“But then my Servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceiv’d me.”

Reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is a depressing experience, even under the best of circumstances. But read under quarantine, with healthcare and economic systems in collapse and hundreds of thousands of deaths expected by summer, the novel assumes a degree of realism that feels positively oppressive.1 Perhaps this feeling is rooted in a desire to interpret COVID-19 through Defoe’s text, with similarities between the coronavirus pandemic and the bubonic plague seeming to appear at every narrative turn. I suppose one can’t help but project a little. But issues of projection or confirmation bias aside, there are real similarities between what Defoe describes in A Journal of the Plague Year and what we are currently experiencing, and it seems to me that these similarities offer valuable lessons not only about how contagion spreads, but also about how to navigate the social fissures that appear at times of public health and economic crisis.

That A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722 and focused on the Great Plague of 1665, should map so precisely onto the coronavirus pandemic is a grim reminder that humanity remains bound by perennial failings of character, both individual and social. The fundamental meanness with which Defoe’s Londoners manage the plague is not incommensurate with some elements of the global response to COVID-19.2 This meanness is expressed most pointedly in the “shutting up of houses,” i.e., the strict quarantining of the sick, together with their families, in their homes. This policy not only violated the rights of the sick, but it also forced large numbers of healthy people to remain cloistered with their contagious housemates, thus dramatically increasing the likelihood that they too would contract the plague. At the same time, Defoe describes the widespread refusal of the sick to remain in their homes, even when they knew that breaking quarantine was likely to further spread the disease throughout the city. He even goes so far as to voice the suspicion that those with the plague willfully infected their neighbors, writing, “the People broke out, whether by Force or by Strategem, even almost as often as they pleas’d: And . . . those that did thus break out, were generally People infected, who in their Desperation, running about from one Place to another, valued not who they injur’d, and which perhaps, as I have said, might give Birth to Report, that it was natural to the infected People to desire to infect others.”3 Though ultimately dismissed as rumor, this account nonetheless suggests that a pervasive sense of suspicion and hostility, along with a disturbing disregard for the lives of one’s neighbors, accompanied the plague.4

The spectre of people intentionally infecting their neighbors is one of several sensationalist ideas developed in A Journal of the Plague Year, but the bulk of the novel focuses on the many mundane ways that people failed to contain the spread of the plague. One example comes when the novel’s narrator, H.F., follows a grieving husband who has become distraught after witnessing a group of “Buryers” unceremoniously dump the bodies of his deceased wife and children into a mass grave.5 Traumatized by this grizzly sight, the man retreats to a local tavern, which is owned by family friends to whom he turns for solace. Although the tavern runs a clear public health risk by continuing to operate, H.F. expresses sympathy toward its owners, stating that they are “civil” and “mannerly” people, and that they did not operate their tavern “so very publickly as formerly” (56). However, within the tavern is a group of patrons who are not so mannerly, a “dreadful Set of Fellows” who are undeterred by the panic that has gripped the city. These men “behaved with all the Revelling and roaring extravagances, as is usual for such People to do at other Times.” They drink late into the night and mock those who “call upon God to have Mercy upon them, as many would do at those Times in their ordinary passing along the Streets” (56). Not surprisingly, the men soon contract the plague and die a painful death, taking with them an unknown number of people they may have infected along the way.

H.F. openly rebukes these plague-time revelers for their atheism, which he sees as at least partially responsible for their ultimate demise, thus leading to a verbal confrontation that Defoe uses to introduce the regrettable argument that the plague is the “Hand of God” sent to punish a wicked people (57). We have heard enough such claims in our own time to render H.F. himself a suitable representative of the perennial failings of character I mentioned earlier.6 However, despite his religious bigotry, H.F. clearly recognizes the irresponsible behavior that is taking place in the tavern—both on the part of the tavern’s patrons and its keepers. While his contempt for the “dreadful Set of Fellows” is explicit, it is also “with Regret” that he mentions the owners of the tavern who have insisted on keeping their establishment open, even as the dead carts were wheeled by their doors each evening (56). Reading this section of the novel, it is tempting to draw a direct parallel to similarly irresponsible incidents that have made their way into the media over the past month or so. For example, are Defoe’s revelers really so different from the many spring breakers who defied urgent coronavirus warnings in order to travel to popular party destinations in Florida and Mexico? According to one New York Times report, approximately seventy students from the University of Texas traveled to Cabo San Lucas for Spring Break on March 14, despite the fact that the university cancelled classes on March 13 due to coronavirus concerns. As of April 1, forty-four of those students had tested positive for COVID-19.7 Those students are now back in Austin, my hometown, where the number of positive cases have increased dramatically from three to nearly eight hundred since spring break.8

