Literary Criticism

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

In his introduction to American graphic novelist Joe Sacco’s comic-book series Palestine, 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 (i). 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 [he] had read so long ago” (iii). The graphic novel’s subversive, liberating potential to tell the sorts of stories that are largely ignored by popular media has not been lost on a new generation of storytellers who are working within the comics medium to re-read the contemporary Middle East. Writer-illustrators such as Magdy El-Shafee, Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib, and Leila Abdelrazaq 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. Indeed, rescuing these issues from the margins of representation is one of the comic medium’s principle strengths. Here again, Said articulates the principle in his introduction to Sacco’s work: “As we live in a media-saturated world in which a huge preponderance of the world’s news images are controlled and diffused by a handful of men sitting in places like London and New York, a stream of comic-book images and words, assertively etched, at times grotesquely emphatic and distended to match the extreme situations they depict, provide a remarkable antidote” (iii).

If graphic novels “provide a remarkable antidote” to centralized media power, it seems important that we look beyond Western artists like Sacco and attend to the voices of those whose lives are most immediately shaped by the “extreme situations” Said describes. As the 21st Century matures, an increasing number of such voices are making themselves known through the comics medium. Take, for example, Egyptian artist Magdy El Shafee’s Metro: A Story of Cairo. Regarded as the first Arabic graphic novel for adults, Metro follows a young software engineer named Shehab as he struggles for upward social mobility in Mubarak’s Egypt. But Metro is no conventional bildungsroman; widespread corruption—both economic and political—frustrate Shehab’s efforts to put his technical skills to profitable use, and by the end of the novel, he is every bit as alienated as he was when we first encountered him. Shehab’s alienation and disdain for Cairo’s prevailing social system is on full display from the novel’s opening page. Moving from a close-up image of his determined, hard-set eyes to a full portrait set against an urban view dominated by a high-rise banking headquarters, the page emphasizes the sense of angry determination that informs Shehab’s character [figure 1]. “Today, I decided to rob a bank,” he declares, before reflecting on how he arrived at such a momentous decision: “I don’t remember when I became so angry. All I know is everyone was always going one way and I was going the other. All I had on my side was my brain. So now my brain has a plan, and I’m going to make it work” (1). Through his determination to restore what he feels has been stolen from generations of Egyptian citizens—namely, economic justice—Shehab emerges as a compelling anti-hero who exposes the irony of criminality as such in a bureaucratic society structured by widespread corruption, while at the same time forcefully articulating the frustration that emerges from within the claustrophobic social, political, and economic limitations that inevitably attend such systems.

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Figure 1. Magdy El Shafee, Metro: A Story of Cairo, p. 1

El Shafee makes the politics of Shehab’s decision even more explicit several pages later when, in another spread that ends with the same image that opens the book, Shehab attempts to set his friend Mustafa’s nerves at ease regarding his proposed bank heist. Here Shehab explains that “the police can’t be bothered with people like us. They’re too busy taking care of just one man,” before further rationalizing that, since they will become rich by robbing the bank, they shouldn’t worry about incarceration because “in this country, jail is for the poor” (4). Finally, Shehab thrusts his criminality directly into the realm of emancipatory politics: “Remember, Mustafa—we’re all in a cage. The way out is wide open, but we’re stuck inside because no one ever tries walking out of it” (4). This metaphor is repeated throughout the text and is Metro’s principle trope. By suggesting that the Egyptian people liberate themselves from the cage of political corruption and social inequality, El Shafee makes his invitation to revolutionary action abundantly clear. Perhaps the power of his critique explains why Egyptian authorities seized Metro on grounds of “disturbing public morals” and arrested both El Shafee and his publisher shortly after the book’s initial release. The ban lasted nearly five years.

Yet El Shafee’s revolution remains firmly within the bourgeois tradition; when Shehab robs the bank, he does so for his own personal enrichment, not to redistribute wealth more generally. He is, in this respect, a radical individualist, though El Shafee is careful to tie his individualism to the general sense of alienation that so many of the novel’s central characters feel. For example, through a series of panels that show various aspects of Cairo’s densely-populated urban environment, Shehab engages in the following internal monologue: “I am afraid. And alone. Thousands like me are afraid and alone in the night. But I can never accept it” (49-50). The visual representation here is telling, for by filling these panels with images of urban architecture rather than individual figures, El Shafee emphasizes both the anonymous Egyptian masses who move through these buildings on a daily basis, as well as the city itself as the site of coming revolution [figure 2]. It’s important to note, however, that while Shehab may share his fear and loneliness with any number of Egyptians, he almost always acts alone. Relying on his computer technical skills, Shehab engages in a series of subversive assaults on Cairo’s digital grid, hacking everything from the public telephone system to the bank’s central accounts (though his efforts here are ultimately stymied, forcing him to rob the bank the old-fashioned way, and with considerably more violence). So while El Shafee sometimes shows Shehab as an asaya-wielding antihero who defends the revolution against counter-revolutionary forces, he is more often than not portrayed as a politically alienated, tech-savvy Millennial deploying computer code as a weapon against an oppressive, cumbersome bureaucracy. In both cases he acts alone, relying on his individual strength and ingenuity to challenge the existing order, and he repeatedly expresses his suspicion toward acts of collective resistance.

