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Mike's Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv
by Jack Baxter, Joshua Faudem and Koren Shadmi
First Second, $22.99, 192pp
Published: June 2015 (available for pre-order)
This book review of a graphic novel based on a true story was posted on 30th April, twelve years to the day since the event at the heart of its story, a suicide bombing of the blues bar of the title in Tel Aviv. This review is dedicated to the memory of the three who died, Dominique Hass, Ran Baron and Yanay Weiss, and with great respect for the Mike's Place family who refused to let this act define them, instead reopening their bar in a week to prove that terrorists cannot win in the face of love, peace and dedication.
There's no doubt that 'Mike's Place' is an important book, one that should be read widely by a broad section of world society. It grabbed me quickly and drew me inexorably into its story, which can be, but shouldn't only be, boiled down as far as a refreshingly different response to an act of terror.

Terrorists want people to be afraid, hence their name. They want others to change who they are through fear, to spend their time, effort and money to placate that fear, to voluntarily give up their freedoms because of it. Yet, after a suicide bomber blew himself up in the entrance to 'Mike's Place', a blues bar in Tel Aviv, Israel, killing three and injuring fifty, the folk behind it reopened in a week. Put simply, they refused to allow terrorists to win and that's an example, which in these days of security theatre, mass surveillance and the erosion of civil rights in the holy name of the War on Terror, needs not only to be heard but to be thoroughly absorbed.

For that message alone, this is worth your money. The question is what else it is. In many ways it's a really odd book because of the choice of medium. While the story, at its heart, is about the bombing of Mike's Place, it's also about a documentary film that was being shot there when that bombing occurred and it's the film that provides the framework. So this graphic novel is about a film about a blues bar and we can't hear the music. The lack of sound is a massive gap and it's one key reason why this book shifts from being a standalone to a companion piece.

It tells the same story as the documentary film, but with a very different approach so that neither loses from the competition but both gain from the reinforcement. Rather than recommending either over the other, I'd actually recommend both. I read the book first, then watched the film, then watched it again with my better half, then re-read the book. Doing so within a few days helped me to see the differences and also to focus in on a few frames in the book whose importance had eluded me at the time.

The common story follows American filmmaker Jack Baxter to Israel to find a story about the Middle East that he hadn't heard before. He expects it to be about Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian on trial in Israel for terrorism. He's an important figure, still a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council even from prison, where he's serving five life sentences. However, it soon becomes clear that he isn't the story and a local film crew is working it anyway. Baxter decides to go home but, walking along the beach in Tel Aviv the night before flying out, hears blues music on the night air and follows it into Mike's Place, finding his story there because it epitomises a Middle East that he didn't even know existed.

It's certainly an enticing place. People come here to eat and drink and dance and listen to live blues music. They're a diverse bunch from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds, a global family, but politics and religion are subjects to be avoided inside the bar. It's a place to enjoy life and people throng to it even during the early 2000s, with the Second Intifada hurling violence into Israel and a war raging not too far away in Iraq. What's more, the new bartender, Joshua Faudem, is a documentary filmmaker himself so Baxter hires him and his new Yugoslavian girlfriend to shoot the film for him. It goes well.

Then, just as Baxter and Faudem believe themselves done with the primary shoot, ready to start editing forty hours of interviews and other footage into a feature length film, a new angle manifests itself with vehemence. On 30th April, 2003, twelve years ago today, a suicide bomber tries to enter Mike's Place, and being stopped by Avi, the bouncer, blows himself up in the doorway.

The impact to the film and the Mike's Place family is immediately obvious and overt. The three dead include a key character, Dominique Hess, a French waitress who was the first person to be hired at Mike's Place. Another key character, Avi the bouncer, is hospitalised. What's more, Baxter himself, outside at the time, is hurled back in through a window by the blast and seriously injured too. Politics and religion had been kept out of Mike's Place all along but they showed up anyway, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.

Now, of course, the film isn't over and, with Baxter in hospital and out of the picture, Faudem continues to shoot footage. Mike's Place was targetted because it was a symbol of peace and togetherness, so owner Gal Ganzman knows that it has to reopen and quickly to restore that symbol to the world and prove that this suicide bomber and the terrorist organisations behind him cannot win, just so long as people can still eat and drink and dance and enjoy life at Mike's Place. Of course, Faudem is at the heart of this with unprecedented access for a filmmaker. Talk about being in the right place at the right time, where the right time is also about as wrong a time as can be comfortably imagined.