Scenarios such as these obviously occur within the realm of the social, but they are, at a more fundamental level, driven by the irrational decisions of individuals who feel emboldened by a mix of arrogance and self-centered denialism to defy even the most urgent, well-founded public health warnings. Those who go partying during a pandemic (or a plague) are exercising willful ignorance, not acting according to a clear sense of socioeconomic necessity, or even according to a clear sense of class privilege. While the willfully ignorant are in the minority in A Journal of the Plague Year, as I would argue they are now as well, both the novel and our contemporary moment are filled with clear examples of social failings and fissures. In other words, it is at the level of the social, and not the individual, that Defoe assigns the most blame for the spread of the plague, and it is at the level of the social that we too should turn our attention when considering the causes and potentially catastrophic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the remarkable qualities of A Journal of the Plague Year is the amount of attention the narrative pays to matters of economic and social stratification. Because Defoe uses H.F.’s restless wanderings to document where and how the plague spread through London, he is compelled to address in detail how the particular social inequalities that existed in seventeenth-century England contributed to the disproportionate infection and impoverishment of certain classes of people over others. For example, he makes clear that the moneyed class, to which H.F. belongs, has largely abandoned London for the countryside, estimating that as many as 200,000 people fled the city during the plague.9 And those property owners who chose to remain in the city depended on servants to run errands, do the shopping, procure medicine, etc. in order to spare themselves from the dangers they were sure to encounter when walking the streets. Or so went the logic. The fact is that this practice did little to mitigate the risk of infection. Defoe writes that the plague “generally came into the Houses of the Citizens, by the Means of their Servants . . . who going necessarily thro’ the Streets into Shops, Markets, and the like, it was impossible, but that they should one way or other, meet with distempered people, who conveyed the fatal Breath into them, and they brought it Home to the Families, to which they belonged” (63). What is clear throughout the novel is that the servant class was expected to risk direct and regular exposure to the plague in order to satisfy the needs of their employers. This class-based practice not only subjected the most vulnerable to disproportionate risk of infection, but it also—in an ironic feedback loop—carried the plague directly into the homes of the privileged classes.

There is a marked ambivalence in the way Defoe represents these class tensions. For example, he clearly pities the poor and laboring classes, recognizing that they are the most vulnerable to infectious disease precisely because they lack the material resources to remain in quarantine. He explains that “that the Poor cou’d not lay up Provisions, and there was a necessity, that they must go to Market to buy,” and that this necessity “brought abundance of unsound People to the Markets, and a great many that went thither Sound, brought Death Home with them” (67). Similarly, he notes that the laboring classes continued to work during the plague with “a Sort of Brutal Courage.” Driven by necessity, they “ran into any Business, which they could get Employment in, tho’ it was the most hazardous,” and it was due to this necessity that “the Plague was chiefly among the Poor” (75). That people should be driven by such necessity is repeatedly condemned in the novel. Indeed, one of Defoe’s goals in writing A Journal of the Plague Year was to educate his readers about how to more efficiently contain the spread of future plagues, and he repeatedly suggests that public assistance to the poor is one way to mitigate the spread of epidemics.10

Yet at the same time, Defoe expresses contempt for the poor, repeatedly asserting that the desperation of the lower classes threatened to devolve into pillage and rioting. The fear of mob action becomes something of a recurring motif as the narrative progresses, and it ultimately strips away any pretension of authentic sympathy for the poor. Defoe goes so far as to suggest that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London, as higher rates of survival among the poor “would certainly have been an unsufferable Burden, by their Poverty, that is to say, the whole City could not have supported the Expence of them, or have provided Food for them; and they would in Time have been even driven to the Necessity of plundering either the City it self, or the Country adjacent to have subsisted themselves” (81-82). So while Defoe understands full well that the lower classes are most vulnerable to the plague, and while he uses his novel to encourage both governmental and philanthropic aid to the poor, his ultimate social calculus is clear: better the poor should die than public resources be strained to their limits. The role of class in this calculus couldn’t be clearer.

Defoe’s ambivalence toward the poor and laboring classes is not surprising considering that both he and his narrator belong to the propertied class.11 We learn early in the novel that H.F. is a “Sadler” who operates a thriving business exporting goods to the American colonies.12 He commands a fair deal of capital and is anxious about how to secure his possessions during the plague. At the outset of the novel, he says, “I was a single man ’tis true, but I had a Family of Servants, who I kept at my Business, had a House, Shop, and Ware-houses fill’d with Goods; and in short, to leave them all as things in such a Case must be left, that is to say, without any Overseer or Person fit to be trusted with them, had been to hazard the Loss not only of my Trade, but of my Goods, and indeed of all I had in the World” (11-12). The way he characterizes his servants is revealing here. He introduces them as a proxy “Family” that substitutes for his being unmarried, yet they are also listed among his other property as “Goods” that cannot be left without a proper “Overseer.”13 He clearly feels a sense of responsibility toward his servants, but this feeling of responsibility is embedded within a larger context that ranks the servant class among the possessions of the propertied class.

