Arab Comics, from Pan-Arabism State Propaganda to Current Irreverence

Pedro Rojo

Arabist and President of the Al Fanar Foundation for Arab Knowledge

The first comic in the Arab world, Samer, was published in Egypt in 1952. Since then, the Arab comics industry has followed an uneven path, characterised by the difficulties inherent to the publishing world in the region and also the specific difficulties of the world of comics. Although in the early years Arab comics reflected the ideas of Arabisation and Orientalism, in the 1990s Arab cartoonists took the initiative and created their own heroes. Since then, most projects have responded to the personal interests of their creators, youths highly technically skilled and with a wide range of influences. We hope the consolidation of the incipient Arab comics industry will come in 2018, when it will be the focus of the thematic section of the Angouleme Festival (the most important in the sector in the world beyond the American superheroes).  

Several years before Tintin began travelling around the world through Hergé’s pencils, Arab readers followed the adventures of Yamil, the character in Al Aulad, the first known mass-produced Arab comic, published in Egypt between 1923 and 1932. This occasional experiment was the precursor to the first important comic in the Arab world, Samer, also Egyptian. Founded in 1952, its contents were a clear reflection of its time: General Gamal Abdelnasser had not only defeated the puppet monarchy that was ruling Egypt but would also emerge victorious from the clash with the old colonial powers for control of the Suez Canal. Socialist Pan-Arabism, fed by the Cold War, was experiencing its peak in that part of the world.

The stories, drawings and publishing policy of the comic were put at the service of the principles of Pan-Arabism and anti-imperialist ideals and were seen as a part of popular culture that should convey en masse the values of Arab nationalism to children and contribute to building a national identity. Produced by the state publishing house Dar al Hilal, Samer was undoubtedly the most popular children’s magazine in the Arab world in the 1950s and 60s. Its first issue sold 50,000 copies on its launch date. The diversity of the characters converged with the objective of teaching a sense of national feeling, from the young Basil to Samira, a courageous girl who embodies strength and intelligence as an ideal that it sought to promote as a concept of a woman also committed to the cause of Arabism. However, international characters were also used, such as Mickey Mouse, who had a major impact, and today is still one of the comic strips most translated into Arabic, both by official publishing houses and websites of Arab cartoonists wishing to introduce the adventures of their favourite heroes into their language, which ended up with a magazine of their own, Mickey.

The arrival of new cartoonists as well as political and regional changes favoured greater autonomy for the magazine. Undoubtedly, Ahmed Hejazi, one of the most influential artists of the time, who joined in 1965, helped the move towards this new direction. His satirical comic strips led by a trio of irreverent youths ridiculed the political class and Egyptian society in a healthy exercise of laughing at themselves, so characteristic of the working class of the country. In fact, the use of children’s characters in adult situations (going to war, combating crime, healing the wounded, etc.) for propaganda purposes finally became a burden for these types of publications and only those that managed to reinvent themselves and adapt to a public tired of receiving slogans and increasingly exposed to multiple influences have survived.

The arrival of new cartoonists as well as political and regional changes favoured greater autonomy for the magazine. Undoubtedly, Ahmed Hejazi, one of the most influential artists of the time, who joined in 1965, helped the move towards this new direction

The Lebanese Dunia Al-Ahdath, founded in 1955 by the poetess and children’s book writer Loren Rihany, with a profile similar to Samer but with influential, is considered the first Lebanese comic. The fortnightly magazine was distributed in Lebanese schools and therefore its contents were to some extent coordinated with the school curriculum and objectives, including the vocalisation of words to help the youngest read. Like the other children’s magazines, it conceived a series of local characters such as Zarur and Farfur to connect with readers. Despite having a more local character, the language used in Dunia Al-Ahdath was classical Arabic, as happened in the other publications of the time. It was not until the last decade that dialectal variants have dominated, such as the Arabic used to write the speech balloons, not so much for comic strips for children but for adults. In 1964, Dunia Al-Ahdath would become Al Foursan but was only published until the early 1970s.

