Lena Merhej, Tok Tok, and Calls for the New Arabic Graphic Novel

In a few weeks, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture—formerly based in Amman, now in Beirut—promises to launch its first open call for proposals for its Arab Graphic Novel Program.

The announcement came at the end of an interview with grant-ee Lena Merhej (English, Arabic) about her forthcoming graphic novel, Jam and Yogurt: How My Mother Became Lebanese.

Merhej, also an accomplished children’s-book illustrator, told AFAC, “The project was ready two years ago but I am rewriting and redrawing it and it will be ready by March.”

The novel is based on the life of Merhej’s mother, an Austrian woman who fell in love with a Lebanese man, Merhej’s father. Samandal has published an early excerpt, which you can read in Arabic or English.

Merhej told AFAC that she considers comics to be a “cumulative art form,” incorporating linguistic and literary elements that are both classical and modern, Arabic and foreign.

She spoke about her process:

The important thing is to come up with a general idea, and then I design a page and, after that, I work on the language. … How much of it is carried by the drawings or the text, this comes at another level and that is the aesthetic of the work. But the balance is always there and it can be played with, like, for example, the image can show the opposite of what the text says or differ from it, or the picture shows the subject in the past and the text is in the present or vice-versa, and it’s nice to try all of these.

Merhej also discussed some of the pioneers of the Arabic graphic novel, such as Mazen Kerbaj (“A Happy Childhood“) and Zeina Abi Rashid (“A Game for Swallows“), both of whom have had translations of their work published in Words Without Borders. Egyptian pioneer graphic novelist Magdy al-Shafee also had an excerpt from his now-banned Metro published in the online magazine.

Merhej said:

Mazen Kerbaj became the first to publish this kind of book with a real publishing house when he released This Story Takes Place. Joumana Medlej and Zeina Abi Rashid were self-published. But today, and especially after the success of Samandal in Beirut, we are starting to see similar initiatives like Tok Tok in Egypt.

Speaking of Tok Tok, the sold-out “Issue 0” is now available in Cairo at Merit Publishing on Kasr ElNil St. Downtown, El Balad Bookstore in Tahrir, front of the (old) AUC, Omar Bookstore on Talaat Harb St., Oum El Dounia Gallery on Talaat Harb St., and in The Townhouse bookstore. Tok Tok organizers promise, via Facebook, that “more bookstores are coming very soon!”

The graphic novel is still reaching toward respectability in the Arabic-reading world—as far as I know, there are yet no prizes for graphic novels—but Merhej says, “yes, this is a form of literature:”

…because it is read and not watched: it is sold in bookstores and this means that it is a narrative form with its own set of rules.

More on Arabs and graphic novels:

If you’re in Alexandria, TokTok will be launching there on Thursday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m., at the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum(ACAF), 10 Hussein Hassab Street, Flat 6, Azarita: www.acafspace.org

Samandal has taken its original art sale online.

I realize that he’s Maltese, but his graphic novels focused on Palestine give him a place here. Is Joe Sacco the World’s Greatest Graphic Noveliest/Reporter? The French Say “Oui”

Another WWB excerpt from Mazen Kerbaj: “A Short Description of Lebanon.”

If you’re in Abu Dhabi, the NYU-Abu Dhabi talk titled “Middle Eastern Comics and their Place in the 21st Century” is still upcoming: Jan. 25, Revolution Day, at 6:30 p.m.