The stark class divisions represented in the novel may be depressing, but they are also useful in terms of understanding the social fissures that appear during times of crisis. One of the great services A Journal of the Plague Year performs for contemporary readers, especially during a time of global pandemic, is that it lays bare the reality of how class antagonisms structure how public health crises are thought about and managed. Class antagonisms manifest themselves in many different ways throughout the narrative, but their most extreme expression comes with H.F.’s assertion that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London. While he attempts to qualify his relief as a righteous concern for the common good, the fact is that he places the lives of the poor within a contest between life and property, with property taking priority. This is ideology pure and simple, and it illustrates how easily a social situation that subjects the most vulnerable to the most severe suffering can be justified as a necessary evil.

At the same time, A Journal of the Plague Year dramatizes many acts of resistance against the ruling class. This is not because Defoe endorses such resistance, but rather because he has no choice but to represent these acts as a matter of verisimilitude. If he is to craft a novel that accurately represents the Great Plague of 1665, he must account for the fact that the poor and laboring classes carried within themselves the potential to revolt against a system that ranked them among goods and property. An excellent example of this impulse comes early in the novel, when H.F.’s plan to escape London for the countryside is stymied by the preemptive flight of his most favored servant. No sooner does H.F. decide to travel from the city on foot, with a single servant to aid him on his journey, then his plans are subverted: “But then my Servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceiv’d me; and being frightened at the Encrease of the Distemper, and not knowing when I should go, he took other Measures, and left me” (13). The result is that H.F. is left to look after himself, while his servant is liberated from the responsibility of putting his own life in jeopardy to ensure the health and safety of his employer. That the servant took “other Measures” thus becomes a point of departure from which readers can imagine a host of similar measures that the poor and laboring classes can take to liberate themselves from a system of social subordinating that always extracts the highest cost from those who have the least.

We never learn what became of this servant. He simply vanishes from the text. This disappearance can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example, one may reasonably conclude that the servant, like so many other poor Londoners, struggled mightily—and perhaps even died—during the plague. However, one may just as reasonably conclude that the servant successfully escaped the mortal danger that he most surely would have encountered if he had remained in H.F.’s employment. While Defoe spends a fair deal of time late in the novel illustrating the challenges that those who fled the city encountered, and while he makes the case that most people who fled the city ended up returning to their homes a short time later, he also details a series of successful strategies for surviving the plague while in exile. Indeed, the most detailed anecdote in the novel focuses on the successful escape from the city of three working-class men—a baker, a sail maker, and a joiner—who survive their ordeal through a mix of practical skills and wit. They also survive because they exhibit a strong sense of solidarity with other working-class people they meet during their travels.14 Considered in this context, the story of the escaped servant takes on a utopian dimension, especially when we consider that the servant never returns. His escape, though left to the reader’s imagination, is permanent.

These stories suggest that the poor and laboring classes can fend for themselves, that they can survive free from the domination of capital, and that they are sensitive to the fissures that appear during moments of public crisis—fissures that present avenues of liberation that remain obscured under ordinary circumstances. This is not to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic represents a class victory. It doesn’t. The fact is that people are suffering and dying, and those who carry the greatest burden of suffering are the least advantaged among us.15 However, times of social crisis do tend to expose the tensions and contradictions that are all too often obscured by the routines of everyday life, and we would do well to learn from the coronavirus pandemic in order to build a better future. Reading A Journal of the Plague Year during this pandemic has helped me perceive some of these contradictions and opportunities more precisely than I otherwise may have. One of my takeaways after reading the novel comes from the relatively minor detail of the subversive servant. Perhaps there is something to be learned from his recognition that the plague presents a unique opportunity to reject subordination. Perhaps all of us can pursue “other Measures,” and not only in this time of crisis, but in everyday life as well.