Gulf oil money has also made several incursions into the world of comics. It is worth noting the magazine Majid, created in 1979 in the United Arab Emirates. Founded by the Egyptian artist Ahmad Omar, itincludedthe iconic Ahmed Hejazi, who continued his work with the same humour-based critical approach that made him famous in Samer. The Majid project, like Samer before it or Salaheddin today, seeks to reach all children in the Arab world. With a Pan-Arabist vision yet distanced from socialist ideals, Majid takes its name from the 15th century Arab traveller Ahmed Ibn Majid. The magazine has managed to bring itself up to date with the new times by complementing the paper version with an interactive website where you can watch animated shorts featuring the main characters of the printed magazine.

Arabisation and Orientalism

Despite the wave of nationalism and anti-colonialism that flooded the Arab world during the first decades of its independence from the European powers, the burden of so many decades of colonialism was still present in the cultural imaginary. The world of comics was no exception.

In most of the magazines mentioned but also in others such as Sindibad, Osama, Al Katkot or Bissat al Rih there were tales of famous western characters, be it superheroes or characters from stories such Mickey, Donald Duck or Alice in Wonderland. Depending on the character and the publishing house, not only was the content of the speech balloons translated but also the names were Arabised, such as in the Arabic edition paid for by DC Comics in 1938, in which Clark Kent was called Nabil Fauzi and fell in love with Randa (Lois Lane). In another later version in 1980s Iraq, Superman wore a moustache (like most Iraqis) and a lantern was drawn on his chest.

The characters were Arabised, taking on the role of the Arab imposed by the exotic and Orientalist version of the old metropolises, where Arab men were depicted as violent, lazy and misogynous and women as sexual icons and scantly clad dancers

One of the characters most translated in the Arab world of the time was undoubtedly Tintin, or Hammam in Arabic. However, as we mentioned, the loose form of understanding the concept of translation was not only limited to the text of the speech balloons and occasionally to the name but also the characters were Arabised, taking on the role of the Arab imposed by the exotic and Orientalist version of the old metropolises, where Arab men were depicted as violent, lazy and misogynous and women as sexual icons and scantly clad dancers. An example is the Arabic version of Tintin‘s The Crab with the Golden Claws, in which the black character who hits Captain Haddock is replaced by an Arab man.

Arab Superheroes and Heroines

Calling Batman and Robin Sobhi and Zajur is no more than an adaptation to try to bring strange characters closer to Arab culture. Despite the diverse attempts by big American corporations such as Marvel or DC Comics and some local publishing houses, none of them have caught on or achieved ongoing success. However, it was not until the 1990s that Arab cartoonists took the initiative and created their own superheroes. Cartoonists who on many occasions came from the aforementioned children’s magazines used that experience to create superheroes in the American style, but trying to give them an Arab stamp. Most projects come from the personal interest of young creators who have grown up reading these types of adventures and wish to create their own character. In 2004 the Egyptian company AK Comics was founded with the idea of exploiting this market niche. The company has released titles such as Zein: the Last Pharaoh or The Princess of Darkness, whose lead character Aya is not very different from the voluptuous western superheroines without contributing anything specifically Arab to the plot, which itself was not original. Neither of these products managed to remain on the market for more than six issues. The failure of this project, like many other similar ones in the region, is due to intrinsic factors, such as the aforementioned problem of originality but others related to the structure of the sector, such as the extremely weak distribution network at pan-Arabist level along with the fragmented world of comic readers in the region. Something similar happened to the Jordanian Bakhit, who in 2006 founded Aranim, an online comics and games company. Despite initial success with Arab-themed games for social networks and a series of innovative proposals implemented with great technical quality such as the character Nar, the company ceased in 2011. Another personal initiative of great quality but discontinued were the books by Jinn Rise. A story of fantasy mixed with extraterrestrials and Orientalism created in 2012 by Sohaib Awan with the idea of combining the best of the West and the Middle East. Gold Ring, created by the Emirati Qais Sedki and drawn by the Japanese Akira Himekawa, was the first manga produced in the Arab world. It tells the adventures of Sultan, a young Emirati, and his falcon, but despite the great media coverage and the attractive story available in English and Arabic, it only managed to publish two issues between 2009 and 2012., the first interactive Arab comic, had the same transitory nature and its approximately 2,000 readers decided how the story should continue.

