‘KAPOW’: A Discussion of Comics and Identity at Emirates LitFest

At this year’s Emirates LitFest, comix artists and animators on how they try to wield images for good: 

By Sawad Hussain

Do comics play a role in breaking down stereotypes and building bridges between cultures? This year’s Emirates LitFest dedicated a session to unraveling the impact of comics entitled, KAPOW! Comics and Animation: Culture Strikes Back!

In it, Sana Amanat, hailed as a real-life hero by Obama for her co-creation of Marvel Comics’ new character Kamala Khan; Mohammed Saeed Harib, creator of Freej, the wildly popular first Emirati animated series; and Khaled bin Hamed, author of Nasser’s Secrets, a sci-fi graphic novel grounded in Emirati culture, discussed each of their contributions to society through the medium of comics. The following are some excerpts from a session which, though childlike in nature on the surface, had currents that ran much deeper when reflecting upon the need for dialogue in our volatile global environment.

Sana, you brought a Muslim, Pakistani, American girl to the forefront of Marvel Comics.

Yes, it’s still stuns me to see the response that she’s received and that she’s gone global. Me being here at this festival is a testament to that. Kamala Khan is everyone. We tried to combine an array of experiences to make sure that Kamala was representative of every woman — to go beyond race, culture, and religion so that she can be a universal symbol for what we can all become. I believe we’ve succeeded and that it’s transcendent. I see a lot of me in her, and I hope that everyone sees a lot of themselves in her as well.

Mohammed, you brought four elderly women to the forefront in the field of animation that was unheard of in the UAE at the time. How did you come up with the concept for Freej?

To be honest, it was bound to happen. If it wasn’t me I think someone else would have come up with the same idea sooner or later. Freej actually was originally called Adventures of the Old Ladies when it was still being created. And probably due a mistake on the behalf of the production company, the name morphed into Freej and we stuck with it.

It started when I was at university in the States and I was asked to create a superhero character based in my culture. I started with drawing the Aladdins, etc., and my professor said, “No I’ve seen all these before. I want you to sketch something that relates to you now.”

Unfortunately back then, I didn’t feel that there were any superheroes for me from our region. So then I turned to our male-dominated history where the role of women has been very important, yet we don’t hear about it. I saw a lot of TV programs about my grandfathers fending off sharks as they dove for pearls – even though we don’t have sharks in this region! But I never saw anything about my grandmother. She raised ten kids in the heat with no money, and my father is a testament to her upbringing. I felt that she was physically unique because of the mask that she wore, and genuine in her storytelling. I always say that only a grandmother can insult and advise you in the same sentence.

When I sketched my first character, it was Um Saeed, who became one of the main characters on the show. My professor’s reaction was “Wow! You sketched a duck.” But then I explained to him what her mask stands for.

You managed to juxtapose the old Dubai with the new Dubai, strengthening the links between the old and current generations.

Yes, I think what Freej managed to do was to bring the grandparents, parents, and children altogether to watch this show, and when they watched, there was a dialogue. We’ve never given them a platform to exchange such information before. For example when we’d quote an old line of poetry, younger generations would ask what the word meant, or what the role of poetry was in their grandparent’s generation etc. The most important thing that Freej did in my opinion was this – giving everyone the opportunity to come together and discuss – it wasn’t the comedy or the animation side of it.

Khaled, what are some of the obstacles you’ve faced in trying to bring the manga culture to this region?

All I can say is that they’re not ready for it yet, it’s still not there. The sci-fi culture here – it’s not even close to being ready yet in this region. But when talking about how this region is depicted in the media, people don’t really know anything except for the ghutra and the egal, and they always show it incorrectly in Hollywood, by the way – not even a single movie has shown it worn right. Even the Arabic is like choking noises, I’m like, what are they saying? We see that in movies all the time. So I thought, by creating Nasser’s Secrets, it’s a way to show a bit of our culture, but through the lens of sci-fi, something cool, something full of action.

Mohammed, how did you transform Khalil Jibran’s The Prophet into animation?

First thing, I must confess that I’d never read the book before I started on the project.  We never were taught this book, it was never included in our curriculums when I was growing up. Now it’s in bookstores and you can see it online, but back then we didn’t have access to it.

Khalil Jibran’s writings have a very certain style. It takes time to really understand and grasp what he’s getting at. When they first gave me the poem I was meant to illustrate, it was “Crime and Punishment.” I ended up doing the poem “Good and Evil,” but I started out with “Crime and Punishment.” I gathered my team, they came in, and we sat down in front of each other. I just said, “I have no idea what he’s saying. Does anyone know?” Then we googled Khalil Jibran for dummies, and we managed to make sense of it – but it’s because of his writing style. Once I finally understood, I was amazed, got hooked and read the rest of his poems.

My biggest fear coming to this was that I was the only Arab on this whole project. Everyone else had been nominated for an Oscar or an Emmy, some had won, and no one knew me. I felt like I didn’t belong there.

My piece for “Good and Evil” ended up being a 2D watercolor, I went completely in the other direction. I wanted to challenge myself and do something super artistic because the words were beautifully written. We spent three years making this clip that lasted three and a half minutes, frame by frame. I personally didn’t paint anything though.

If you Google it you’ll notice that my portrayal has an homage to the Arabic language in it, the stag’s horns have the letter ‘noon’ written on them. I just wanted to celebrate the language of Arabic, as he’s an Arab writer even though he didn’t write in Arabic.

Mohammed, do you feel that there are any social issues that need to be highlighted through the medium of comics from this region?

There are a lot of issues, that’s obvious. For example, I remember one time I had a friend who had come in from Japan. We were sitting in a restaurant and there were a group of local women. One of them was wearing the shayla on her shoulder, the other one was wearing it so half of her hair was showing and the third one was wearing the niqab. And it’s absolutely normal that they’re just hanging out. My Japanese friend’s reaction was, “is that okay? How do they hang out with each other?” She saw something off, but it’s everyday here.

Another example is the abaya. It used to be something that was primarily to cover up the body, now it’s a fashion statement! Now you look at the abaya and it’s a piece of art, it’s beautiful. It’s fantastic. But the world isn’t exposed to this. There are definitely a lot of things that we should share with the world, especially about our culture here. Media is the best way, it’s the only way to share these experiences.

I even had a sit-down with a Lebanese guy once in a coffee shop, and he started asking me all these inane questions like, “What do you wear under there? (pointing to my dishdash), Do you really have a Ferrari at home?”, as if I was an alien. Even as an Arab he still has these questions because again, what is the media showing, what sort of stereotypes do the Gulf movies perpetuate? Everyone’s yelling all the time! Even if you want to say something nice, we’re still shown yelling.

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Throughout the session, there was a consensus that social issues need to be tackled through metaphor and not didactically. Sana Amanat from Marvel gave examples of how X-Men could actually be referring to being black in the US, being a group of people who are considered dangerous and different. Or how it could be reflecting on puberty, a time in your life when a hormone is triggered that turns you into a mutant and grants you special powers you didn’t have before. The key is to be subtle, otherwise you’ll lose your fan base from the outset and fail to subvert the often fallacious portrayals of minorities in mainstream media today.

Sawad Hussain is a Cambridge-based editor-at-large for ArabLit who is also an Arabic translator and litterateur who holds a MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies.  She is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history and literature.