Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: Comics and Comix

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a discussion with Michal Raizen, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Ohio Wesleyan University and also a classically trained cellist. Here, Raizen discusses her genre-crossing course “Graphic and Experimental Novels of the Contemporary Middle East”:

When did you start to develop the idea of a graphic (and experimental) novel (and non-novel) course? Around which books, images, ideas? What discussions did you particularly want to get at?

The King is Down

Michal Raizen: I would like to start with the question of graffiti because I can trace my interest in graphic literature directly to my experience at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) in Cairo. During my 2011-2012 fellowship, I watched as the iconic graffiti in and around Tahrir Square came to life: the Mohammed Mahmoud Wall of Martyrs, the Sheikh Rehan Street optical illusion, the hydra-headed Mubarak-Tantawi-Morsi monster (Omar Fathy’s “The one who delegates doesn’t die”), the chess board with the deposed king (Al-Taneen’s “The King is Down,” pictured). My first and forever impressions of Cairo are in fact tied to the visual poetics that I saw emerging during that turbulent and artistically effervescent time. My CASA experience was also shaped by my literature courses, most notably Palestinian Literature with Nadia Harb and The Arabic Novel with Sihem Badawi. I remember reading Radwa Ashour’s The Woman from Tantoura and being captivated by the scene in which Ashour’s protagonist, Ruqqaya, meets Naji Al-Ali in the refugee camp. In a later extended passage, Ruqqaya’s daughter beautifully details her affinity for Handala. She attributes Handala’s familiarity to his recurring visual presence, and even more importantly, she sees herself in Handala. I understood that I was dealing with a type of intertextuality that I had not considered before, and I was definitely drawing connections between my readings for class and the visual poetics that were taking shape in the street. I started to ask myself the following questions: How might iconic images circulate between the page and other public contexts such as graffiti, calligraffiti, and the iconography of protest and resistance? What is the role of leitmotifs and repetition at the intersection of text and image? What about the idea that someone might see herself in Handala (to give a classic example) or in the montage of Wonder Woman, the brutalized protester in the blue bra, and the slogan “The revolution continues” (to give an example from a famous Cairo street stencil)? How might these intersemiotic moments be understood on multiple levels and by multiple interpretive communities? How might the ephemerality of street art find a more stable form of expression when it circulates back into the pages of graphic literature?

There are certainly different levels of ephemerality with visual narratives, from of the single or multi-panel cartoons posted on social media (Andeel, Islam Gawish, Mazen Kerbaj, many others) and work in graphic-novel magazines (TokTok, Lab619, Samandal, Garage, Skefkef vs. the solidity of a book with an ISBN and an official presence (Magdy al-Shafie’s Metro, Lena Merhej’s Jam and Yoghurt). With different sorts of experimentation and boundary-pushing possible in more ephemeral texts.

To what extent do you think it’s important for someone to grasp the visual context of a book like Tantoureya? Certainly, a reader could access the narrative without ever seeing Handala with his back turned to the viewer—how does it change the reading to bring in this visual signpost?

MR: Tantoureya can most certainly be appreciated without the visual signpost, but the visual adds another layer of empathy for a reader familiar with Handala. Naji al-Ali created Handala during his time in the Gulf, and he envisioned the icon as his moral compass and also a visual signature of homeland. The intertextual moments in Tantoureya take place in the refugee camp and in the Gulf, through the characters of Ruqayya and her daughter, respectively. Handala becomes a metaphor in the novel for what happens to collective memory as it moves into the diaspora and takes on new meanings for subsequent generations. Al-Ali is known for saying that Handala started as a Palestinian child but then developed to encompass a broader human horizon of experiences. For me, the visual signpost adds a crucial layer of reflection on the diasporic condition. Though the novel is absolutely rooted in the specificity of the Palestinian context, the figure of Handala opens the text up a wider breadth of human connections and consciousness. Handala is probably the single most important piece of inspiration for this course. By the end of the semester, students are seeing Handala everywhere.

Also about context: Would it make sense to bring in the visual culture of internet memes? For what sort(s) of text? I remember the first time I brought comix into the classroom, my students often had a richer vocabulary to describe the interplay between the visual and the narrative aspects, and what was innovative (or not innovative) about the visuals, and their intertexts (or intervisuals?).

MR: I absolutely bring in the visual culture of internet memes because I think that students these days are generally well-versed in this realm of expression, and it helps them to access more challenging concepts. My favorite example comes into play when we explore the concept of signifiers. I bring in Scott McCloud’s chapter, “The Vocabulary of Comics,” in which he presents the example of René Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” also known as “This is Not a Pipe.” We then look at a riff on Magritte’s pipe featuring Trump’s head and the caption, “This is Not a President.” The internet meme really gives students a solid understanding of the significatory processes through which a term such as “president” or “leader” accrues meaning. We then consider the creative potential of graphic narratives and the difficulty of dislodging weighty signifiers. Students carry this lesson with them all semester when looking at Marwan Shahin’s Guy Fawkes mask/Anonymous/pharaoh Cairo street stencil, Marjane Satrapi’s depiction of the Shah in Persepolis, representations of Pan-Arab leaders in Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, the “Parable of the King” in Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro, and the list goes on.

