Understanding Arab Comics

Jonathan Guyer reviews “Muqtatafat: A Comics Anthology Featuring Artists from the Middle East Region”.

By Jonathan GuyerJuly 9, 2016

Understanding Arab Comics

Muqtatafat by A. David Lewis, Anna Mudd, and Paul Beran. Ninth Art Press. 112 pages.

AT THIS WINTER’S massive Cairo International Book Fair, one of the most talked about publications consisted of snarky stick figure comics printed on lined notebook paper. The popular web cartoonist Islam Gawish had transformed his illustrated memes into a best seller called Al-Warka or, in English, The Paper. Gawish’s cartoons were already on sale in two volumes at most Cairo bookstores, and his profile had soared a week earlier when Egyptian authorities briefly arrested him, reportedly for operating a Facebook page without a license. He was released the next day without charge, and has continued to draw gags about everything from the government crackdown on youth to an unseasonal heat wave. Since his arrest, Al-Warka has added some 500,000 new fans on Facebook, edging toward two million likes. The book, now in its 12th edition, had sold some 18,000 copies — a feat usually reserved for luminaries like Naguib Mahfouz, and an unprecedented accomplishment for a collection of Egyptian cartoons.

Yet Gawish’s achievement is not entirely surprising. Egypt and the Arabic-speaking press have long appreciated comic strips and cartoons, and for a century readers young and old have devoured them. The Arabic mass media first emerged in the 1920s, largely as social and political satire in humor periodicals or as illustrated political commentary in newspapers and magazines. From the 1950s onward, comics grew in popularity, beginning with children’s magazines, Arabic translations of international superhero adventures, and imported cartoons. By the 1970s, nationalist comics taught children state-approved histories.

Gawish exemplifies a new generation of comic artists from the Middle East. In the past decade, and especially since the 2011 uprisings, talented Arab artists have traded comics for comix. Alternative zines, web strips, graphic novels, and other underground publications encompass a diversity of aesthetics, narrative techniques, and political messages. Today, Beirut, Cairo, and Casablanca each have their own Crumbs, Spiegelmans, and Moulys.

But local publishers have lagged behind this trend and independent outlets print the majority of alt-comix. This is one reason why Cairo’s cartoonists, like Gawish, publish both in print and online. In February, the start-up Koshk Comics launched an app to bring Arabic comics to smart phones and, after winning an international contest, will pitch their product to Silicon Valley. That same month, however, Cairo’s independent alt-comix zine Tok Tok published its 14th print edition. And since its inception in the weeks before the January 2011 uprising, Tok Tok has inspired younger artists to establish copycat publications ranging from fan zines to sophisticatedly designed periodicals. Cairo’s art galleries often sell the latest issues. Meanwhile, each of Tok Tok’s founding artists actively maintains social media pages, using them to share sketches, GIFs, or work published in international outlets.

A new generation of students and scholars of comics has been documenting and analyzing this regional movement. Two influential scholarly books — both published in the 1990s and now out of print — have covered the topic, Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas’s Arab Comic Strips (Indiana University Press, 1994) and Fatma Müge Göçek’s edited collection Political Cartoons in the Middle East (Markus Wiener Publications, 1998). Last year, the American University of Beirut established the Arabic Comics Initiative, which has since sponsored an academic symposium, a lucrative award for practitioners, and the first of many prospective exhibitions of comic art from its extensive archive. The Algerian Ministry of Culture recently hosted its eighth annual international bande dessinée festival, gathering African, Arab, Asian, European, and North American comic artists to share their latest wares. And next year, Angoulême, the preeminent bande dessinée festival in France, plans to exhibit and engage with the Arab comic movement.

Unfortunately, this vast canon of pioneering comic art has scarcely reached audiences outside the region. This is in part due to the language barrier, although the difficulty of exporting books between countries poses an additional obstacle. The Lebanese comic publication Samandal — which includes comics in Arabic, English, and French as well as trilingual translation — rarely makes it to bookstores in Europe or North America.

But if you can get your hands on issues of Egyptian, Moroccan, and Tunisian alt-comix zines their graphic narratives are sometimes accessible even if the language is not.

And some cartoonists working online disseminate their works with English translations. The Egyptian satirist Andeel, who regularly draws for the Egyptian digital news outlet Mada Masr, translates his cartoons from colloquial Egyptian into English. (His GIFs jabbing Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi do not require any interpretation.) Similarly, Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese cartoonist based in Qatar, translates his “Khartoons” on social media pages. Andeel and Albaih, among others, are producing politically radical clickbait that goes viral.

When it comes to book publishing, however, the market for translations to English is nonexistent. It took five years for American scholars A. David Lewis, Anna Mudd, and Paul Beran to find a publisher for Muqtatafat: A Comics Anthology Featuring Artists from the Middle East Region.