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FINIS


© 2020 Micah Robbins

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

In his introduction to American 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 (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 aspects 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 interlocutors like Sacco (though his views have real value and shouldn’t be ignored) 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 (2008). Regarded as the first Arabic graphic novel for adults, Metro follows a young software engineer named Shehab as he struggles for upward socioeconomic 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 at novel’s end he is every bit as alienated as he was when we first encountered him. Shehab’s alienation and disdain for Cairo’s prevailing sociopolitical order 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 mentality [figure 1]. “Today, I decided to rob a bank,” he proclaims, 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” (El Shafee 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 sociopolitical 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 very 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 [read Mubarak],” 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” (El Shafee 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” (El Shafee 4). This metaphor that figures the Egyptian people as animals trapped in a cage is repeated throughout the text and is Metro’s principle trope. By suggesting that the Egyptian people liberate themselves from this bondage, 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” (El Shafee 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, though it also eerily 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” (El Shafee 65). Not insignificantly, 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” (El Shafee 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 MENA region 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” (Soltani and Bendib 168). What he finds there is depicted in dramatic fashion: A record of mass incarceration, torture, and summary executio, carried out on behalf of the 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” (Soltani and Bendib 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! (Soltani and Bendib 59)

Like Shehab, who considers the Egyptian press to be “one of our great disasters,” 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 (El Shafee 47; Althusser 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” (Abdelrazaq, “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, potentially, anyone anywhere with an internet connection.

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Figure 6. Leila Abdelrazaq, “The Cluster Bombs”

Graphic novels in the Middle East 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 Middle Eastern artists to seize power over their own stories and re-read contemporary Middle Eastern 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 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 Middle East 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.

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Note:

These remarks were delivered 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.

Sources:

Abdelrazaq, Leila. “About.” Baddawi. N.d. Web. 20 May 2015.

–. “The Cluster Bombs.” Baddawi. 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2015.

–. “The Lead Bullets.” Baddawi. 21 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2015.

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

Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture

Good news came yesterday in the form of an acceptance letter to the Hellenic Association for the Study of English‘s conference, “Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture.” The event is hosted by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s School of English Language and Literature and will take place from May 15-17, 2015. You can learn more by visiting the conference website. I’m eager to see the other panelists’ abstracts, which should be posted soon, but in the meantime I’ll settle for posting mine below:

Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy

India’s 2014 general elections reshaped the political status quo in the world’s largest democracy. Led by Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seized an outright majority in the nation’s lower house of parliament, thus securing Modi’s position as India’s 15th Prime Minister. Modi’s campaign slogan—Unity. Action. Progress.—echoes the mix of Hindutva and neoliberal ideologies that have distinguished the state of Gujarat, where he served as Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014, as a site of both human rights abuses and economic privatization. The 2002 Gujarat pogrom, during which rioting Hindu nationalists murdered nearly 2,000 of their Muslim neighbors and displaced more than 150,000 others, did little to discourage multinational corporations from responding to Modi’s privatization policies with an influx of investment dollars. That such human rights abuses occur so comfortably alongside neoliberal economic developments in one of the world’s leading democracies raises troubling questions about democracy’s role in facilitating some of globalization’s most egregious excesses.

My paper addresses this problem as explored by two contemporary Indo-Anglian writers—Arundhati Roy and Neel Mukherjee. These writers critique the way Indian democracy privileges its neoliberal economic agenda over and against the basic human rights of its ethnic/religious minorities and internally displaced denizens. Mukherjee’s 2014 novel, The Lives of Others, traces the development of India’s Naxalite insurgency from its early days of targeted attacks on local landlords in the 1960s to the present day guerrilla war it is waging against state attempts to forcibly relocate India’s Adivasi population from their native forests, thus clearing the way for multinational infrastructure projects and natural resource extraction. Mukherjee’s fictional narrative is bolstered by fellow novelist Arundhati Roy’s incisive piece of long-form journalism, Walking with the Comrades (2011), which not only provides a rare opportunity to listen to the Adivasi militants in their own words, but also establishes direct and compelling connections between the Naxalite insurgency and the human rights abuses that accompany India’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies in the wake of the Cold War. While Mukherjee and Roy are quick to acknowledge the Naxalite’s violent methods, they contextualize the insurgency in relation to the systematic human rights abuses that underwrite concepts like unity, action, and progress, all of which are promoted as fundamental to what the popular media often (and wrongly) calls the “deepening democracy in India.” If anything, Mukherjee and Roy expose a deepening crisis in democracy, a crisis that pits multinational business interests, backed by ultra-nationalist ethnic/religious majorities, against the basic democratic rights of those at the bottom of a rapidly-widening economic divide.

I’ve been thinking through the complexity of democracy for a few years now, so I’m pleased to have the opportunity to gather with a group of scholars committed to interrogating and/or theorizing democracy and its cultural representations. That I get to do so in the birthplace of ancient democracy makes the opportunity doubly exciting!

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FINIS


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