How to Hide in Lebanon as a Western Foreigner

15 December, 2021,
Lena Merhej’s German mother, married to a Lebanese man, tries to fit in to the local culture.


Excerpt from Lena Merhej’s comic hit Mrabba wa Laban

Lena Merhej’s graphic novel Mrabba wa Laban.

This is an excerpt from Mrabba wa Laban, the Arabic graphic novel by Lena Merhej, translated by Nadiyah Abdullatif and Anam Zafar. Unlike many stories of migration, the graphic novel recounts Merhej’s mother’s journey from West to East, and how as a German, she adapted to life in Lebanon. The humor in this extract stems largely from comparing stereotypes of Western and Arab women, as Lena’s childhood self tries to understand where her mother falls on the scale, and as the reader learns how her mother tried to avoid being recognized as a foreigner to avoid trouble.
Mrabba wa Laban was one of the first graphic novels to have appeared in Arabic and has been published in French, Spanish and Italian, though not yet in English. 
The trope of the overbearing, over-organized mother appears, with the military-style poses of the children humorously conveying the strict delegation of chores, and later when Lena narrates how her mother sometimes calls her children very early in the morning when she miscalculates the time difference. The last two pages of the extract are a poignant representation of the mixing of cultures in the author’s family, represented by the familiar humor of the fatigue associated with always eating the same dishes.
Lena Merhej was born in 1977 in Beirut to a Lebanese father and German mother. She is the founder of the Story Centre in Beirut, was the director of the Beirut Animated Festival, and has taught illustration and animation at universities in Beirut. Mrabba wa Laban and her comic book Kamen Sine (2009), received the Award for Best Comic at FIBDA (International Comic Strip Festival of Algiers). 


Nadiyah Abdullatif is a freelance translator of Arabic, French and Spanish. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of St Andrews in Modern Languages (Arabic and Spanish) and International Relations and a Masters in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Anam Zafar translates from Arabic and French to English and holds an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. She was longlisted for the 2021 John Dryden Translation Competition and selected as a 2021 ALTA Virtual Travel Fellow, has collaborated with the National Centre for Writing as translator in residence and Emerging Translators Mentee, and appeared at the Bila Hudood: Arabic Literature Everywhere festival. She volunteers for World Kid Lit. Her translations have been published by ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly, the National Centre for Writing, the SpLitera Cultural Association, and World Kid Lit. 

Arab traditionBeirutcultural dissonanceGerman and Lebanese coupleLebanon

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