“Comics and cartoons are being drawn, printed and published from Maroc to Qatar, but in Europe hardly anyone knows they exist. Even worse is that many Westerners believe that in islamic culture pictures are completely forbidden!” I wrote this in the opening paragraph of my book ‘Chouf! Qra! – Comics & cartoons in the Arab world’. It was published in 2012, when I organized an exhibition with participating artists from nine Arab countries. The comics and cartoons I showed at the Press Museum in Amsterdam contained many references to the so-called Arab Spring that started blossoming a year earlier. By now, as we all know, this spring never managed to evolve into summer and rapidly changed into winter instead. For the Arab-special of Drawing the Times I will try to make an inventory of what the collapse of revolutionary optimism has meant for comic artists and cartoonist, and what are the ‘trends’ right now, from the Atlantic to the Gulf.
In september last year the Moroccan artists Khalid Gueddar received death threats for republishing a cartoon on Facebook that was made by his colleague Nahed Hattar. This Jordanese journalist had drawn a deceased jihadist who is smoking in bed, accompanied by virgins and asking God for wine and cashew nuts. Hattar was then arrested, but before a judge could sentence him for blasphemy he was shot dead in the streets of Amman, on the 25th of september 2016. Sharing this cartoon on the internet was obviously also a dangerous thing to do. Gueddar, who has been struggling with Moroccan authorities for many years, is the editor of the new (and rare) satirical magazine Baboubi. In an interview with ‘IFEX – Defending and Promoting Free Expression’, Gueddar explained that Morocco’s press code doesn’t allow for much freedom. “The biggest issues considered taboo in Morocco today are sex, religion, and the king.” As an artist Gueddar can be quite provocative, but he is also an idealist, stating about his Baboubi: “We will not only draw what we think will please the reader, we will draw what we must draw to be able to change certain damaging concepts ingrained in our culture. We want to help enlighten Moroccan society.” His magazine started with a circulation of 30.000 copies, but after several months it was already put to an end: “Unfortunately we couldn’t cope financially. The magazine has now been transformed into the website Baboubi.com.”
Tunisia is the country where the Arab Spring ignited, when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on the 17th december 2010 after his wares had been confiscated. Dictator Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia when Bouazizi died. After the revolution Tunisian press freedom was officially protected, but 2015 saw an increase in government pressure on the media in the wake of several terrorist attacks. Tunisia’s best known comic artist, Chedly Belkhamsa, states that the comics industry in his country is practically non-existent, but not because of politics. Young people just stopped reading, computers replaced printed matter and the comics market has collapsed. At the same time, two new comics magazines were introduced in the past few years, Couscous Belban, a magazine for children, and for an adult readership Lab619. Belkhamsa himself published a very critical comic called La semaine du cafard (‘the week of the cockroach’) in the magazine Courrier de Tunisie, in which he complained about the rape of elemental rights, the rape of the constitution, the rape of the revolution “by dark powers”. Was he prosecuted for this? He writes me: “No problem whatsoever. Courrier de Tunisie stopped in 2013, but only because the owner passed away.”
Algeria has become the vivid center of a comics genre that seemingly has little to do with Arab culture: manga. But manga have become a popular means of expression for youngsters around the world: it’s an international visual language, globalization in the form of comics.
Also, Algeria is home of the most important comics festival of the Arab countries, FIBDA: Festival Internationale de la Bande Dessinée Algérienne. Here, artists from Europe, Africa and the Arab region meet in a cosmopolitical atmosphere. In december 2016 an exhibition with drawings of 20 young comic artists from Algeria was organized in MaMa (Musée national d’art moderne d’Alger) to celebrate the fact that the first Algerian publisher specialized in manga existed for ten years. This publisher is Z-link, known for its magazine Laabstore, devoted to manga & games. Z-link publishes albums such as Salim Brahimi’s Samy Kun, and also gives female artists a chance to show their work, like Fella Matougui, Houria Kouza and Hanane Benmediouni.
