Why COMIX? An Emerging Medium of Writing the Middle East and North Africa

15 August, 2021
The popularity of comics in the Middle East and North Africa continues to boom — Moroccan author and artist Zainab Fasiki’s Hshouma has reached 10 printings since it came out in 2019. Read more here.
The pop­u­lar­i­ty of comics in the Mid­dle East and North Africa con­tin­ues to boom — Moroc­can author and artist Zainab Fasiki’s Hshouma has reached 10 print­ings since it came out in 2019. Read more here.

Aomar Boum, Guest Editor, TMR

I am not an artist or expert of al-qis­sa al-muṣawwara (graph­ic novel/comic book) or ban­des dess­inées (BD). I do not draw and nev­er attend­ed a school of art. How­ev­er, I have recent­ly become inter­est­ed in graph­ic nov­els as a medi­um of writ­ing. In fact, I am cur­rent­ly col­lab­o­rat­ing with Nad­jib Berber (see his bio in this spe­cial issue) on a graph­ic his­to­ry of Euro­pean and Jew­ish refugees held in Vichy camps in North Africa dur­ing WWII, based on the archives of the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum.

Although my inter­est in graph­ics and comics as a mode of writ­ing is pret­ty recent, I was exposed as a child to a pop cul­ture of BD while grow­ing up Moroc­co. My pas­time after school was lim­it­ed because I lived in small Saha­ran vil­lage. How­ev­er, I moved to Mar­rakesh to live with my old­est broth­er in the late 1970s and ear­ly 1980s. My broth­er did not own a tele­vi­sion set at the time, so I had to impro­vise to spend my spare time. One of my ear­ly evening rit­u­als was to sneak out of our house and join my neighbor’s son to watch the Japan­ese ani­me Gren­diz­er, Goldo­rak and Cap­tain Majid (Cap­tain Tsubasa). Miss­ing the series was nev­er an option. With the suc­cess of both shows on nation­al TV, they were seri­al­ized and trans­lat­ed in com­ic book mag­a­zines and sold on news­pa­per stands and in book shops. Dur­ing the same peri­od my broth­er signed me up for the near­by French Cul­tur­al Cen­ter, just a few miles from the mel­lah of Mar­rakesh. It was there I was intro­duced, like many young read­ers of the gen­er­a­tion, to Les Aven­tures de Tintin (Adven­tures of Tin­tin) and to Aster­ix the Gaul. Both the dubbed and seri­al­ized Japan­ese series and the French comics were at the cen­ter of the pop­u­lar cul­ture in Moroc­co at the time. While French comics dom­i­nat­ed the cul­tur­al scene, the exis­tence of Ara­bic trans­la­tions allowed us to also read the Ara­bic ver­sions of Goldo­rak, Bis­sat al Rih and Tarzan, which we cir­cu­lat­ed among us children.

For decades Moroc­co has been an importer of comics. While there was no short­age of graph­ic artists edu­cat­ed most­ly at the École des Beaux-Arts in Casablan­ca and the Insti­tut Nation­al des Beaux Arts in Tetouan, con­sis­tent insti­tu­tion­al and nation­al sup­port for local pro­duc­tion, pub­li­ca­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of comics with­in and out­side Moroc­co was absent. There­fore, read­ers had to rely on for­eign pro­duc­tion, which lim­it­ed the mar­ket large­ly because of lan­guage access between Ara­bic and French and, often­times, due to the expen­sive prices of the books. This Moroc­can sto­ry is gen­er­al to the rest of the Arab world and the Mid­dle East, where there is a lot of poten­tial for a home­grown com­ic tra­di­tion but where insti­tu­tion­al and finan­cial sup­port is hard to find.

Lack of insti­tu­tion­al and finan­cial sup­port is com­pound­ed by cen­sor­ship and incrim­i­na­tion of car­toon­ists.  State author­i­ties have for decades cen­sored car­toon­ists and even went as far as accus­ing some of them of  blas­phe­my. Artists and polit­i­cal car­toon­ists could not car­i­ca­ture state lead­ers in the Mid­dle East and North Africa with­out being arrest­ed and jailed. The cul­tur­al norms against car­i­ca­tur­ing reli­gions also lim­it artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion even when artists try to avoid crude rep­re­sen­ta­tions. Edi­tors of news­pa­pers and pub­lish­ers avoid forms of expres­sions for fear of clo­sure, fines or prison. For exam­ple in 2008 and before the so-called Arab Spring, Magdy El Shafee pub­lished Metro: A sto­ry of Cairo, a graph­ic nov­el that expos­es injus­tice, pover­ty and cor­rup­tion in Mubarak’s Egypt through the sto­ry of She­hab, a young soft­ware engi­neer who steals to pay off his debt. El Shafee was jailed for offend­ing pub­lic morals and his graph­ic book was banned. This trend con­tin­ued even after the Arab upris­ings in 2011.