We see the tension between individual and collective action most clearly in Shehab’s relationship with his girlfriend, Dina, a young muckraking journalist and democracy advocate. She first appears in the narrative after calling on Shehab to save her from two male assailants who accost her as she makes her way home from a demonstration. The scene gives El Shafee his initial opportunity to present Shehab as a pseudo action hero, as he easily dispatches the assailants using the tahtib (i.e., cane fighting) techniques he learned while growing up in rural Egypt. The episode also anticipates the many reports of sexual assault that emerged from and around Tahrir Square during the 25 January Revolution. But perhaps more significantly, the scene establishes Dina as a different sort of hero, a hero who joins her voice with others even when doing so threatens her individual safety. She even resists Shehab himself in her determination to change Egyptian society through political protest and direct political action. When Shehab asks her why she can’t “let that stuff go,” she replies: “I’m not ditching my friends. This makes me feel there’s some hope” (65). She says this with full knowledge that she is likely to be attacked by the police or hired thugs, as she eventually is. Her courage and steadfast commitment to the social cause to which she has dedicated herself are in marked contrast to the fear that Shehab repeatedly professes. Indeed, just moments after being sexually assaulted by a counterrevolutionary gang, she kneels over an elderly protester who has been mortally wounded during the demonstration and whispers, “Don’t be afraid” (78). With these words, Dina thus emerges as an alternative to Shehab’s bourgeois individualism, a symbolic embodiment of the Egyptian people’s collective optimism and courage in organizing against the Mubarak regime [figure 3].

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Figure 2. Magdy El Shafee, Metro: A Story of Cairo, pp. 49-50
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Figure 3. Magdy El Shafee, Metro: A Story of Cairo, p. 78

There is, of course, nothing inherently individualistic about computer technology. Quite the contrary. How can we separate computer technology from the tremendous social change that has swept the Middle East and North Africa in recent years? From Iran’s Green Movement to Tahrir Square to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, computer technology, and especially smart phones and online social networking platforms, have proven crucial to the region’s mass politics, but also to its modes of storytelling. For example, digital technology plays a major role in Iranian writer Amir Soltani and Algerian political cartoonist Khalil Bendib’s collaborative project Zahra’s Paradise, a fact that is foregrounded on the book’s cover, which shows the image of a hand-held device thrust defiantly above a protester’s head. Initially appearing online in early 2010 and serialized in a dozen languages, including Farsi, Arabic, French, and English, Zahra’s Paradise follows an anonymous blogger as he searches for his brother, Mehdi, a young activist who disappeared during the mass protests following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential elections. The novel’s protagonist is technically proficient, and he uses computer technology in overtly subversive ways, including to hack into what he calls “the bowels of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary” (168). What he finds there is depicted in dramatic fashion: A record of mass incarceration, torture, and summary execution, carried out on behalf of ruling clerics whom Bendib depicts as monstrous machines consuming the aspirations and innocence of the Iranian people [figure 4]. Rather than deploying his hacking skills in bourgeois fashion to re-appropriate wealth à la Shehab, Zahra’s protagonist uses his skills to expose the crimes of the state, including its crime against his brother Mehdi, whose death at the hands of counter-revolutionary security forces is ultimately revealed.

As important as this digital sleuthing may be, it is perhaps even more significant that the novel’s protagonist uses his blog, also titled Zahra’s Paradise, to counter the power of official media outlets to distort and/or efface the stories of average people engaged in acts of mass political resistance. Consider the double-page spread depicting Tehran’s streets during the Green Movement. Here Bendib reverses El Shafee’s tactic of representing the masses through images of impersonal urban environments by illustrating the streets of downtown Tehran filled with Iranian citizens who have joined together to protest perceived political corruption [figure 5]. This iconic image serves as a backdrop for the central character’s frustration with media irresponsibility: “June 15, 2009: three million people were in the streets,” he writes. “A torrent that could have swept everything in its wake. A few days later, we’re dismissed as ‘dust’ and ‘dirt’… Another scorched riverbed” (40-41). This abuse is further addressed in the chapter titled “The People’s Press,” which begins with the protagonist ruminating on the power of alternative media as he sets to work on a new blog post:

“My brother’s lost. But no one publishes the news. The demonstrations get zero coverage… as if they had never happened. How can someone disappear in a demonstration that never happened? […] They want to wipe Mehdi off the face of time, confiscate the sound of his name, the promise of his return. There can be no witness. Now it’s my turn to publish. I’ll test the power of my blog against their press. I will make Mehdi’s absence official, print his face all over theirs. And the world will take notice!” (59)

Like Shehab, who considers the Egyptian press to be “one of our great disasters” (47), the hero of Zahra’s Paradise recognizes the press as part of what Louis Althusser calls the “ideological state apparatus,” that system of institutions that enforces the ideological framework of the state through non-violent means (99). But unlike Shehab, he seizes on common digital tools to counteract the all-too-often unchecked dominance of this apparatus.

