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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Arabs were quick on the draw: Superheroes in the Middle East

The Arab world needed a superhero, and so swooping into the Middle East in the 1960s – faster than a speeding bullet – was Krypton’s sole survivor: Nabil Fawzi.
Artist Unknown, Mîkî, Issue #174, 1964, Egypt. Courtesy Nadim Damluji
Artist Unknown, Mîkî, Issue #174, 1964, Egypt. Courtesy Nadim Damluji

The Arab world needed a superhero, and so swooping into the Middle East in the 1960s – faster than a speeding bullet – was Krypton’s sole survivor: Nabil Fawzi.

Better known to the world as Clark Kent, or Superman, the Arab comic version of this superhero, which was first published by DC Comics in 1938, spoke Arabic, romanced Randa (Louis Lane) and battled evil for the sake of good.

He would be joined by other superheroes, Sobhi and Zakhour, or Batman and Robin.

He was further Arabised in an Iraqi version in the 1980s, where we see the superhero with a moustache and a lantern-like design on his chest.

But decades before the Arabisation of famous comic figures, there was Jamil and his dog, Farfour.

Readers followed the adventures of Jamil, who wore the Ottoman-era truncated-cone felt hat with its tassel on top, and his friends (some wore a turban and had a cat) in Al-Awlad (The Boys) – the Arab world’s first serialised comic, published in Egypt in 1923.

“I should stress that the start date was not only early for the region, but globally comics were really in their infancy at the time,” said Nadim Damluji, an Arab comic scholar.

“This fully realised Arab comic magazine for children was coming out seven years before Herge started making Tintin,” he said.

Published by Dar al Lata’if al Musawwara, Al-Awlad came out weekly and was filled with completely original comic creations until 1932.

This comic, along with dozens of others, including Abu Dhabi-based comic magazine Majid (published by Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National), will be featured in an exhibition called Arab Comics: 90 Years of Popular Visual Culture.

Said to be the first of its kind in the United States, the exhibition opened earlier this month at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and runs until March 15. By the end of this month, a video of the exhibition will be posted on the main event’s website. There will also be a live stream of a symposium on Arab comics on February 26.

The exhibition will travel to other US universities and gallery spaces throughout the year.

Mr Damluji, an Arab American, along with his sister Mona, a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in visual culture at Wheaton College, are the visionaries and curators of the exhibition, which features 34 covers and panels starting with Al-Awlad and continuing with original characters from the Arab world, as well as adapted comics from Europe and the US that were Arabised, such as Mickey Mouse (who was featured in traditional Arab clothes, including a kandura and ghutra) and Hammam, otherwise known as Tintin.

“For me Al-Awlad is symbolic of what this whole exhibition is about. Here we are displaying a witty and playful uniquely Arab creation that is completely left out of the discussion of comics creation,” said Mr Damluji.

“While other parts of the exhibition go on to look at how publishers translated European and American comics in the ’40s onwards, the heart of it for me is that we had this original creation being made long before many of the western comics that would eventually be translated.”

The exhibition is organised to highlight three aspects of comics in Arab countries – original, adapted and contemporary.

The first two were primarily made for young audiences, but the more recent work by Lebanese comic artists and writers deal with various adult themes.

One of the goals behind the exhibition is to bridge understanding between different cultures through their common love for comics.

“In the current political and media climate, it is crucial that students, faculty and the larger community have the opportunity to engage with storytelling that highlights the diversity of talent and perspectives expressed artistically throughout the region,” said Mona, who for several years has been connecting and bringing artists, scholars and filmmakers from the Middle East to American university campuses.

“Comics are a popular art form that is loved by avid readers, illustrators and storytellers around the world, and particularly in the Middle East,” she said.

Quoting the late intellectual and leading literary critic Edward W Said, she said: “Comic books seem to exist in all languages and cultures, from East to West … all of them are easy to read, to pass around, store and throw away.

“Yet the history of comics in Arab countries is still not well documented,” she added.

Inspired by her brother’s work on comics, which included travelling in the footsteps of Tintin, the exhibition is based on his research and the extensive collection of covers and issues that he and his colleagues at the American University of Beirut Sawwaf Comics Initiative have assembled. The initiative was launched last year.

“Each of the comics featured in the exhibition shows us something different about the cultural context and political moment in which they were produced, whether it is Mickey dressed as an Egyptian soldier or a Palestinian, or the cover of Samandal by Lena Merhej that depicts a portrait of the energy and imagination carried forward by women on the forefront of the Arab uprisings. Each one is a gem,” said Mona.

Readers in the UAE read and grew up on the same comics as all Arab children across the Middle East and North Africa. “Everything made in Beirut and Cairo starting in the 1950s, like Sindibad, Samir and Bissat Al-Rih, was being distributed to children in the Emirates. It really emphasises that many of the original comics in the region were aimed to highlight a common Arab experience,” said Mr Damluji.

The UAE got involved in publishing comics in 1979, with the creation of Majid.

“Majid was founded by Ahmad Umar, an Egyptian artist living in the UAE, and the incomparable Ahmed Hijazi did much of the art,” said Mr Damluji. “Hijazi’s art is very recognisable and iconic. Hijazi has been involved with so many of the Arab comics. He started drawing for Samir in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He created the characters Thnablet El Sibian (The Lazy Boys),” he said.

“Much of his work dealt with political, economical and social matters, and Majid was no different.” On display at the exhibition are pages from Majid featuring one of its popular characters, Zakiyya (The Clever One), a brainy schoolgirl who teaches history to an audience of children.

“In the panels you can see Zakiyya recounting a story of the massacre of a Palestinian village under Israeli occupation. It is not violent, but it is informative and emotional,” said Mr Damluji.

The first Majid issue appeared on February 28, 1979. It was part of a local and pan-Arab comprehensive media project ordered by Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father of the UAE. The magazine’s title, and the name of its main character, were taken from the famous Arab sea navigator Ahmed Ibn Majid, born in the early 1400s.

A big part of the exhibition is dedicated to Tintin. “Tintin has made appearances in almost every comic magazine from the region, starting in Al Katkot in 1946, to Sindibad in 1960, to Samir throughout the 1960s, to Bissat Al-Rih in 1964, to finally having the albums translated in full in the 1970s by Egyptian publisher Dar Al Marouf,” he said.

While many of the original Arab comics have long stopped being published, the original editions are now collectors’ items.

Few survived the test of time like Majid, with new ones coming out almost every year thanks to a new generation of artists and writers.

“Comics as an art form has not died out, but has changed in significant ways, where there are now more comics that are made specifically for adult audiences, and there is much greater variety of technique,” said Mr Damluji.

“What has changed is the institutional support. Comics like Sindibad and Majid were able to become fixtures of the publishing landscape because they had direct government support. Today, with a few exceptions, almost everything done by these artists has been independently produced.”

Besides a trip down memory lane, the exhibition hopes to give exposure to a whole new set of comics and new superheroes.

In a region rocked by conflict, new heroes are always in need.

rghazal@thenational.ae