Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Arabic Comics Today: the new Generation

Rebellion resurrected:  

The will of youth against history

Intro to the Catalogue of the exhibit “Arab Comics Today” 2018

Is it a coincidence that Angoulême has chosen to dedicate, for a second time, an exhibition to Arab comics, almost 3 decades after the first? Or does history repeat itself? Is it a coincidence that this new exhibition, like the first, takes place in a context of revolutions and wars – wars born out of dreams which, having becoming nightmares, haunt the whole of the Arab world? Is it a coincidence that comics today have become the most eloquent expression of this young generation who challenged history at the first “budding” of the Arab Spring? Is it a coincidence that comics is the medium which lends its voice to the ambitions of this generation, its hopes and disappointments, its victories and frustrations?

At the beginning of the 1980s, in the midst of the civil war raging in Lebanon[1], a new wave of Arab comics was born, whose message, like a voice without an echo[2], remained inaudible. In 2007, the magazine Samandal took over the reins, showing us that crises and wars, even at the scale of a small country, can unleash an unimaginable creativity which can burst over national borders and set ablaze every region of the world, as if it had just been waiting for this spark. It was thus that Magdy El Shafee’s Métro (published in Egypt, 2008) also opened a breach, blowing a powerful gust of freedom of expression into the surrounding cultural asphyxia. The social and political importance of Métro made it the most discussed comic album in the media in Egypt, which was, at that time, suffering under the crushing weight of an agonising dictatorship.

Collectives as a lever for change

Samandal, as a collective, and El Shafee, as an individual, embody what characterises the new wave of Arab comics, both in form and content. The fanzine format of the first has, however, taken the lead on the individual practice of the second, the collective becoming progressively the “base” around which artists organise themselves. Samandal was the first initiative to adopt a collective structure, which allowed it to overcome the challenges posed by the publishing market, and thus set itself up as a model for others to follow. By founding an organisation, and relying on private finances to publish its issues, Samandal found the means to guarantee its longevity. It was thus able to create an independent platform dedicated to artists (mainly the founders) looking to express themselves and promote their work. The Lebanese economic system, which favours private sector initiatives, has contributed to this success.

This Lebanese initiative Samandal served as inspiration for the creation of the Egyptian magazine TokTok in 2011, during a period when the country was eager for change. Whilst Magdy El Shafee’s Métro had struck at the heart of the fear surrounding the powers that be, TokTok brought together young Egyptians searching for a platform for their work. In addition to responding to a clear need on a national scale, TokTok soon became a real ‘Arabic oasis’, which opened its pages to artists from all over the region, particularly in the Maghreb, benefiting from the proximity of the countries and of their respective social, political and economic structures. We cannot ignore the central role of workshops, organised abroad by TokTok and Samandal, in encouraging artists from different regions to meet and create collectives, thus cultivating spaces dedicated to freedom of expression in different countries. It is as if the collective, catalyst for the contemporary wave of Arab comics, constituted the ideal means of creating independent platforms and liberating oneself from the constraints of the publishing world. The proliferation of collectives, taking place amongst the collapse of corrupt political regimes, is in itself extremely significant. It was indeed in this turbulent context that a multitude of fanzines appeared, most of which are still in print: Lab619 (Tunisia 2013), Skefkef (Morocco 2013), Masaha (Iraq 2015), Garage (Egypt 2015), Habka (Libya 2015). Other fanzines were also launched, but, for various reasons, did not survive, Al Doshma (Egypt 2011), Allak Fayn (Egypt 2016), Al Tahwila (Egypt 2012), Autostrad (Egypt 2011), Les Furies des Glaneurs (Lebanon 2011), Al Shakmajiyya (Egypt 2014) for example. Comic book production entered a new phase, enriched by the diversity of contributions from artists who, for the first time could choose where to publish their work[3]. At the very moment when the Arab world had become more divided than ever before, and its different regions more disconnected, comics - more than any other form of artistic expression -  provided a unifying link between young artists, thanks to the network of exchanges initiated by collectives. It has since then become regular practice for a fanzine to publish the work of artists from another country, who are themselves the founders of a fanzine in their own country; or to invite an artist from a country to run a workshop somewhere else in the Arab world[4], or to take part in round-table discussions in Europe addressing contemporary Arab comics[5]. This phenomenon throws into question the individual nature of certain publications and the role of their reciprocative influences.

