Middle East Graphic Novelists Push Boundaries

In Growth Markets by Chip Rossetti

By Chip Rossetti

• Last week, we looked the market for comic books and graphic novels in the Middle East is small, but growing.

• In this, the second part of our two-part series, we examine how graphic novelists in the Middle East are pushing the boundaries of publishing by tackling controversial topics in their work, but also paying a price for challenging taboos.

“In the last two years, there’s been a kind of synchronicity in Egypt, Lebanon, and Emirates for graphic novels,” says artist and writer Magdy El Shafee. Interest in graphic novels has also been spurred by El Shafee’s own book, Metro (a panel from which is displayed at the right), which is often described as “Egypt’s first graphic novel.” Originally published by Dar al-Malameh (owned by blogger and activist Muhammad al-Sharqawi) in 2008, Metro is a tale of two young Cairenes who, frustrated by society, pull off a bank heist. The portrait of official corruption, greed, and seemingly justified criminal behavior was too much for the Egyptian courts, which ruled Metro “offensive to public morals,” and fined both the author and the publisher 5,000 Egyptian pounds each. The book was pulled from stores, and has since remained tantalizingly unavailable, although Italian and German translations will soon be in print, and despite the legal challenges, El Shafee has made arrangements for a new Arabic edition with another publishing house, to come out within the next six months.

El Shafee can point to a number of his peers who are also leading the way for the Arabic graphic novel, including fellow Egyptians George Azmy and Mufa, authors of a recent sci-fi comic, Atlal al-Mustaqbal (Ruins of the Future). Set at the Giza pyramids in the future, Ruins of the Future pits a group of scholars against an incarnation of the ancient Egyptian god Seth, and is described by its authors as “an 80-page piece of sci-fi pulp.”

As El Shafee sees it, the key figures in Arabic comics are a loose group of artists “who work seriously and believe in comics as a genre and a medium,” using “new topics and a drawing style that bows to nothing other than the law of the artist and subject.” In his own work, he talks about the lessons he has drawn from reading international graphic novelists such as Neil Gaiman (“comics go beyond all horizons and give expression to complete imagination”), Marjane Satrapi (“everyday details are unbelievably rich”), and the French comics artists Golo and Baru (“about the life of the underground and the beauty of leaving the system”).

As the case of Metro makes clear, the threat of official censorship remains an issue for would-be graphic novelists. Samandal — the Beirut-based “multilingual comics magazine” discussed last week — editors are aware of its effects on their own work: on one level, “the fact that comics fly under the radar has been a boon thus far” for them, since their limited distribution has often escaped the notice of censors. At the same time, they say, “a lot of the Arab countries will simply turn down publications featuring anything racy, political or religious, and so we are very careful about which lines to cross.”

Ahmad Al Aidy, who has authored a groundbreaking millennial-generation Arabic novel (An Takun ‘Abbas al Abd; translated into English as Being Abbas el Abd), and scripted satiric comics as well as cartoons for Egyptian newspapers, suggests that the effect of the court case and fine against Metro is having the opposite effect of what was intended, since “it is encouraging more people to do graphic novels now.” Magdy El Shafee agrees that there is an upsurge of interest in graphic novels, particularly when compared to the difficult publishing environment he found when he first published Metro.

“The strongest evidence for the changed milieu,” says El Shafee, “is the interest of publishers,” now that a number of prominent Arabic-language houses have begun publishing comics, as well as graphic novels in translation. The groundswell of interest in comics in the Arab world in the last few years, and the surprising popularity of Metro (even before its confiscation) and Samandal, suggest a real appetite for graphic novels among Arab readers, particularly for stories grounded in their own reality. In the words of Magdy El Shafee, “they need comics that address their thinking and their imagination, and that grow out our own society.”

DISCUSS: Are Graphic Novels and Comics More Dangerous Than Prose Novels?

VISIT: Magdy El Shafee’s website: http://www.magdycomics.com/

READ: A translated excerpt from Magdy El Shafee’s Metro from Words Without Borders: http://wordswithoutborders.org/graphic-lit/from-metro/

READ: Excerpt from Atlal al-Mustaqbal (Ruins of the Future) on the website of Mufa (pen name of Muhammad Fahmy): http://ganzeer.blogspot.com/2009/12/archives-ruins-of-future.html

About the Author

Chip Rossetti

Chip Rossetti is the managing editor of the Library of Arabic Literature translation series at NYU Press. He is a translator of contemporary Arabic fiction.