“Muqtatafat” means anthology or selection in Arabic, and comes from the root meaning picking or plucking. The editors have engaged in this activity by including 14 short, illustrated narratives — pickings that, as they themselves acknowledge, only begin to capture the robust comics output of the region. The book offers a narrow view of particular comic artists, rather than a rough guide to the diverse Arab comics movement, in part because whole bookshelves could be filled with new work that has been produced in the half-decade since the project’s inception. Compared to raw monikers of comic zines, Muqtatafat sounds rather archaic: it doesn’t roll off the tongue like Tok Tok, the Egyptian word for a rickshaw; or Samandal, Arabic for Salamander; or Skef Kef, a popular Moroccan sandwich.

The artist and scholar Lena Merhej introduces Muqtatafat with a brief and valuable essay surveying the field and its historical influences. But since, in the preface, co-editor A. David Lewis does not present or contextualize Muqtatafat’s 15 contributors, the reader is left to discern whether these comics are exemplary or average; if or how they represent the movement.

Some of the artists do amount to the region’s most significant comic creators. For instance, Egypt’s Mohammed Shennawy — co-founder of Tok Tok — is among the most talented comic artists globally and an instigator of Egypt’s new Golden Age of graphic art. Muqtatafat’s editors tacitly acknowledge this by including two of his fine short comics, while each other artist only gets a single selection. There is also a short piece by pioneer Magdy El Shafee, whose 2008 graphic noir Metro was censored by Egyptian authorities and influenced a new generation of comic artists to experiment with the form. However “Slop,” the piece by El Shafee reproduced in Muqtatafat, is not representative of his oeuvre and mostly consists of text. Similarly, the editors include a piece by the Beirut-based Jana Traboulsi whose innovative narrative technique and lyrical writing style looks brilliant but whose English translation at the bottom of the page does not do it justice. Other pickings include incidental experimentations, like the Jordanian artist Mike V. Derderian’s far-out tale of mermaids and private eyes, the Lebanese artist Maya Zankoul’s extended gag about time travel and traffic, or Sandra Ghosn’s intricate, surrealist illustrations (which are compelling but are not comics). Taken together, the volume’s chapters — one printed in color and 13 in black and white — lack cohesion.

Though the editors note that Muqtatafat is intended as an educational tool, inconsistencies run throughout the volume, making it an ambiguous resource for researchers. The editors do not include the original date of publication and outlet of each comic, artists’ biographies seem to be written by the artists themselves rather than the editors, and only two of the stories include artists’ statements. Translators are acknowledged in some of the comics, while in others they are not.

Still, the book attempts to fill a void for readers unfamiliar with the world of Arab comics. In describing the project in an op-ed for the Lebanese English newspaper the Daily Star, editors Beran, Mudd, and Lewis stress its instrumentality, noting that “comic artists and graphic novelists are leading a new way for Americans to learn about the Middle East” as well as challenging “many commonly held stereotypes in the U.S. of the Middle East.”

Indeed, the smartest selections in the book do eschew stereotypes by showcasing art that transcends religion, revolution, or terrorism — topics the region is often reduced to. The Egyptian comic artist Tawfik’s “Bicycle,” originally published in Tok Tok, is a lively slapstick story of childhood desire for a two-wheeler, an aspiration recognizable beyond the Egyptian context. Similarly, Lebanese artist Barrack Rima’s “Nap Before Noon,” a dream narrative penned in block-faced Arabic and elegant fine art illustrations, typifies Samandal’s experimental spirit, with wavy brush strokes and frames that lack a hard grid. It concerns the narrator’s “secret trip to Lebanon after a year of absence,” but it could be about anyone’s nightmare of returning home.

Nonetheless, Muqtatafat’s format inadvertently reproduces stereotypes about “artists from the Middle East region.” By grouping together contemporary works from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine without explanation, Muqtatafat’s editors assert an underlying connection between these comics without acknowledging the debates about the comic movement’s identity. Muqtatafat avoids some of the most provocative questions surrounding the growing Arab comic movement.

What, if anything, does connect these artists beyond their geographical proximity? Language is often considered the basis of identity, but in this case, Arabic is not a straightforward, common denominator. Underground comics are written in a variety of languages, sometimes in spoken dialects that might themselves be construed as individual languages (Moroccan colloquial is indecipherable to an Egyptian ear), other times in Western languages (French in many francophone counties) or Arabic spelled out in English characters.

We might then look to the style and aesthetics of the comics. While there are similarities in the design of zines in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia, the aesthetics of the comics therein are eclectic and multifarious. Artists render stories literary or pulp by pen or by tablet, using the techniques of manga or traditional miniatures. The highly personal and the deeply political, the futuristic and the fantastical, the hyper-real and surreal often appear side by side in the same periodicals. In her introduction to Muqtatafat, Merhej writes, “These artists push the very limits of this medium,” and this is exactly why finding common ground among them can be difficult.

