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Zeez Collective: Comics of remembrance and resistance

Born out of the need to capture more narratives of their country in the essence of comics, Zeez Collective is an independent comic collective from Beirut, Lebanon. 

Founded by five illustrators and comic artists, Zeez is known for their 2019 self-published comic series “Al Jarima” (The Crime) and their determination to keep producing in the face of resistance. 

Following the tragic Beirut Blast in August 2020, their reaction has been one of somber remembrance and continued mourning. They brought together artists and illustrators to dedicate an illustrated flower to a different victim each day, honoring the sadness that sometimes found no place in the midst of the anger and fear. 

“Each life that is lost deserves to be remembered and we have to keep asking ‘where is the investigation?’”

Womena spoke to co-founders Nour Hifaoui and Karen Keyrouz, who are both freelance illustrators and comic artists. Alongside their fellow creatives, they work on a volunteer basis, driven by the love of keeping important stories and the art of comics alive in Lebanon. 

Tell me a bit about yourselves as individual creatives.

Karen Keyrouz: I knew since I was a child that I could draw, but I wasn’t sure about comics. I have been working in comics since I graduated in 2015. I did a masters in illustration and comics at Académie Libanaise des Beaux Arts and launched my first graphic Novel “Flux et Reflux” (2018) with them. I realized I wanted to be telling stories and comics were the place for this. What is interesting about our school of art is that it gathers many disciplines under one specialization. 

Nour Hifaoui: I usually tackle social exclusion and social relations. In my work, I have tried to provoke as much as possible and push my limit of expression. People used to message me saying “I love you but I have to unfollow you because I can’t see your drawings anymore.” It’s important to keep going, but I think sometimes we need to stop and understand what is going on around us.

Karen and I studied in the same university, we did the masters together. I do short, satire comics and other editorial work. We also do graphic documentation.

Graphic documentation? What’s that? It sounds so cool.

N: Sometimes there are forums that happen and we go and visually document it. These are mainly for associations, NGOs. 

K: …Institutions that are talking about feminism. Graphic documentation is also used, for example, when people talking on a panel are in danger of being in front of a camera, so it’s better to illustrate and not take photos – graphic documentation is a solution to this. 

Why is it important to capture what is happening in Lebanon through the female lens? 

K: Zeez means cicada. In Lebanon, there is zeez everywhere, in the summer you can hear them buzzing. They live in groups and in order to have a louder voice they gather together. This was the idea behind choosing this name. It represents our need to get together and talk about things as a collective, we just happened to be more women. 

When you all came together to create Zeez Collective, what was the thought process behind that?

N: Lena Merhej, one of the co-founders of Samandal (a volunteer-based non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the art of comics in Lebanon), gathered a bunch of us illustrators in 2017 and encouraged us to start another collective because Samandal was the only one in Lebanon at the time. 

We wanted to produce comics because there wasn’t a market, there are a lot of artists but there was no place or platform for an artist to produce the work. We each did a solo Zine.

What was it like putting together the first publication? 

K: Our first publication was very natural, we chose a theme and did what we wanted to do. We printed the first edition on silkscreen at Beit Waraq (house of paper), a  community space that aims to promote the art of illustration, printmaking, design and animation by allocating each of its rooms to one of these practices.  It was created to encourage people to continue using these printing methods. 

We then decided we want to make a platform where comics can be more accessible.. We started questioning “Why are we doing this? What do we want from this? What is our direction or vision?”

We wanted to do something reactional and we created this newspaper called Al Jarima (The Crime). It was low cost to produce and in each production we focused on one crime, the first one was about crimes against women.

N: We all did a different version about a woman who was found dead in Martyrs Square in Beirut. 

K: After the first crime edition in 2018, the revolution started and so did the economic crisis and later, COVID-19. Due to this complete collapse, we couldn’t publish another edition because the costs went crazy due to inflation. Instead, we decided to publish it online on our website. 

How have you been creating in the face of all of this? 

K: Zeez is talking about the problems here in Lebanon, but at the same time, we cannot create. Our houses and our beings were damaged. It was a sensitive subject and we had to know the limits of what we can talk about. One of the members said we should give a flower to each victim, and it was exactly what we wanted to do.

N: Each day we dedicate an illustrated flower to a different victim. We gathered artists and illustrators and gave them the space to contribute.

What has been the most touching part of this tribute?

N: A lot of people related to the victims reached out to the artists and thanked them for the flower, and that was the most touching thing for me, knowing that it is giving some kind of relief for the parents and the people related.

K: A friend reached out to us and said, what’s nice about this flower is that with everything that is happening, especially with the anger, you still feel as though someone is sad day after day. The flower is an immediate gift of condolence when someone passes away. It’s sensitive to talk about sadness when feelings are not very exposed right now, but the population is sad.

Do you feel pressure to talk about it? 

N: It’s bigger than anything and everything, it’s bigger than other feelings, there is nothing else we want to talk about. 

K: Sadly before everything, we were thinking about how Zeez should shift to a more social, reactional platform. We were thinking of how to tell more stories about minorities and violence, about a lot of things that are happening around us – and these events naturally took us there. There is nothing else we can or want to talk about now… if you have a romantic heartbreak, now is not the moment for it. 

It’s your lived experience.

K: Yes, and it’s also hard to talk about inspiration at this moment. Before the catastrophe, we were in a chaotic country but now we’re all inside of it. It’s hard to talk about inspiration when you don’t have distance from your subject. When you’re surrounded by it, you can’t talk about anything else. If this is inspiration, it is the kind that will kill us someday.

What do you see for yourselves as creatives in the coming months?

N: It’s hard for me to think or process how I’m going to keep creating. I can’t just remove myself so I don’t have a plan. 

K: It’s really difficult to even draw. Knowing and understanding that this place is not helping me anymore is difficult. Every person in Lebanon is thinking about leaving the country – even people in their 70s. It’s that big. 

What’s sad about the fact that everyone wants to leave is that the system is winning. They are letting us go, it’s a struggle that we live every day – how to leave, what to leave, how to keep what we have while leaving. I personally started working on a book that is experimental…it has a lot of feelings and situations inside of it.

Are you hoping Zeez will reach an international audience? 

N: At first you create for yourself, but then you aim and hope to reach people and talk to people, whether international or local.

K: We’re thinking of transforming the social media pages of Zeez Collective into a place where we can translate our work. It will be reactional, we will be talking about our current social, political and sentimental issues. We never want to stop talking about what is happening.

What do you feel, or hope to convey while you’re drawing?

N: Every time we get an idea we feel like it’s not even satirical, the reality is much more absurd than what we can joke about. Everything that’s happening is beyond our imagination. Drawing today for me is just trying to get all of what I’m feeling onto the paper to feel some kind of relief, just to feel like I still exist and that I can do something.

K: It’s our only way to fight, even if we’re not doing much, this is the only way. And this is where the collective is important because if you’re a person alone in this situation, it’s difficult to find the energy to push yourself to create alone. In a collective people push each other, and that makes things less heavy.