Law graduate Nadim Damluji was wandering through a book market near Tahrir Square in Cairo when he came across the genesis for what would become a three-year touring exhibition in a box of vintage print. “I suddenly noticed a lot of comics inside the magazines I was flipping through,” he says. “It was a real revelation for me—I never knew they existed.”
Together with his sister, the scholar Mona Damluji, Damluji has now curated and toured the exhibition ‘Arab Comics: 90 Years of Popular Visual Culture’ since 2015. It’s been at Brown University, the University of California, and it’s currently displayed at Bulbul Gallery & Café at the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Germany. “It’s not like everyone can just go to a book market in Cairo,” says Damluji. “After that moment in the market, I wanted others to realize that there are comics in the Middle East.”
One of the many goals behind the exhibition is to bridge understanding between cultures through revealing a shared, common love of comics. Divided into three distinct sections—original Arabic works, adaptations of western comics, and contemporary titles—‘Arab Comics’ is a comprehensive look at over 90 years of comic art “from Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula.” Its earliest title, Al-Awlad (“The Boys”) is from 1923—a start date Damluji emphasizes is not only early for the region, but globally. In a black-and-white newspaper format, the title tells stories of mischievous boys—no doubt its own demographic.
“One takeaway from comics like Al-Awlad and many others like it, is that the audience can see how Arab artists imagine Arab children,” says Damluji. “They’re not in war-torn settings. They are playful and having a normal childhood.”
The next section of the exhibition focuses on adapted comic book icons. As early as the 1940s, illustrators began “Arabizing” comic characters like Mickey Mouse, Superman, and Tintin for Arabic readers: it was cheaper for publishers to translate pre-produced content than commission new works. When Tintin first started to be translated in the Middle East in 1942 (before its English translation), publishers came up against several issues in Hergé’s design: for example, although the artist is known for his obsessive, precise detailing of settings like the interior of planes or steam engines, but when it came to writing Arabic text for signage in Tintin’s Middle Eastern adventures, Hergé would often resort to quick scribbles. Damlujo describes how Hergé had several problems with cultural sensitivity, making up fictionalized Middle Eastern countries, and depicting all Arab males as short and quick tempered. In their Arabic versions, publishers were able to soften Hergé’s inadequacies, and found ways to translate the text to resist stereotyping, giving the comics’ Middle Eastern characters more of a nuanced voice.
Later, publishers went beyond the speech bubbles and begun to transform the accessories of characters in adapted comics. In the exhibition, you’ll see Mickey in combat gear, fighting in the Arab-Israeli war with an Egyptian army behind him; Mickey wearing a fez on his way to Palestine; Mickey with a lot of little mice children as he woos Minnie Mouse.
“These aren’t what you expect, it’s not the Disney canon.”
The exhibition also reveals how in the 1960s, the Arab world had its own flying, unbeatable superhero called Nabil Fawzi: he spoke Arabic, romanced a reporter called Randa, battled evil, and had only one weakness, glowing green Kryptonite. Better known to the west as Clark Kent, or Superman, the hero was often joined by others, like bat-eared Sobhi and green and red Zakhour (also known as Batman and Robin.) In the 1980s, the illustrations were “Arabized” in the Iraqi version of the comic: we see the superhero with a moustache and a lantern-like design on his chest.
“Artists adapt these established properties from the West, and when we compare them to their Western versions, a conversation between cultures is revealed. It raises interesting questions: What is an Arab aesthetic? What does it mean for a comic to be Arab as opposed to non-Arabic?” says Damluji.
“Ultimately though, I want the audience to come away from the exhibition realizing that comics aren’t just from Japan, the U.S., and Europe. Comics are from everywhere: it’s a universal medium.”