 ‘I’ in the linguistic mosaic

TokTok, and in its wake Skefkef and Lab619, were inspired by Samandal to self-publish and thus overcome the constraints imposed by traditional methods of publication and distribution. To do so, these non-profit, non-governmental organisations relied on alternative financial support, such as production funds provided by various agencies and institutions, for the most part European[6].

It is by their different vocations and content that these initiatives distinguish themselves. Samandal is itself an experimental platform which publishes the work of artists from Lebanon, Arabic countries and elsewhere, in multiple languages (Arabic, English and French). Its multilingualism reflecting the cultural diversity of Lebanon. Samandal privileges experimentation over visual form, to the point that the very nature of the comic strip is brought into question[7].

TokTok, for its part, distances itself from any elitism in form and content and focuses on themes ranging from the social and popular to the individual or personal. Its texts are exclusively written in Arabic, both classical or dialectal. TokTok uses a clearly narrative visual language, quite removed from the experimental[8]. These elements have made it a model of inspiration for multiple publications which have followed.

Skefkef developed a form similar to that of fanzines, all in maintaining the quality, graphic design and finish of a magazine. Each issue brings together contributions of Moroccan artists, invited to tackle a shared theme, which is most often highly pertinent to the current social and cultural climate of the country [9].

At the heart of this revival of the Arab comic is the recurring question of language, which re-launched the debate on the multiplicity of identities. If classical Arabic has traditionally dominated the literary sphere, under the influence of Pan Arabism ideology, dialects have progressively gained ground thanks to the social and political interests of the Arab revolutions[10]. The young artists who advocate the use of dialects revendicate proudly the use "I" over "we" in respect of a cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity, which contests a unifiying intellectual hegemony, of which the results are disastrous. The initiative to create these collectives is in itself a demonstration of the desire to promote the diversity expressed in their publications. The magazine TokTok and Garage are characterised by the use of Egyptian dialect and local expressions, whereas Lab619, Skefkef, Masaha and Habka differentiate themselves by their use of other dialects - Tunisian, Moroccan, Iraqi or Libyan – to such a degree that to foreign eyes - even Arab eyes - the linguistic, regional and cultural specificities can be difficult to decipher. A look at the titles of the magazines illustrates their extreme local identity:  TokTok (a rickshaw, popular means of transport in Egypt), Skefkef (a cheap sandwich, popular in Casablanca), Lab619 (referring to Tunisian barcodes), Al Shakmajiyya (a jewellery box used for make-up) and Samandal (chameleon – a nod to the diversity and linguistic and cultural adaptability of its content). The collectives thus broke with the convention, established since the beginning of Arab comics, of choosing the title of the magazine from the panoply of names common to Arabic and Islamic heritage (Ahmed, Majed, Ali Baba, Samir, Sindbad, Samer, Khaled, Mahdi, etc.) – names which, above all, were systematically accompanied on the cover by a sub-heading evoking pan-arab nationalism ideology (Oussama ‘The Magazine for the Arab Child; Al Arabi Alsaghir (The Little Arab Child) ‘For all the Boys and Girls in the Arab World’; Ahmad ‘For a Muslim Generation’; Samer ‘For a Happy Arab Generation’).

The role of women and breaking taboos

Whatever their form or genre, today’s comics are characterised by a freedom of expression and openness towards experimentation and personal exploration. The collectives have, since the beginning, constituted a form of rebellion against social and political hegemony and the constraints of tradition. They have used their publications to explore subjects long considered taboo in Arab societies, particularly those linked to sex, religion and social traditions. Certain comics even broach the following controversial topics: Al Shakmajiyya: a magazine dedicated to feminism and sexual harassment in Egyptian society; Samandal (Ça restera entre nous, [This will stay between us] 2016): consecrated its annual to sexuality and homosexuality; not to talk about the comic Ramadan Hardcore by Moroccan artist Hisham Habchi. Up until now these topics had rarely been tackled in a visual narrative form. Women artists were at the forefront of these first movements in the Arab world which dared to defy the authorities and traditional orthodoxy concerning women’s rights, particularly their right to bodily integrity. The high percentage of women artists specialising in the professional comic book sector is an important indicator of this engagement[11]. Do they, no doubt, feel more concerned than their male counterparts by the necessity of a transformative change towards individual freedom? Those who have raised and interrogated this issue have sometimes been accused of ‘going too far’, leading to legal action against, and political censorship of, certain collectives, who have since had to publish abroad[12]. Other initiatives, born out of revolutions demanding justice, rule of law and liberty, have used comics as an educational tool in awareness-raising campaigns; Allak fein? and Al-Doshma consitute prime examples.