There are stories of success and perseverance, such as the heroin Malaak, the creation of the Lebanese Joumana Medlej, based in London, who since its appearance in 2006 has managed to regularly publish the adventures of this youth in the Lebanese civil war

Moreover, there are stories of success and perseverance, such as the heroin Malaak, the creation of the Lebanese Joumana Medlej, based in London, who since its appearance in 2006 has managed to regularly publish the adventures of this youth in the Lebanese civil war. Available in English and French, the cartoonist offers a series of extra contents for printed and pay versions in electronic book format. Also self-published and with a female protagonist is Qahera (Cairo in Arabic, which means “The Victorious”), a Muslim heroin who wears a veil and long dress, in contrast to Malaak, whose tight-fitting costume is clearly influenced by American comics. Indeedm Deena Mohamad, its young creator, says that her character fights against Islamophobia and misogyny. Her outstanding drawing managed to make up for a poor script to win one of the awards in the CairoComix Festival 2015.

However, undoubtedly the big success in the world of Arab comics has been the series The 99. Created in 2006 by the Kuwaiti psychologist Naif Al Mutaway, basing his characters of 99 different nationalities on the 99 names of Allah, he has managed in less than a decade to create a franchise that not only produces comics at a stable rate (in Arabic and English), but also a series of cartoons that today are seen on television in over 70 countries. Some of the elements that explain the success of this project, recognised by Barack Obama when he was president of the USA, has been the originality of the idea, knowing how to find the midpoint between exoticism and credibility in his characters, as well as having had veteran professionals in the world of superheroes, such as Fabian Nicieza or Stuart Mooreel.

Alternative Comics

Beyond the superheroes or manga there is a productive spectrum of artists creating graphic novels, short comic stories, joint projects such as magazines, fanzines or works published on the internet that reflect a new generation of technically well-trained young Arabs, with great creativity and a highly varied set of influences, which is reflected in the very rich universe of these new creations. The two main poles of this new Arab comic are Beirut and Cairo, but Tunis and Casablanca also have their own growing groups of very interesting young cartoonists.

In 2007 the magazine Samandal appeared in Lebanon, indebted to the work of the Jad Workshop. These workshops are led by Jad, artistic name of Khoury, whose album Carnival was a kind of comic ahead of its time. Although the workshops he created four years later were not well received, they can be considered as the foundations for the generation that would explode around Samandal, marking the awakening of the current Arab comic. But the influences are as variable as the personal paths of the cartoonists. One of its founders, Merhej, is a regular reader of the French school, as can be appreciated in her stories that have resulted in a graphic novel called Yogurt and Jam (2011). Another of its founders, Fuad Mezher, says that his main influences also come from beyond the sea, from Europe and the United States, but also from networking with local and international artists. His contribution in Samandal with the series The Educator based on a clear style of blacks and whites with few concessions to greys, has been one of the best received by readers. The magazine began as a means of sharing stories in Beirut, but quickly expanded and has in its almost 20 issues published to date contributors from places as different as Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Germany, Belgium or Brazil. The Samandal project is more than a magazine, as they also carry out educational activities always related with the world of the comic and creativity.