On 25 September 2016 the Libya Herald announced: “First-ever Libya Comic Convention held in Tripoli.” This extraordinary festival was not only about comics, but also about costume play, gaming and digital art. The event was held at the Tripoli International Fairgrounds in the Libyan capital. “Organizing such a novel event in Tripoli would not have been easy at a time when the whole country was still dealing with its post 2011 revolution fallout,” the Libya Herald wrote. Support came from The Arete Foundation for Arts and the Libyan private sector, and was facilitated by the Ministry of Culture. Judging by the pictures on Facebook and Instagram the Libya Comic Con was all about gaming and a little bit of manga, but it’s a start!
Besides Libya there’s one more nation that recently made its debut in the world of comics festivals. Saudi Comic Con (SCC) was the first event of its kind to be held in Jeddah 16 to 18 february 2017. “The experience will be different and unique in the world of films, comics and anime, with various activities and celebrity appearances from the local and international entertainment scene.” Young men and women crowded into Comic Con area of Jeddah, mingling near stands for comics and video games: remarkable for a government-sponsored event in a country where gender segregation is imposed in many public spaces.
“Cairocature is an international Egyptian e-humor & Satire magazine. Its purpose is to introduce the art of caricature in Egypt.” This introduction implies that comics & cartoons are something new in Egypt, which is certainly not the case. In Fayoum for example, 60 miles south of Cairo, you find the Caricature Museum, curated by Mohammed Abla. It contains a collection of caricatures and cartoons by Egypt’s best-loved artists. Indeed, the country has been familiar with the art of cartooning since the 19th century, when satirical magazines like Abu Naddara were published. In 2011, more than a century later, it saw the rise of an interesting successor: Tok Tok, a comics magazine that was founded by the artists Tawfiq, Mohammed Shennawy, Makhlouf and others. Not only do the stories look very good, they also tell interesting things about contemporary life in the streets Cairo. Fourteen issues have been published until now. I asked Shennawy if the new regime of Al-Sisi makes publishing more problematic than it used to be, and he answered: “Technically, no, although the cultural centers are more under surveillance now. But TokTok is still social satiric and comic, thankfully!”
Under president Hosni Mubarak censorship was tight. In 2008 comic artist Magdy Al Shafee released Metro, often mentioned as the very first Arab graphic novel, which dealt among other things with cases of corruption in Cairo. Therefore publication was forbidden, the publisher was arrested and it took years before the book could finally be read by a larger audience. Magdy writes: “Now it is available in the bookstores in Arabic (and English, for sure). The authorities welcome the critique on the Mubarak regime and consider themselves like saviours, as if the revolt wasn’t against military ruling as well… Nowadays Cairo Comix Festival is consuming much of my effort and time.”
Lebanon leads the Arabic comics scene. In 2014 the Mu’taz and Rada Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative was founded, an academic body for the study of Arabic Comics at the American University of Beirut. It aims to elevate and facilitate the interdisciplinary research of Arabic comics, promote the production, scholarship and teaching of comics, and develop and maintain a repository of Arabic comics literature.
Interesting is the prominence of female artists in Lebanon. Zeina Bassil published the magazine La Furie des Glandeurs, Lena Merhej publishes another one, Samandal, Joumana Medlej is known for her popular female superhero Malaak, the graphic novels of Zeina Abirached are translated in many languages, etcetera.
One of the more influential comics scholars in the Arab region comes from Lebanon: Nadim Damluji, who calls himself Tintintologist. He researches and writes about the history of Arab comics. Nadim has lectured (notably about ‘Making Death Visible: War in Lebanese Graphic Memoir’) and published essays on comics in both the United States and the Middle East. In 2015, he co-curated the exhibit ‘Arab Comics: 90 Years of Popular Visual Culture’.
One of the rare cartoonists in Yemen is Mazin Shuja’a Al-Din, who published his second book, ‘Mazin…the Satirical Pencil 2’ in 2013. Two years later the Yemeni Civil War started, an ongoing conflict between two factions claiming to constitute the Yemeni government. Small wonder that Shuja’a Al-Din doesn’t like to discuss political issues in his cartoons. “Drawing political cartoons forces me to be affiliated with specific political groups and ideologies even though I’m independent,” he told the Yemen Times. His book therefore focuses on themes like marriage, poverty and inequality. Shuja’a Al-Din says: “In comparison to other Arab cartoonists, Yemenis cartoonists lack significant training opportunities in caricature art.”
