Relocating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse

Since arriving in Dubai, I’ve taken a fairly aggressive approach to reading non-Western literature, particularly contemporary Middle Eastern and South Asian fiction and long-form journalism. I’ve also been looking at Middle Eastern graphic novels in preparation for the Graphic Novel seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, and I continue to discover many wonderful graphic narratives being produced throughout the Middle East and North Africa. All of this has been exciting, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to share my thoughts on these texts in a formal setting.

That will change when the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) comes to the American University in Dubai (AUD) for a conference on evolving political, economic, and cultural dynamics in the Middle East. AUD’s School of Arts & Sciences has a very active Middle Eastern Studies program, and its faculty has worked hard to bring BRISMES—one of the leading Middle Eastern Studies organizations—to AUD for what promises to be an intellectually-engaging three days of scholarly discussion and debate.

I will be joining the “Re-readings/Re-takes: Narratives in Literature and Media” panel, where I will present some of my research on what’s going on throughout the region viz. graphic novels (see abstract below). I can’t wait to meet with visiting scholars who will converge on AUD from around the world next month.

Graphic Novels, Web Comics, and New Narrative Forms in the Middle East

In his introduction to graphic novelist Joe Sacco’s comic-book series Palestine (1993-1995), Edward Said recalls how “liberated and subversive” he felt upon first encountering the comics medium, with its extravagant illustrations and fantastic, unconstrained narratives of conflict and adventure. He attributes his initial enthusiasm to adolescence, but he also admits how, after reading Sacco’s graphic narrative, he was “plunged directly back into the world of the first great intifada and, with even greater effect, back into the animated, enlivening world of the comics I had read so long ago.” The graphic novel’s subversive, liberating potential to tell the sorts of stories that are largely ignored by the popular media and literary fiction alike has not been lost on a new generation of storytellers working within the comics medium to re-read the contemporary sociopolitical realities of life in the Middle East. Indeed, the past decade has seen a remarkable proliferation of graphic narratives produced and distributed throughout the MENA region. This paper will examine how writer-illustrators such as Magdy El-Shafee (Metro: A Story of Cairo),  Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib (Zahra’s Paradise), and Leila Abdelazaq (Baddawi) have seized on the comic form’s radical heteroglossia to interrogate topics ranging from religion to politics to sexuality in increasingly novel and challenging ways. By manipulating spatio-temporal dynamics to present multiple, simultaneous contexts within a single narrative, these graphic storytellers practice a sophisticated narratological approach to what has always been a popular medium, thus transforming a traditionally juvenile and ephemeral mode of pop-art into mature texts that capture aspects of life too often relegated to the margins of representation. Working from within their own independent publishing collectives and often adapting their work for online platforms, these young artists are producing an emerging body of literature that is re-shaping how contemporary readers perceive the challenges and triumphs of 21st century life in the Middle East.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins