The Emirati author Qais Sedki is a man on a mission. Normally the one to devise challenges for the protagonists of his Japanese manga novels, the 35-year-old has turned the tables and set himself a tough quest for next month.
"Since 2006, the chess grandmaster and former world champion Antoly Karpov has held the Guinness World Record for the most copies of a book signed in one sitting, which was around eight hours," he says. "When I saw the number was 1,951, I thought: 'Well it's not easy, but it's doable!' "
In a bid to claim the title for the UAE, Sedki will spend up to 14 hours signing copies of his new graphic novel Gold Ring 2 at Kinokuniya Bookstore in Dubai Mall on March 1. The sequel to Gold Ring - the country's first Arabic manga book - Sedki's latest offering continues the story of 15-year-old Emirati falconer, Sultan.
"In volume two you'll see Sultan's first adversary and I'm excited to see how people will react to the book, as it's much faster-paced with a lot more action," he says.
Sedki's debut novel, produced by his company Pageflip Publishing in 2009, sold more than 7,000 copies. A year later he became the first national recipient of the prestigious Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Children's Literature, a remarkable achievement for a relative newcomer who had completed an MBA and climbed the corporate ladder at the Dubai Police and Emaar for almost a decade prior to making his dramatic career U-turn.
"I wanted to know my true calling and kept asking myself what I would choose if I had all the choices in the world," he says. "Slowly but surely, I came to the idea of working on graphic novels."
Sedki's passion for Japan was first ignited as a boy, following exposure to its calligraphy, cartoons and cutting-edge toys through a childhood friend with an indigenous mother. In 2001 he paid his first visit to its shores and in the years that followed set about creating a series of novels with Arabic content delivered in a vibrant Japanese comic book style.
To ensure his novel's authenticity, once the narrative was set and the writing complete, Sedki enlisted the help of manga experts in Japan to execute the project.
"Usually in Japan, the illustrator is the author as well, so splitting the roles was not that common," he says. "And as they are very well versed in writing as well, they had many suggestions that were incorporated."
The challenges of managing a project in two different time zones and overseeing remote production, were far outweighed by the careful and committed way the publishing team and the duo of female artists, known collectively as Akira Himekawa, handled his text, says Sedki.
"The thing I love most is that they are such perfectionists," says Sedki. "They will go well beyond any sense of expectations to make sure a job is done well."
Sedki's regular commutes to Tokyo are far from over, with up to five more novels in the current series planned. A father of two young children, the ambitious author is intent on leaving behind a strong literary legacy for the next generation of Emiratis.
"I think entertainment can be a vehicle to bring about change," he says. "If I can somehow bring back a love of reading, specifically in our native Arabic, then that in the long run would be the most effective way of making a positive change.
"I have focused a lot on simplifying the language in the books because I think classical Arabic gets a bad reputation, as it is often spoken in a Shakespearean-like way. It can be difficult to listen to and feel archaic, so I have shortened expressions that remain as true to classical Arabic as possible."
Giving recitals and holding informal, interactive forums with students at local schools, colleges and universities is proving an effective way for Sedki to get his message out.
"I think, specifically with youth, a lot of people misunderstand them and I have a very good rapport with a younger audience, as I consider myself to be a grown-up kid," he jokes. "I am still very much in touch with the inner child, and I love playing with Lego and jigsaw puzzles."
Sedki's novels are catering to a growing fan base in the Middle East, meaning it is unlikely there will be a spare seat in the house when he gives an Emirates Airline Festival of Literature talk on March 8 in Dubai under the session banner, "The Arab World Rivals Japan in Its Passion for Manga".
The graphic novel movement continues to attract followers and there are now appreciation societies, including the Dubai Anime Club and ADAnime in the capital, which regularly organise and support regional manga events.
"The fans of the genre are fairly intimidating, and have an unbelievable appetite for manga books - they read virtually everything that comes out," says Sedki. "I can't keep up with them."
One trend gaining traction among young UAE Arab and expatriate fans that took the author completely by surprise is "cosplay" - the Japanese abbreviation for "costume play", where people dress as their favourite characters from video games, films and comics.
Fans take the practice extremely seriously and are meticulous in their portrayal of popular figures such as the magenta-haired Ruby Moon and the adolescent ninja Naruto Unzumaki. Sporting elaborate wigs, hand-embroidered, bejewelled costumes and dramatic make-up, visitors from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia flew to the UAE to try their luck in the annual World Game Championship Cosplay Competition, held in Dubai last year. This year, they can mingle with their peers at the Dubai World Game Expo, which has been confirmed for November 27 and 28.
"They go to extreme lengths and are very creative in accurately depicting their favourite characters," says Sedki. "I remember chatting to a Japanese friend and he asked me if Emiratis 'cosplay' and I just laughed at that and said: 'No, it is totally not our culture, we wouldn't do that'. I mean, we love the anime and manga but cosplay is totally out of the question. And I am so shocked at how wrong I was."
Might we then look forward to seeing Sedki dressed as Sultan for the launch of volume three? Quite possibly, if his nine-and-a-half-year-old son has his way.
"After I took Abdullah to an event where people were dressed in costume, he said to me: 'Next year, we are participating'," says Sedki. "He is really proud of the fact I have written a book and he promotes it in the funniest ways, like trying to convince waiters in restaurants to go to my event."
Following the success of classic anime films such as Akira, directed by the acclaimed manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo and the Academy Award-winning fantasy adventure Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, a natural progression for Sedki might be to adapt his work for the big screen.
"I actually am really interested in getting the series animated, but my focus right now is trying to promote reading," he says. "So I think the book needs to be highlighted a lot more before then, and I won't be too fast in releasing a feature film.
"Hopefully, though, if I time it right, the animation will be just as awesome as the book."
Qais Sedki will be signing Arabic copies of his new graphic novel Gold Ring 2 from 10am on March 1 at Kinokuniya Bookstore in Dubai Mall. The book will be released in English on March 2. Fifteen per cent of all sales will be donated to Dubai Cares to support primary education in developing countries. Visit www.kinokuniya.com/ae for more information. Tickets for Sedki's appearance at The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2012 on March 8 at 6pm are priced at Dh39. For more information go to www.emirateslitfest.com
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