiites in their relations with the Palestinians, who were Sunni, and especially because the massive arrival of the refugees would worsen the economic situation of the Shiite Lebanese as the businessmen hired to the Palestinians desperate and therefore cheaper and with experience in the field and in crafts, trade that in Lebanon was the exclusive work of the Shiites. They were also prey to attacks and robberies by desperate Palestinians who found no means of subsistence, the violence of the new residents towards the Lebanese residents of the south, whether Christians, Druze or Shiites, was overwhelming.
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