Diversity and rebellion against the past

A burning desire for openness has left no subject or genre untouched: super heroes[13], science fiction, politics, entertainment, biting satire, current celebrities[14] or the author’s emotional state[15]. No subject is barred. A space has unfolded where the only limit is the artist’s imagination or sensibility, far from any form of self-censorship. Another striking aspect is the almost complete absence of subjects dealing with “glorious History of Islam”[16], as though these young people are too occupied by the present moment and wish to break with the past against which they rebel. This likely explains the use of a visual aesthetic inspired by European comics, Japanese mangas or even American animated television series[17]. Only certain Egyptian artists inscribe their work in the local visual heritage, notably made up of caricature, which forms an important site of collective memory in Egyptian society. It has become common to see artists master multiple techniques, using in their work a mixture of caricature, illustration, comics and graffiti (Mohamed Andeel, Makhlouf and Ganzeer for example, but above all the Moroccan artists in their conquest of urban walls).

In terms of form, these magazines restructured their editorial content and sections to better reflect their objectives and values – incorporating another layer of diversity. Thus the traditional didactic structures, which had dominated magazines for children (each distinguishing itself from the others only by the ideology it propagated), completely disappeared. Samandal created mirror-pages which invited the reader to turn the magazine in different directions depending on the alphabet used, Arabic or Latin. TokTok replaced sub-sections with profiles of famous artists, concluding by the comic remark (Made in Egypt) or by a more visual presentation. Lab619 prefers to present the artists‘ pages with no introduction, and does not give importance to the change in the reading direction when the stories are written in Latin script. Skefkef, on the other hand, interlaces its illustrated pages with short stories, emphasising that the written text is just as important as the visual aspect. It has also provided musical elements to accompany its issues[18].

However, these magazines are missing an important feature of modern comics; their long series or graphic narratives. The classic “To be continued…” is almost totally absent from all of these new magazines, perhaps because their authors cannot be certain that this issue will be followed by another... Contributions are often limited to concise ideas and short stories, without long narratives or continuity between issues[19]. As if the artists, in the context of revolution, wanted to position themselves in the present moment, that is, to focus our attention on their personal torments, before moving onto something else. This point deserves to be highlighted, as the region is known for its heritage of oral narrative and never-ending stories, traditionally passed on from generation to generation (The 1001 Nights, The Saga of Banu Hilal, etc). Graphic novels in Arabic are very rare since the publication of Métro, with the exception of Murabba wa Laban [Jam and Yoghurt] by Lena Merhej; A City Neighbouring the Earth by Jorj Abou Mhaya, Ayalo by Mustafa Youssef and Al Tahadi [The Challenge] by Omar Ennaciri. Several others may never have seen the light of day were it not for western publishers who brought them out in their respective foregn languages (Zeina Abirached, Michèle Standjovski, Hamed Sulaiman, Barrack Rima, Kamal Hakim, Ralph Doumit and the publications of ALBA - Lebanese Academy of Fine Art[20]).

Developing professional expertise

The significance of this current wave of Arab comic lies in the fact that it does not find its roots in the impetuous fantasies of a handful of young artists, who, burning with a desire, would readily seek out other horizons once their objectives are acheived. These young, contemporary artists are fully aware of the social and political situation which surrounds them. Most have experienced - and some, in a very active way - opposition movements against the repressive and corrupt systems in their countries. It is therefore with full awareness and maturity that they have taken on these new artistic approaches, following a model which they intend to make last. Here lies the importance of workshops, which are organised in the hope of reinforcing the professionalization of the domain, a condition sine qua non for its survival. These workshops enable artists to meet and create spaces for discussions, debates and the sharing of ideas, constructing a framework of shared references and ongoing communication which promotes solidarity and co-operation. CairoComix (the comics festival born in Cairo, 2015) is the most emblematic of these local and international gatherings. It plays a pivotal role in nurturing this new movement and provides a solid platform where artists can exchange experiences, discuss ideas and promote their work.