In 2017 it will be possible to read in Spain the first Arab graphic novel translated from this language by Ediciones de Oriente y el Mediterráneo, which will publish the aforementioned Yogurt and Jam by Merhej

A similar product but of genuinely Egyptian character and with fewer literary aspirations is the magazine Tok Tok. Its dummy number appeared during the start of the Egyptian revolution, in January 2010, although the project had already spent over a year brewing. Its founder and current coordinator, Mohamed Shennawy, confesses that he is not very interested in the superhero comics, but more influenced by the work of Egyptian illustrators such as Mishel Maaluf and Fawaz, who marked the period of the 1980s. The range of influence on this younger generation is wider, as they have access, thanks to internet and a greater facility to travel, to more diverse works. After the triumph of the Egyptian revolution, Shennawy says that “we work with a greater spirit of freedom; we believed that with the revolution we could say anything with our magazine, but finally we decided to gradually raise the experimenting bar to test the response of our readers.” The experience is positive, as the range of subjects has expanded in its 13 issues, including more political subjects, comic strips with sex, drugs and even a fling with religion. These initiatives have inspired others of varying quality such as the Egyptian Garage, Jarich al Saitara, Autoestrad or the fanzine Zine el Arab, published in Jordan, but backed by the Egyptian graffiti artist Ganzeer. With a similar profile but with their local peculiarities are Lab619 (Tunis), Skefkef (Morocco) or most recently Masaha (Iraq).

Incipient Graphic Novel   

More extensive personal projects have emerged in this creative framework, such as the one recognised as the first Arabic graphic novel Metro, by the Egyptian Megdi al Shafaai, but also City by the Land, by the Lebanese Jorj A. Mhaya or the Algerian Fatma of the Many Umbrellas by Mahmoud Benameur, Soumeya Ouarezki and Safia Ouarezki. Although Metro has been translated into English and Italian or City by the Land into French, the only Arabic graphic novels published in Spain to date have been translated from French. Before the arrival of the successful volumes of The Arab of the Future, by the French Arabophobe with a Syrian father Riad Sattouf, the publishing house Sin Sentido supported the works of the Lebanese Zeina Abirached. Abirached uses a very geometric visual language, in black and white, with some similarity to the creator of Persepolis, which it why he has sometimes been nicknamed the Arab Satrapi. Finally, in 2017 it will be possible to read in Spain the first Arab graphic novel translated from this language by Ediciones de Oriente y el Mediterráneo, which will publish the aforementioned Yogurt and Jam by Merhej.

Egypt also has some albums published since Metro such as the oneiric book Ana wa Ana by Mishel Hana and Rania Amin, comprising a series of illustrated literary essays. 18 yauman is also by an Egyptian illustrator, Seleem, and written by Habeeb, which tells the story with a poor script but interesting drawings inspired by manga of the 18 days that president Mubarak took to resign from the start of the Egyptian revolution. In 2013, two graphic novels were published in Lebanon whose epicentre is Beirut: one is Beyrouth by Barrack Rima and the second is Ikht hal balad: chou b7ebbo by Mufarrij, an expansion of his successful blog about Lebanese society that reflects its author’s love-hate relationship with the city.

Despite these occasional publications, the incipient industry of the Arab comic has not been able to escape the general difficulties of the publishing world of the region and the specific problems concerning the world of the comic. Only by taking into account these difficult circumstances can the fact that barely a dozen monographs have been published in the last decade in the whole Arab world be understood. Although there have been some publishers specialised specifically in comics, they have not been able to publish regularly or find a place in Arab bookshops. The titles that have managed to see the light are the result of the conjunction of persistence and vocation of the cartoonists and the determination of brave publishers like Dar Onboz in Lebanon and Dalimen in Algeria.

Politics and Gender in Arab Comics

“God, country and king” are the well known taboos in Morocco, and from which the world of the comic does not escape, according to the illustrator Zineb Benyeloun. In Lebanon the triad would be “sex, religion and corruption,” explains Lena Merhej, coordinator of the last issue of Samandal (2016), which deals precisely with sex. She knows very well what censorship is, as she has been prosecuted for a satirical comic strip about Christian insults. After five years of trials, both she and another two members of Samandal were sentenced to pay a fine of 6,000 euros or two years and nine months in prison for “offending religion”.