Riad Sattouf is by far the most succesful comic artist of Arab origin. His autobiographical trilogy L’Arabe du futur (first published in 2014) sold more than one million copies and was translated into 27 languages! But his mother is French and he lives in Paris. Syria did have a lively comics culture however. In the Netherlands Roland Bos is organizing an exhibition about 26 Syrian political cartoonists, and most of them also live abroad, in the diaspora caused by the war. Only in Damascus and Latakia a few of them remain. Yasin Alkhalil for example, one of the rare cartoonists who support the Ba’ath government; he publishes his drawings in the state owned newspaper Tishreen.
Before the war several comics organizations were active in Syria. Syriacartoon.net for example, which now is a part of Raed Khalil’s website Raedcartoon.com. It publishes the winners of the yearly Syrian International Cartoon Contest, but none of the mentioned names or cartoons can be traced by clicking on them, which makes it a useless platform.
Also ‘Souriatna’ or ‘Our Syria’, an independent magazine that was published by a group of young Syrians to give of the people a free voice, has disappeared. The 173rd issue of the paper featured a “Je Suis Charlie” tribute on the cover and contained reprints of
‘Charlie Hebdo’-cartoons mocking Bashar al-Assad, obituaries of the journalists killed in Paris and messages of solidarity. This, of course, was forbidden. And there was the organization ‘Comics4Syria’ that wanted to showcase Syrian artist in spite of the war; if you visit their Facebook-page today, you will only find references to the harmless Teen Baal Magazine for children! In short, censorship for critical comic artists in Syria is complete.
In 2006 the Teshkeel Media Group started to publish a comic series called The 99, a title that refers to the islamic teaching that God has 99 Names or Attributes. This remarkable comic was an initiative of dr. Naif Al-Mutawa from Kuwait. Although the series is not religious, it aims to communicate islamic virtues which are, as viewed by Al-Mutawa, universal in nature. The series was a big international succes because of all the colourful superheroes that were in it, but in 2014 Al-Mutawa was accused by ISIS and Al Qaida as they deemed it slanderous to Islam because it imitates the 99 names of Almighty Allah. ISIS sent several Twitter messages: “whoever finds him, kill him, and he will be rewarded”. Al-Mutawa is still alive and kicking.
Suleiman Bakhit is the founder of a Jordanian comic production company called the Aranim Media Factory, after a combination of ‘Arab’ and ‘anime, which sold 1.2 million comics in 2010. The internationally reputed magazine Wired wrote about him with the challenging leader ‘Fighting ISIS with comic books’. Bakhit believes that comics can be inspiring for youths, using classical Arab heroes such as Alladin and Sinbad the Sailor, which can replace the more toxic role models of the jihadists. After Bakhit began publishing his own comics however, he was attacked with a razor blade by extremists in Jordan.
Aranim Media Factory, based in Amman, has become one of the largest producers of comics in the Arab language, it produces comic books, TV and film cartoons, digital comic strips, manga, creative media, and social-media games.
The situation in the Saudi-peninsula and the Gulf countries differs greatly from the Arab countries bordering on the Mediterranean. In the oil-states Disney-comics (Mickey, Donald Duck) have been popular for a long time, and mainstream magazines for children like Basim and Majid are distributed in huge numbers.
In 2015 the Dubai firm Al Ahli Publishing and Distribution (APD) introduced popular international comic books and magazines in Arabic. APD obtained the rights for publishing and distributing international comic books from the major publishing houses. “The comics will allow the young Arab generation to connect with pop culture phenomena in a language of their own”, APD claimed, as if the Arab countries did not already have a long history of translating popular American titles. The company has begun publishing Marvel titles like Ironman, Spiderman, Hulk, Thor and Avengers. It also has strategic tie-ups with DC Comics and Sanrio (of Hello Kitty fame).