So that's the common story between the film and the book, which mostly tell the same story, often in the same words. Many panels are direct adaptations from the film, as if they were drawn photographs with transcribed dialogue. The difference in story boils down to the film being released in 2004, as 'Blues by the Beach', while the book is not yet released; it's due this June in a handsome little hardback from First Second. The film is an urgent piece, packed full of emotion: anger, cameraderie and love, not to mention the will to endure and a reaffirmation to live. The book is abstracted by the passage of time, that gap of a decade not diminishing the story but making it less emotional and more considered.

Most obviously, the book includes the terrorists as well as the Mike's Place family. We don't see them in the film, but the book includes three of them, beginning with the planner on a day trip to Tel Aviv, talking with Dom at Mike's Place as he confirms it as a target, and continuing on with the two men who enter Israel with mass murder on their mind.

Tellingly, one is notably humanised. The assumption at the time was that the second bomber's equipment malfunctioned so he didn't follow his colleague's action. The book ties him to Dom too, leaving her a big tip earlier that day and waving to her moments before she's hit by the blast. It posits that this second bomber, Omar Khan Sharif, backed out of his act, dumped his bombs and left, not unable to murder but unwilling. He eventually leaves his clothes neatly folded on the beach and walks into the sea to drown. This fits the facts that we know, but it includes a great deal of guesswork and elevates Dom's role massively, suggesting that her unwitting acts saved as many as Avi's deliberate ones.

There are other differences too. As if to compensate for the loss of sound, meaning that we never hear the blues playing from Mike's Place and fail to grasp the palpable diversity in accents amongst the key players, it ups the ick factor with pages dedicated to the devastation and further details that enhance moments in the film. For instance, Jack mentions in the film as he leaves hospital that he believes there's still glass embedded in his skull, though the end credits clarify this to 'embedded organic shrapnel'; however the book explains outright that it's not glass, it's bits of the bomber.

Another pair of changes tie to the human angle, the relationships between the people in the Mike's family and how they change after the bombing. On one side, the book builds the connection between Gal and Dom, how the former believes that they're a couple but the latter is leaving it behind. On another, the fresh relationship between Joshua and Pavla, who shot most of the film between them, collapses in its wake. Even though Pavla also edited the documentary, she clearly distanced herself from it over time and she's renamed accordingly to Sasha here.

Mostly, it's the tone that's changed, and it's why I'd recommend that people interested in this story watch the film first and then follow up with the book.

'Blues by the Beach' introduces us to Mike's Place, the people behind it and the atmosphere that it generates. The music is local and the bar crowded, but it feels utterly authentic. For all the many Guinness signs, it isn't a slick, lifeless corporate drinking hole; it's a vibrant community of real people whose living in the moment finds firm definition as a celebration of humanity. The actions of Asif Muhammad Hanif threaten that but fail, quickly and entirely, because the Mike's Place family refuse to let him win. While the three people left dead by Hanif's bomb are unavoidably victims, those who survived it don't identify themselves as either victims or survivors because they refuse to let an act of terror define who they are. Instead they choose to define themselves by acts of love, peace and dedication and I salute them for that.

While the film observes, endures and documents this story, the book looks back at it from the distance of over a decade. 'Mike's Place' starts and ends in different places, brings a new perspective to the relationships which end within the narrative and widens the scope to include the bombers themselves. It's a worthy follow-up to flesh out the story and enhance our understanding. Koren Shadmi's art is effective but it doesn't replace the live footage of the film, capturing a succession of moments as photographs but losing the gaps between them and the life that should animate them.

And, at the end of the day, this story is all about life. It deserves to be read and absorbed and thought about.

During Baxter's introduction to the film, he mentions that experts suggest that the 9/11 attacks were a response to the American support of Israel and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. It's why he went in search of this story. We know well how the United States, as a country and a government, responded to that terrorist act, but 'Mike's Place' highlights that there's a better way to respond, one that I'm sure is mirrored in the responses of some of the New Yorkers who live and work near the World Trade Center. It's a response of positivity instead of negativity and it's nigh on impossible to leave this book believing that it's not the right one. ~~ Hal C F Astell

[ Editor's note: Hal's review of the film may be found at: http://www.apocalypselaterfilm.com/2015/04/blues-by-beach-2004.html. More information on the documentary, Blues on the Beach may be found at http://www.bluesbythebeachfilm.com/ including screening dates and purchase information. ]

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