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Figure 4. Amir & Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise, pp. 168-69
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Figure 5. pp. Amir & Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise, 40-41

As I mentioned earlier, Zahra’s Paradise was originally published as an online web comic, and the text announces itself as belonging to the digital world when, in the narrative’s poetic prologue, Soltani writes: “Ablution, now you too are in the stream, touched by all that’s still and waiting. A lost generation buried inside the eye of this blog. Zahra’s Paradise” (14; my emphasis). And indeed, as a blog, Zahra’s Paradise constitutes a singular achievement in the domain of web comics. While print remains the central means by which graphic novelists disseminate their work, web comics are emerging as an important sub-genre that fuses what Said characterizes as the “animated, enlivening world of the comics” with the subversive, radically democratic potential of online publishing. One notable example of this mode being put to good use is the young Palestinian artist Leila Abdelrazaq’s blog Baddawi, which self-consciously presents itself as a means of presenting “a common story that is not frequently told” (“About”). Named after a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Baddawi focuses on the life of Abdelrazaq’s father and, by extension, countless other Palestinian refugees who—through a process of systematic dispossession, political oppression, and media manipulation—have had their stories suppressed and distorted. As Abdelrazaq makes clear in the introduction to her blog, Baddawi works to reclaim the individual narratives born of the refugee camp: “At the end of the day, power is all about who controls the narratives and the discourse around a particular subject. I’m just another Palestinian trying to take back that narrative. […] This comic is one of the ways that I choose to do so” (“About”).

Abdelrazaq’s web comic is at once individual and world historical. Illustrated in a simple, iconic style, Baddawi takes up topics ranging from childhood bullying to Israel’s indiscriminate cluster bombing of Palestinian refugees. In “The Lead Bullets,” for example, Abdelrazaq tells the story of how her father, Ahmad, came to live with lead bullets lodged under his skin. Leaving aside the overarching context of life in a refugee camp (if such a thing can ever be done), the scene is perhaps typical of the sorts of youthful hijinks that may occur in any young boy’s life: bird hunting, teasing mischief, calloused acts of bullying. The violence that concludes the episode resonates with the other acts of violence that Abdelrazaq illustrates in Baddawi, but this is not the violence of occupation and/or forced exile, which is precisely the point. “The Lead Bullets” works to connect Ahmad’s experiences with those of readers around the world; special knowledge of the refugee experience is not needed to understand and sympathize with Ahmad’s dilemma. The simple style of Abdelrazaq’s drawings and the familiar story form a bond between subject and reader that, when carried over into a story like “The Cluster Bombs,” works to both individualize and humanize atrocities that are all-to-often rendered abstract by the popular media. In “The Cluster Bombs,” Abdelrazaq opens with another perfectly familiar activity: baking bread. But here any sense of normalcy is shattered by the roar of low-flying fighter jets as they discharge cluster bombs over the refugee camp. The woman shown kneeling to place the loaves in an oven as the jets release their load is thrust headfirst into the flames by the bomb’s blast, and young Ahmad is left to gather unexploded ordinance—all of which bear stickers reading “Made in USA”—from Baddawi’s streets [figure 6]. Having established a sense of shared humanity between Ahmad and her readers in “The Lead Bullets,” Abdelrazaq’s depiction of the cluster bombing becomes all the more horrific and therefore effective. And like Soltani and Bendib before her, she seizes on web comics to deliver the message to anyone anywhere with an internet connection.


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Figure 6. Leila Abdelrazaq, “The Cluster Bombs”

Graphic novels in the Middle East and North Africa are still in a nascent stage, yet there is reason to be optimistic that the comics medium, and especially web comics, will continue to develop in evermore productive ways, thus allowing more artists from the region to seize power over their own stories and re-read contemporary Middle Eastern and North African culture and politics for a global audience. Alongside El Shafee, Soltani and Bendib, and Abdelrazaq, artists such as Zeina Abirached, Lamia Ziade, and Toufic El Rassi, to name just a few, are working within the comics medium to tell their stories. In addition to these individual artists, many of whom are enjoying success with mainstream publishers, a number of independent publishing collectives have emerged with the goal of making the diversity of Middle Eastern and North African comics artists more widely accessible through both print and online journals. Two of the most notable examples are Lebanon’s Samandal and Egypt’s Tok Tok, both of which are bringing together artists and writers from throughout the region to experiment with and further refine this politically subversive, pop-cultural art form. 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.


I presented a version of this essay at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies/American University in Dubai joint conference, “Re-locating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse,” in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on April 18, 2015.