This significant turning point in the approach towards comics was accompanied – and in some cases preceded – by the introduction of university courses in comics, together with a growing interest in academic research in the field[21].

The book or the ‘lost market’

Whilst the collectives successfully established a solid basis for the existence of a new genre of adult comics through their fanzines, it was not the same case for graphic novels, which continue to rely on publishing houses and conventional distribution networks.   El Shafee’s Métro was an unusual phenomenon, and unheard of since. Its publicity and media campaign played a major role in its distribution in the Arab world, both in spite of, and because of, its being banned. Its censorship resulted in the opposite effect that was intended, namely leading to broader publicity on a regional and a national scale. Nevertheless, this also opened the eyes of the authorities to the influential potential of this new medium, thus putting publishers under even more pressure. Other Arab artists, who are just as able with word and pen as El Shafee, have only be able to publish in foreign languages[22], as, after a burgeoning period in the broad regional market, publishing has progressively shrunk to national borders. The absence of local publishers who specialise in the production of comic book albums is itself a factor which makes it difficult for projects to develop, insofar as the publishers do not benefit from private investment, unlike collectives.

In this context, digital mediums have presented an important alternative to conventional means of publication and distribution, not to mention providing a way of navigating increasingly intense censorship. In addition to using digital mediums, which aid the transmission and distribution of their work in faraway places, artists also use social media to create virtual platforms in order ‘distribute the forbidden’. The most pertinent example remains the collective of Syrian artists who, pursued and menaced with death threats by the Assad regime, distributed their work on a Facebook page called ‘Comic4Syria’. This page is an irreplaceable, creative source of documentation on the civil war in Syria, which has already caused the death of more than half a million persons. For obvious reasons, the contributors, unfortunately, are obliged to remain anonymous. The Moroccan author Hisham Habchi,  who published his comic series Ramadan Hardcore during the month of Ramadan, was able to avoid censorship thanks to the Internet. The situation is similar in Egypt, where a large number of writers and artists are on trial and a number of local organisations are ordered to reduce or to cease their activities, on the pretext that they receive foreign funding to serve foreign interests, or that they are leaking sensitive information (including statistics on human rights, for example!). Even worse, censorship in Arab countries is not due solely to state initiatives: it runs much deeper into civic and religious institutions. As was seen, for example, with Samandal which was the subject of legal proceedings for ‘offence to religion’, after a complaint was lodged by the Catholic Church in Lebanon.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, Angoulême Festival put Arab authors in the spotlight. Today, it invites again a number of young artist who are re-writing the history of this region, a region on the brink of imploding at any moment.

Angoulême thus welcomes these young talents who are trying to alter, through the weft and weave of their drawing and stories, what has been ripped apart, and thus realise their dreams of liberty, justice and citizenship, but also of a re-appropriation of the self and of the right of every individual to live freely in his or her community.

Will they overcome the past that has so scarred their region? Or will they be defeated once again, as were their predecessors? Whatever the result, perhaps it is enough to meet these young artists, discuss with them, look them in the eye, see their dreams, recognise their determination in the challenge to the current reality, and thus understand that for them stepping back is not an option.

George Khoury (Jad)
July 2017

[1]        In 1980 the first comic book for adults was published: Carnaval (Jad), followed by Abu-Chanab (1981), Alf Leyla wa Leyla (1982) and Sigmund Freud (1983). This path lead to the collective JadWorkshop (1986) which included: Lina Ghaibeh, Wissam Beydoun, Edgar Aho, May Ghaibeh and Shoghig Dergoghassian. The album Min Beirut (1989) was the last publication of the group, and the collective came to an end after a final exhibition, Out of Communication, in 1992.

[2]        Mazen Kerbaj is the only exception in terms of consistent continuity, although his production is primarily in French. Kerbaj remains a ‘lone wolf’, unassociated with any particular collective, and is the most prolific author on the Lebanese scene. His best known album in Arabic is hazihi al-hikaya tajri (Dar-Al-Adab, 2010).

