How Tintin can teach us about the past
My son’s long-standing love for comics betrays his Belgian side. At nearly six, he has now graduated to more advanced comic-books, including Tintin.
But the Cigars of the Pharaoh edition had his Egyptian side scratching his head, as its depiction of his other homeland did not match what his own eyes and ears had witnessed of that country and the wider region.
From the mummies of Egyptologists and the pharaonic wall-paintings of bowler-hatted Europeans with cigars and briefcases to bloodthirsty and violent Arabian tribesmen, none tallied with his real-life experiences.
Iskander’s reaction reminded me of a caricature by Kevin Moore I have seen of Tintin with a frown of concern on his face as he flicks through the pages of a book. The caption reads: “Tintin discovers Orientalism.”
In a similarly orientalist vein, Belgium and the Netherlands have been discovering the latent racism of Zwarte Pieten in recent years. These traditional characters, translated as “Black Petes”, are Moors who help Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas or Santa Claus) distribute sweets on his saint day (December 6), which is a huge deal in the Low Countries.
But Zwarte Pieten are usually depicted by actors in “black face”, with exaggerated thick red lips and a mop of thick curly hair, a racist representation of African faces once common in the West. Now, the Netherlands is phasing out the character’s trademark look from its schools, sparking controversy and outrage, particularly among conservatives.
While the tradition undoubtedly has its roots in early 19th-century attitudes to African slaves, my wife and I take it all with a pinch of salt.
Overt references to the race of the Zwarte Pieten were excised a generation or two ago and, with the far more ominous forms of racism around today, this is hardly a battle worth fighting.
Besides, as is the case with many other children, Iskander loves the Zwarte Pieten far more than Sinterklaas. In fact, when he was a toddler, he was terrified of the old man’s long beard and would not go near him.
Back to Tintin. Should he and other classic tales be banned for their offensiveness?
Tintin in the Congo – which the comic genius and pioneer Hergé, was specifically instructed by his ultraconservative Catholic publisher to draw to shore up colonial sentiment among a people who had never possessed a colony before and were not terribly interested in one – is probably the most obvious example of this bigotry.
Framed in the classic mould of the “white man’s burden”, our swashbuckling young reporter travels to the Congo to investigate conditions there, uncovering a sinister diamond-smuggling operation in the process.
The album depicts the indigenous Congolese as “noble savages” who are essentially good but lazy. In contrast, the white Belgians are portrayed as efficient and industrious, building villages and facilities for the natives, educating them and leading them down the path to Jesus.
At one point, a young native, eager to be educated by the white man, rushes up to the missionary to inform him, in pidgin, that the priest tasked with teaching them is too sick to give them lessons.
Helpful to a fault, Tintin volunteers to be the replacement teacher for the geography lesson, despite, presumably, not being much older than the pupils. “Today, I’m going to teach you about your country: Belgium,” Tintin pompously informs the class.
When Tintin finally departs the Congo, the supposedly primitive and dim-witted Congolese erect a shrine for him and his dog Snowy, and a pious native is pictured prostrating before it.
For a strong believer in equality and human dignity, this kind of superiority and casual racism makes me highly uncomfortable and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That said, I don’t think it should be banned.
After all, many children’s classics contain at least some content that we would consider unacceptable today, from Walt Disney cartoons to popular Arab fairy tales.
For instance, the frame story of the 1,001 Nights involves an insulting depiction of a black slave who sleeps with Shahryar’s queen, portrayed as a fickle and untrustworthy woman, and a tyrant who feels it is within his rights to murder a woman every night. As this example attests, it is not just racism that is a problem with old tales.
Sexism is a major issue too. Tintin, for instance, has almost no female characters and the only notable one, Bianca Castafiore, is whimsical, absent-minded and self-centred.
As a strong believer in freedom of expression and thought, the idea of bans does not appeal to me, especially since unsavoury attitudes need to be actively tackled, not swept out of sight. This is especially the case when it comes to historical literature.
Tintin was very much a product of his time, as reflected in the runaway success of the series and how little controversy around the world it elicited when it was published – ironically, Tintin’s adventure in the Congo is hugely popular there and across francophone Africa.
Despite how unsavoury and even alien the attitudes above seem to us from our 21st-century perspective, when Hergé first published Tintin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the views of his young hero were sadly commonplace, especially in the conservative Christian circles to which Hergé belonged.
Four decades later, Hergé expressed regret, describing the Congo strip as a “sin of youth”. “All I knew about the country was what people said at the time,” he admitted.
In some later adventures, in which both Hergé and Tintin matured, the cartoonist sought to atone for this “sin”.
In Blue Lotus, Hergé, who had consulted a Chinese art student who became a friend, tackles colonial attitudes head on. Tintin defends a rickshaw driver against a savage beating from a white man who complains: “Can’t we even teach that yellow rabble to mind their manners now? It’s up to us to civilise the savages!”
“Tintin himself is vehemently anti-racist,” one reader contends, “and is often seen sticking up for downtrodden locals over the objections of imperial powers.”
Whether or not Tintin, the character, is anti-racist does not absolve the comic, especially its early editions, of racism.
However, episodes of racism and sexism notwithstanding, Tintin was a pioneering work of comic art and his boyish adventures tickle the hero instinct in children and appeal to their longing for the independence and self-determination of which we adults deprive them.
In addition to not wishing to deprive my son of such simple pleasures, I feel Tintin and other classics of bygone eras present a wealth of educational opportunities. As the enduring appeal of the far-right suggests, these bigoted attitudes are, sadly, still alive and well in our societies, and so it is our duty to prepare our children by making them aware of this reality.
An unthreatening comic full of exotic destinations and outlandish storylines could be utilised as a great teaching tool. Although my son is still blissfully oblivious to the ogres of discrimination, I intend to use Tintin and other stories to discuss with him and to help him learn, as he gets older, about these unsavoury aspects of human culture.
Khaled Diab is a Belgian- Egyptian journalist
On Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea
Updated: October 17, 2015 04:00 AM