Unfortunately, it is not the first case of censorship or judgement against cartoonists of Arab comics. Although it is a minority art form and almost marginal in the region, its capacity to directly deal with burning issues, with a visual language that can be very blunt, makes this form of expression extremely influential and, therefore, dangerous for the rigid institutions that favour resistance to change.

Almost without exception, the new comic strips for adults in Arabic are written in dialect: Lebanese, Moroccan, Egyptian, etc. A decision that their cartoonists says they took quite naturally and that is now itself an act of rebellion against the established order of Arab literature

The youth and cheekiness of most cartoonists bring freshness to these creations that connect with their closest audience. Almost without exception, the new comic strips for adults in Arabic are written in dialect: Lebanese, Moroccan, Egyptian, etc. A decision that their cartoonists says they took quite naturally and that is now itself an act of rebellion against the established order of Arab literature where writing in dialect is almost an abomination and an insult to fusha, classical Arabic.

The Arab revolutions opened a horizon of liberties that strengthened the spontaneity of the new crop of creators of Arab comics. The counterrevolutions and, especially, the coup in Egypt by Marshall Sisi have tried to revert or reduce the freedom with which they choose their subjects. As Salah Malouli, alma mater of the Moroccan magazine Skefkef, recalls, “when the attacks on Charlie Hebdo took place, everyone hoped and almost demanded that we would bring out an issue about it, but we were not interested in working on this at the time. We continued with our internal dynamic.” This highly specific dynamic has become universal because of the honest approach to the subjects, making the Arab comic a channel watched by the censors.

Metro, by Megdi Al Shafaai

When Metro was published in 2007, it first passed unnoticed and even managed to get approval from the censorship board for its publication. It was later seized from the bookshops and both the creator and the editor were fined for publishing a female nude in the book. The novel’s ferocious criticism of the absolute corruption that ran free in Mubarak’s Egypt found in this nude the perfect excuse to prohibit the uncomfortable comic that was beginning to be successful and that only returned to the Egyptian bookshops after the revolution. The Egyptian authorities rested their case at the time on what today still seems a general consensus in Arab societies about the taboo of talking about sex in public.

Something similar recently happened with the illustrated novel Istijdam al Hayat in describing in chapter 6 of the written part an explicit sex scene. Its author, Ahmed Nayi, has spent almost a year in jail of the two to which he was convicted at first instance. These cases and the issue of Samandal dedicated to sex are no more than the proof that there are increasingly more cartoonists who dare to draw and write about this subject, which naturally interests all young people in the world. With his boldness, the red lines are gradually moving: “We are not suicidal people who go against our society, we are part of it. Like other artists who work in this respect, it is clear that we make a social impact,” argued Lena Merhej during the meeting of the Rosoum Project, held in Barcelona in November 2015.

Gender in the World of the Arab Comic

The controversy caused by the discrimination against women in the Angouleme Festival Awards in 2015 questioned the mostly masculine world of the western comic. The repercussions of the controversy were very important bearing in mind that the Angouleme Festival is the biggest comic festival in the world outside the scenario of the American superheroes of Marvel and DC.

To the surprise of everyone, the situation of Arab comics is very different, as the presence of women is not only important but is the majority in some cases, such as the latest issue of the Tunisian magazine Lab619. Talking about this peculiarity, one of its founders, Noha Habaieb, says it has been a natural process of an environment like that of design or fine arts students, where women predominate and both males and females are mostly young.

Beyond helping to break stereotypes about Arab women, the role of cartoonists in the incipient industry of Arab comics is fundamental, as female creators and drivers of the different publishing initiatives, drawing and writing about any subject, not only gender issues.

The scope and quality of the incipient Arab comics industry has earned them the recognition of European institutions, which have funded and supported initiatives like the CairoComix Festival. Although the presence of Arab cartoonists has become the norm in the European festivals and there have been occasional exhibitions like the Erlangen Comic Salon (Germany) in 2014 or “Cálamos y viñetas: cómic árabe en movimiento” in Spain, the international consolidation of Arab comics will come in 2018, when the Angouleme Festival will devote a thematic section to it.