[3]        Zeina Abirached, Mazen Kerbaj, George Boumhaya, Joumana Medlej, Ralph Doumit (Lebanon), Mohammed El Bellaoui (Rebel Spirit), Omar Ennaceri (Morocco), Magdy El Shafee, Mustafa Youssef (Egypt).

[4]        Samandal, TokTok and Skefkef are the most active in this domain.

[5]        The 2015 Barcelona platform brought together artists from four collectives: Samandal, TokTok, Skefkef and Lab619. This meeting was preceded by a similar, larger, one at Erlangen in 2008, and we should not forget the influence of the round tables established in 2015 by CairoComix.

[6]        French, German and Italian cultural centres have contributed to the funding of Samandal (Lena Merhej, 2015, “Meeting in the Land of 1000 Balconies”, La Capella, Institut de Cultura de Barcelona). TokTok is supported by funding from the European Union and Skefkef is aided by local donors (interview with Salah Malouli of Skefkef and Mohamad Rahmo, founder of the cultural agency ‘Madness’, 2017).

[7]        (…) [The story must be beautiful, the drawings aren’t that important…]” (Lena Merhej, 2015, “Meeting in the Land of 1000 Balconies”).

[8]        “If an artist puts forward an experimental work, I tell him go to Samandal (Mohamad Al-Shinnaoui, 2015, “Meeting in the Land of 1000 Balconies”).

[9]        Skefkef underlines the cultural and ethnic diversity of Morocco where Amazigh (Berber language), was recently recognised as the second official language. (Interview with Salah Malouli, Casablanca, July 2017).

[10]   It is important to note here that all comics in the region were published or controlled by state-run instituions. The example of adult comics using Arabic dialect, in the 1980s in Lebanon, was an exception.
[11]      A quarter of the Skefkef and more of Samandal artists are young women. There are almost twice as many women solo authors of albums as men, among them: Zeina Abirached, Lena Merhej, Joumana Medlej (Lebanon), Zineb Benjelloun, Zeinab Fassiqi (Morocco), Noha Habaieb (Tunisia).

[12]      Samandal chose to focus its latest issue on sexuality in France, as a co-production with Alifbata (Ça restera entre nous, Alifbata/Samandal, 2016)

[13]      The series Malaak by Jouman Medlej (Lebanon 2007) and 99 about Islamic super heroes by Nayef Moutaweh (Kuwait 2006).

[14]      The character of “Al-Sayess” by Mohamad El-Shennawy, mascot of the TokTok magazine.

[15]      The Samandal artists are pioneers in this, as they don't mention or make reference to the ‘Arab Spring’, whilst the others began in revolutionary circumstances and embraced the activism that went with them.

[16]      Morocco remains an exception with the series Tarikhuna, in Amazigh.

[17]      In Morocco for example, today’s young artists grew up reading comics like Spirou, in the absence of any local production. (Interview with the Skefkef collective, 2017). In other publications, the influence of mangas and cartoon series broadcast on the Cartoon Network is clear.

[18]      Skefkef’s formula is based on an artists‘ workshop in Casablanca who come together to work on a particular local theme, as well as calling on alternative music bands to work on the same theme and take part in the publication.

[19]   Migos Ya jouj wa Ma jouj is an exception in TokTok (issues 7-14).
[20]      The Lebanese Academy of Fine Art (ALBA) has been the training ground for generations of artists who make up the majority of potential actors in Lebanon.

[21]      L’Insitute Nationale des Beaux-Arts (Tétouan Morocco), LAcadémie libanaise des beaux-arts - Alba (Lebanon) are the first, and maybe only, academic insitutions to propose a full academic program in this domain. The Alba has trained generations of Lebanese illustrators, which form the majority of comics artists in Lebanon. The Mutaz and Rada Sawaf Arabic Comics Initiative of the American University of Beirut, founded in 2014, plays a pioneering role in the domain of academic research in the comic genre in the Arab world, and also supervises the annual Mahmoud Kahil Prize for artists working in comics, caricature and illustration.

[22]      Mazen Kerbaj, Zeina Abirached, Michèle Standjovski and Sleiman El-Ali for example.