This TMR spe­cial issue on comics in the Mid­dle East and North Africa is an attempt to rec­og­nize the work that has been done by Mid­dle East­ern artists in recent decades. We have tried to assem­ble a list of rep­re­sen­ta­tive albeit non-com­pre­hen­sive con­tri­bu­tions from dif­fer­ent experts as well as biogra­phies of native artists from the region, to pro­vide a glimpse into a very vibrant field of lit­er­ary and artis­tic expres­sion. This issue is also an oppor­tu­ni­ty to assess what Maghre­bi and Mid­dle East­ern com­ic artists and writ­ers have achieved. Despite the long his­to­ry of offi­cial restric­tion on graph­ic and comics, young artists have worked under stren­u­ous con­di­tions before expe­ri­enc­ing a moment of lib­er­a­tion in the after­math of the Arab upris­ings in 2011. While the return to author­i­tar­i­an­ism lingers on the hori­zon and despite Maghre­bi and  Mid­dle East­ern author­i­ties’ main­te­nance of a set of reli­gious, social and polit­i­cal red­lines that artists of comics, graph­ic nov­els and car­toons avoid for fear of jail, comics have gained both impor­tance and readership.

In this spe­cial issue, we cov­er gen­er­al trends in the Mid­dle East and North African comics over the last 20 or 30 years through a his­tor­i­cal piece on Arab comics by George “Jad” Khoury. Sher­ine Hamdy, one of the lead­ing anthro­pol­o­gists of the Mid­dle East who has pio­neered the use of comics as ethnog­ra­phy, high­lights the role of Mid­dle East­ern women in comics-mak­ing. Susan Sly­omovics, a lead­ing expert of visu­al anthro­pol­o­gy in the MENA region, acts as a trans­la­tor and intro­duces us to Nad­jib Berber and Menouar “Slim” Mer­abtene, two car­toon­ists from Alge­ria, whose sto­ries demon­strate the chal­lenges of being an artist in the region, strug­gling to adjust to the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic real­i­ties of comics-making.

Con­tri­bu­tions by Amber Sack­ett, Brahim El Guabli, and Paras­ka Tolan-Szkil­nik, respec­tive­ly a grad­u­ate stu­dent of Fran­coph­o­ne stud­ies, a lit­er­ary schol­ar, and a his­to­ri­an, pro­vide diverse read­ings of the dif­fer­ent ways comics engage issues relat­ed to archives, his­to­ry, and mem­o­ry in both colo­nial and post-colo­nial set­tings in the region. These con­tri­bu­tions, which cov­er Alge­ria, Moroc­co, and Mau­ri­ta­nia demon­strate the rich­ness and mul­ti­lay­ered roles the com­ic medi­um plays in soci­eties’ lives. Jen­ny White walks us through the process of pro­duc­ing a com­ic using ethno­graph­ic data on mod­ern Turkey. My arti­cle sheds light on the col­lab­o­ra­tive work of Abde­laz­iz Mouride, the dean of comics in Moroc­co, and his attempt to men­tor and train a new gen­er­a­tion of Moroc­can com­ic artists by focus­ing on his work on the chal­leng­ing issues of ille­gal migra­tion and human rights abus­es that con­tin­ue to haunt the region. And sib­lings Sherif and Han­na Dhaimish share the sto­ry of their father, the late Hasan “Alsatoor” Dhaimish, a Libyan car­toon­ist in exile in England.

There is a grow­ing pos­i­tive atti­tude in the MENA region towards comics as a viable means of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion, self-cri­tique, and democ­ra­ti­za­tion. The num­ber of inde­pen­dent artists, comics mag­a­zines, and local com­pa­nies pub­lish­ing graph­ic nov­els is on the rise. This increase in comics has led to the emer­gence of spe­cial­ized fes­ti­vals that adver­tise the work of these Mid­dle East­ern and North African artists through­out the region. This local work has also trans­lat­ed into inter­na­tion­al inter­est through trans­la­tion and glob­al cir­cu­la­tion of works that were orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the Mid­dle East and North Africa. Coun­ter­in­tu­itive­ly, many artists have opt­ed to stay in the region and instead of exile to the West, despite the occa­sion­al crack­down on their col­leagues who engage in the cri­tique of state’s human rights, polit­i­cal and social records. This choice has allowed them to cre­ate more lab­o­ra­to­ries of art where they trans­mit their artis­tic knowl­edge and know-how to future gen­er­a­tions of young Mid­dle East­ern and North African artists, who will be able one day to rep­re­sent the themes and issues of their region in their lan­guage and artis­tic sen­si­bil­i­ty. Comics have been anchored in the region, not just as a prac­tice, but also an intel­li­gent and sub­tle way to nuance both local and glob­al issues.

AlgeriaArab SpringEgyptgraphic novelsLebanonLibyaMoroccopolitical cartoonsTunisia

Aomar Boum (guest editor, COMIX) is a cultural anthropologist at UCLA, where he is Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies and Professor in the Department of Anthropology. He is the author of Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco, and the coauthor of The Holocaust and North Africa as well as A Concise History of the Middle East (2018) and most recently, with Mohamed Daadaoui, the coauthor of the Historical Dictionary of the Arab Uprisings (2020). He is currently working with Nadjib Berber on a graphic novel of European refugees in Vichy camps in North Africa during the Second World War. He was born and raised in the oasis of Mhamid, Foum Zguid in the Province of Tata, Morocco.


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