A more promising idea would be to look at common themes within the texts themselves. Such a reconceptualization beyond geographical and linguistic boundaries would allow for the inclusion of artists such as the Franco-Syrian Riad Sattouf, whose best-selling graphic novel The Arab of the Future (Metropolitan Books, 2015) bridges French and Arab comics, and the American Molly Crabapple, whose forthcoming Brothers of the Gun (One World) will render harrowing scenes of Syria and Iraq using smuggled photographs from sources in ISIS-occupied territory. Equally important are Arab comic artists working in English, like the Cairo-born Ganzeer whose newly serialized web publication The Solar Grid offers a dystopian tale influenced by both his current sojourn in Los Angeles and his experience as a graffiti artist amid Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Expanding our boundaries in this way presents the possibility of rethinking Arab identity without relying on nationalisms.

One common perspective that does unite this new wave of comics from the Middle East and beyond is a radical approach to politics. This view was expressed by Ahmad Nady, an Egyptian artist, at the CairoComix festival in October. “I think that the commonality among us as Arabs is our current situation … a common identity of suppression and oppression,” said Nady, who contributed to the graphic novella The Apartment in Bab El-Louk (Merit, 2012), a slim, Arabic volume that intersperses the writer Donia Maher’s text and the artist Ganzeer’s images. It ends with an eight-page comic by Nady that tells the intertwined stories of a crazed recluse who witnesses a capital crime and a corrupt police force’s feeble response.

If political struggle unites the otherwise diverse range of Arab comics for adults, then it should come as no surprise that artists have faced censorship in a multitude of forms. Political cartoonists have long irked those in power and this struggle predates the uprisings of 2011. The Palestinian dissenter Naji Al-Ali was killed in London in 1987, while Algerians Brahim Guerroui and Mohamed Dorbane were assassinated in 1995 and 1996, respectively. In 2014, unknown gunmen killed the young Libyan activists Tawfik Bensaud and Sami Elkwafi as they were working on a manga project (though their chilling murders more likely relate to their youth activism). For artists working in the West, tensions have of course heightened since the 2015 attacks on the French comic weekly Charlie Hebdo.

The state has also used its legal toolkit to target cartoonists. In Lebanon, Samandal lost a $20,000 suit for a 2010 comic that insulted (the Catholic) religion. After publishing cartoons purported to insult the Algerian president, several of that country’s cartoonists have left the country.

Egyptian cartoonists and satirists, such as Gawish, have also been caught up in the state’s ever-widening dragnet. The Egyptian author Ahmed Naji is another recent victim. Naji experimented with comics, inviting Ayman al-Zurqany to draw comic interludes for his acclaimed Cairo novel The Use of Life, which was published in Arabic in 2014 and which the University of Texas is due to publish in an English translation in 2017. Naji is currently serving a two-year prison sentence for “violating public decency” in a section of that novel republished in a state-owned literary review. It is no coincidence that he was also the editor of El Shafee’s Metro, which has only recently been republished in Arabic.

Beyond politics and activism, the new wave of Arabic and Arab comics is also united by scarcity: the best new publications are hard to find. On a recent trip to Dubai, I visited Book World by Kinokuniya, which boasts more than half a million titles. I wandered through the 68,000-feet store only to find but a single shelf devoted to comics in Arabic. The buffet was measly: the second issue of an Egyptian sci-fi serial, some manga, and a few other translated volumes. The Little Prince in Arabic and a couple of children’s books were accidentally mixed in. Bookstores in Algiers, Beirut, or Cairo are better, but it is still rare to see more than a full shelf of alternative comics at even the finest bookseller — this in spite of the breadth of new productions. Even at Cairo’s sprawling book fair, it was impossible to find any of the rabble-rousing comics from Lebanon, Morocco, or Tunisia, let alone Egyptian zines like Tok Tok. The widest selection of Arab comics, cartoons, and strips I have ever seen in one place was, surprisingly, at the gift shop of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

The market for Arab comics in the so-called Arab world is nascent, but there are clear signs of interest from millennials across the region. The Arabic publishing market, which has yet to appreciate the comic vanguard, is missing huge opportunities.

As Gawish posted on Facebook after he was released from his brief stint in jail, “The important thing is that the second volume of Al-Warka is out — Thank God.” In his statement we are reminded that in spite of the high stakes of drawing comics in the Arab world — the looming threat of persecution or prosecution — one of the biggest challenges for young comic artists is simply getting published.

Upon his release, Gawish finally made it to the Cairo International Book Fair to launch his new monograph. Teenagers took photos beside life-size renderings of his stick figures, as Gawish grinned and signed copy after copy.


Jonathan Guyer is a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs and a contributing editor of The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Guyer is a contributing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a 2017–2018 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. He has written for GuernicaHarper’sLos Angeles Review of BooksLe Monde DiplomatiqueThe New YorkerNew York Review DailyThe New York TimesThe Paris Review, and Rolling Stone. His research has been supported by fellowships from Fulbright (2012–2013) and the Institute of Current World Affairs (2015–2017). On Twitter: @mideastXmidwest.


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