Do you know your Doraemon from your Dragon Ball? What about Naruto from Nausicaa? Don't worry, you're probably not alone. But you don't have to board a flight to Tokyo to find followers of manga, or its animated counterpart, anime. The UAE is home to a growing number of manga fanatics. Last month saw the release of Gold Ring, the first original Arabic-language manga book - a collaboration between a Dubai-based writer and two of Japan's best-loved artists. Its pages feature the wide-eyed, gaping-mouthed characters for which manga is famous, alongside Arab headscarves, falcons and sand dunes.
When Gold Ring's author, Qais Sedki, began working on the book, he did not know if it would ever find an audience. But what he discovered astonished him. From school corridors to sushi restaurants and consulate buildings across the Emirates, manga rules. The members of Zayed University's all-female Japan Club are more than your average manga fans. Many draw their own short mangas and want to work in writing or publishing after graduation. As well as visiting Tokyo earlier this year for research, some of the women are so obsessed with the medium that they experiment with manga-inspired hair and make-up at home. The small group of around 30 students are the closest thing Dubai has to its own grass-roots manga scene.
"Since childhood I've loved Japan and was obsessed with cartoons," says Maryam al Attar, a 20-year-old business student and head of the club. "I plan to be a manga artist. Everyone respects what we do and what we like. There is no stigma. At home when I'm with my family, my dad reads the newspaper and I read manga. It's a normal thing." The students' own work is far from amateurish. One created her own anime film for a university project about the evils of disposable plastic bags, another put together a short book about her birthday party, neatly drawing her friends in the typical manga style. Others draw cutesy characters like smiling pieces of fruit, in the Kawaii style, from which Hello Kitty sprang. The students' devotion is so great that some even transferred to Zayed University from other colleges to join the Japan Club.
"Manga has helped us to learn about Japanese culture, so Arabic manga could also help others learn about our culture and what we believe," says Noora Dakhan, a 22-year-old student. "There are lots of myths from the Middle East about demons and djinns and other characters. It would be very interesting to write a manga about them." If the students at Zayed University represent the UAE's grassroots manga scene, Sultan Qassim Sultan is its aristocracy. The 25-year-old Emirati businessman is, in all likelihood, the UAE's biggest manga fan. When he was eight years old, his brother gave him his first anime - the cyborg-superhero tale The Guyver, dubbed into English. After watching the video, he hid it from his mother, afraid that she would object to its violent content. In the years that followed, Sultan bought more and more anime and manga, often borrowing his father's credit card and spending thousands of dirhams to indulge his passion.
Now his collection of books, DVDs and videos totals almost 5,000. In fact, his library is so extensive that it now fills seven walk-in wardrobes in his home. "It is an addiction for me, I know," says Sultan. "A lot of people don't understand. They think it's just a cartoon, but for a hardcore fan like me, that's a bit insulting. Much of the content in manga is very mature and intelligent." But his addiction has recently gone beyond books and DVDs. Last year he acquired the ultimate piece of Japanese pop-culture memorabilia - his own sushi restaurant. Simply called Manga, the eatery's many shelves and crevices are stuffed with books and plastic figures collected from around the world, the overspill from Sultan's collection. Even featuring waitresses dressed as schoolgirls from a popular manga series, the restaurant feels like it belongs in Tokyo's Akihabara or Harajaku districts, not a mall in Dubai.
"All my life I have been dreaming of doing some sort of tribute or homage to manga. But my passion for Japan grew even further. I love sushi, Japanese food and all elements of its culture," he says. Sultan drew inspiration for Manga from the sushi restaurants he had visited in Tokyo, London and California. He hired a design company to make the restaurant's interior look "like a starship" and even created his own manga characters to adorn its menu and walls. Among other things, visitors to the Jumeirah restaurant can expect ultra-technical sushi with ingredients imported from Japan and a choreographed dance routine from the waitresses at the click of a finger. The entire project cost Dh2.5 million.
Gimmicks aside, Sultan believes that manga can teach its readers many useful lessons, including the importance of paying attention to detail. "I've been to Japan twice and stayed for more than a month. I love how they always strive for perfection and they recognise hard work. Since I opened the restaurant, I have had five Japanese TV stations contact me about Manga Sushi. I do not get this from the UAE," he says.
For the Japanese, manga and anime are not part of a strange subculture or geek-driven sideshow, they are pop culture's main event and a global industry worth an estimated Dh18 billion. Since the birth of manga after the Second World War, it has infiltrated all parts of Japanese society. Internationally, it is still best known for the robot-heavy "shonen" manga, made for teenage boys. But it is not unusual to see businessmen flicking through Kacho Kosaku Shima, about a middle manager who happily dedicates his time to his company, or other similar titles. Romance and family are the strongest themes in "shojo" manga, aimed at young girls.
For several reasons, Sultan believes that manga and the UAE are a particularly good fit. He points to similarities between Emirati and Japanese values as evidence of this, and also the ability of picture-driven books to help readers to learn foreign languages. "What Qais is doing with Gold Ring is very admirable," he says. "We have spent all our lives learning about Japan. Now he is helping other people to learn about the UAE as well. I was impressed with the book. It's on par with Japanese manga. Very authentic and detailed. Fans are very picky. They don't like stereotypes, they like twists, not your rainbow-and-sunshine stories," he says.
It might sound unlikely, but the spread of manga in the UAE is currently being monitored by the Japanese government. The impossibly polite and slightly nervous Masao Tsujimoto has a doctorate in commerce and works at the Japanese Consulate in Dubai. He is charged with the unique task of being the UAE's foremost authority on Japanese pop culture. His job includes connecting people in the Emirates who are interested in manga and conducting research among the public. On demand, he can produce pages of spreadsheets which list the most popular manga titles among fans in the UAE.
"I polled customers in restaurants, university students and business people. More than 120 people answered," he says. "New titles like Bleach and Death Note are incredibly popular here and people seem to want to read more newly released manga. But according to my statistics, classic mangas are the most popular. Dragon Ball is number one, then Doraemon, then Naruto." His other charts show how manga sales have declined in the US since 2003 and how the issuing of new manga titles in France, another key market, began to plateau in 2007. Gold Ring's release is evidence that manga is still finding disciples overseas, but it also shows a potentially worrying shift away from Japanese-produced manga. With the growing popularity of Korean books, known as "manhwa", in recent years, many in Japan are understandably concerned.
"The UAE has taken its first step, but it hasn't reached independence yet," says Tsujimoto. "We are still trying to expand the market here. Maybe one day Arab manga will threaten Japan, but then look at Gold Ring - that's a collaboration between an Arab writer and a Japanese artist." With its first book only a month old, the UAE may be a long way from becoming a major manga producer, but the fundamentals already look impressive. It has people lining up to write and draw, it has its own legends to provide inspiration, but more than anything else, it has the fans.