By Ramy Habeeb
Earlier this year DC Comics bravely introduced Batmat to a new sidekick, Nightrunner. That Nightrunner was a parkour-running Parisian of Algerian-decent was fine. That he also happened to be a Muslim…not so much. The news sparked protests among right-wing Americans, who suggested that Batman’s new best friend was, well, un-American.
To the righteously indignated, I invite them to walk the aisles of any bookstore in the Middle East, they’ll be able to find a plethora of famous heroes — Batman, Spiderman, Superman, the Incredible Hulk — not a single one of Arab origin. There is a cultural hegemony in superhero comics and it is dominated by Americans. Get over it
But it brings up another question: Of the 300+ million Arabic speakers in the Middle East and tens of millions more abroad, do they not have heroes among them? If so, where are they?
I know Arab heroes — historical, mythic heroes — exist, but they eclipsed by the heroes of other cultures, doused in an invisibility cloak of international cultural indifference and economic irrelevance.
The fact that Arab culture does not have the tradition of sequential art that is the underpinning of the comic book, may have something to do with it. But the lack of heroes extends beyond those drawn in pen and ink, the type that children adore, to the types of “heroes” that adults idolize, such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Barack Obama.
Herein lies the problem: If those Arab heroes and role models exist — and I now they do — why aren’t they in the forefront of the Arab psyche? And, if we are to extend these questions, as a publisher I want to know this: are those Arab heroes — present and yet to be imagined — exportable? Will other cultures accept them as heroes of their own? As long as they fight the good fight, do the right thing, and triumph against incredible odds — who wouldn’t want to read about them? Aren’t heroes universal?
The answer to this question is almost certainly “yes.” And this is the inspiration behind the Arab Hero, a new publishing start-up based in Cairo, Egypt, with the intention of creating a series of Arabic comic books featuring Arab heroes, written by Arab writers, and illustrated by Arab artists.
The series of books intents to offer Arab readers the heroes with which they can identify, ones drawn both from history and myth, both those with superpowers and those who have no special ability beyond an indomitable spirit.
Our first book, 18 Days, is an example of the latter: it tells the story of this Spring’s Egyptian revolution.
The challenge was creating a story that reflected the recent events, without glorifying the actions of one individual, thus distracting and diminishing the heroism of thousands upon thousands that risked their lives for change.
Adham, the protagonist of 18 Days, is a middle-aged Cairene, a stand-in of so many Egyptians, and as the book begins he is apathetic, unaware of the Facebook and Twitter campaigns calling for revolution…When we meet Adham he lives his daily life fully aware of the unemployment, poverty and political oppression around him but content that his immediate family are comfortable and safe. He actively turns a blind eye, praying that the protests will simply fade away as they have for years whenever someone stood up to challenge the government’s authority. But once his daughter Mona joins the protests, his eyes open. Fearing for her safety, he wades into Tahrir Square to find her. In his search, he only finds Mona, but also the desire for a better, stronger Egypt. And in this way, Adham becomes the hero we were looking for all along.
Our hope is that the readers will respond and help us start this modest publishing revolution. Won’t you join us?
18 Days was written by Ramy Habeeb and illustrated by A.S. Seleem. It is published this month by Arab Hero.