Once you bring in visual context, how do you situate that context?

MR: This course definitely presents a challenge in terms of situating each work within a political and historical context. I do a traditional lecture/PowerPoint every week, and we look often at maps of the region. The juxtaposition between a cut-and-dried lecture and the visual representation of the same content is very telling. To give an example, I do a lecture on Palestine: I introduce a timeline of events (1948, 1967, the Intifadas); I lay out the differences between Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and Palestinian exiles and refugees; I cover some of the major symbols (keys, olive trees, the keffiyeh); I show images of the wall and discuss its various names; and I drive home the point that this whole web of events and concepts is inextricably bound with the rest of the region. Then we look at Leila Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi and her illustrated diary, “Smuggling Books Across the Border.” A map of Israel-Palestine on a PowerPoint slide delivers different information than say, Abdelrazaq’s map of Palestine bleeding off the page and intertwined with the gnarled trunk of an ancient olive tree. By the same token, photographs of the wall give students an idea of scale, landscape, and checkpoints, but Abdelrazaq’s “The Occupation,” an image of the wall as a gaping maw with teeth, gives students a sense of the despair and insurmountable nature of the situation. The most impactful learning definitely happens in the comparison.

I see you’re starting with Scott McCloud (which I haven’t read but have heard a great deal about) and Khallina. How do you use the Khallina module? Are some of the students Arabic language learners? How much of an understanding of at least the basics of Arabic letters & visual culture around the Arabic language is important for a graphic-novel course? Is there a value to having students “read” comix in languages that they don’t read? What is the balance between exploration and frustration?

MR: Khallina is useful for getting the students thinking about foundational concepts. I have them watch the making of Tok Tok video, and we spend one of our early classes brainstorming about what goes into the process. I also ask them to read Jonathan Guyer’s “CairoComix: Excavating the Political.” One of the first question that we tackle in the course is why comix with an “x” and how comix in Cairo ties into a youth counterculture that started in the United States with Zap magazine in the 1960s. In a class of 15, I might have one Arabic learner, but they are certainly the exception. I have great success starting with Khallina because students are able to explore the module on their own terms and at their own pace. Most of them are not even aware that Arabic script is written from right to left, so the Tok Tok video is a real eye-opener for them. I love combining the module approach with the playful accessibility of Muqtatafat. In fact, Muqtatafat offers an excellent opening note for readers who might not be familiar with Arabic: “This book contains stories with English text, and stories in Arabic with an English text provided. The Arabic stories read from right-to-left. To read them, please flip the book and begin from the ‘end’ of the book.” The two-pronged approach of starting the course with Khallina and Muqtatafat allows students to approach texts on their own terms—pausing, flipping, shuffling. I find this approach very validating for the individual reader, and it definitely works well to set up the ethos of curiosity and playfulness that I hope to cultivate in the course. I encounter very little frustration as long as students are clear that they their grade does not hinge on this exploration. For the first few weeks of class, I open our discussions by asking how they read. Do they look at the images first? Do their eyes move from panel to panel or skip around? Do they focus on the text boxes and then look at the images? What are the challenges? What is enjoyable or relatable about a certain work? I wonder if this is a good takeaway for other classes that do not include visuals. The idea of “reading” can be so rigid, and in the case of the college classroom, wrapped up in the idea of performing academic excellence. For a word person, I am awfully visual even when it comes to texts that have no illustrations. When I teach Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley, I always ask students to draw. I think that part of reading is visualizing the narrative in the mind’s eye. When dealing with graphic literature, my process is not all that different. Pedagogically-speaking, I am interested in broadening students’ ideas about what it means to read.

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a treasure, so accessible and at the same time, a profound philosophical meditation on genre and technique. I use Understanding Comics as a reader and pair each chapter with a literary selection. For example, I pair McCloud’s chapter “A Word About Color” with our first color selection of the semester, Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future. McCloud introduces students to the concept of “primary world” or the idea that the color itself can take on iconic properties when dealing with the world of superheroes. This primary world situates us in the realm of the mythological, in contrast to a psychologically-oriented color palette characterized by shades and tones (yellow ochre, midnight blue). With these concepts in mind, students are able to understand the subversive potential of Sattouf’s use of “primary world.” The Pan-Arab “superheroes” of The Arab of the Future are rendered in washed-out primary colors perhaps pointing to the breakdown of their mythological status. Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is significant for its use of what I have termed a “psychological” color palette. The film and graphic novel adaptation use the repetition of color as a narrative cue. For example, the repeated sequence of flares in the night sky and the ultimate entry into the Shatila refugee camp in the aftermath of the massacre are rendered in a yellow ochre and signify a psychic and moral distress. Interestingly, the use of “primary world” is reserved in Waltz with Bashir for the depiction of Ariel Sharon and signals complicity rather than superhero status. McCloud’s theorization of color gives students the analytical tools to reflect on the narrative techniques used by our respective authors, artists, and filmmakers. I also draw heavily on McCloud’s discussion of gutters (the space between comics panels) as a means of creating closure. In terms of narrative and composition, the idea of closure is very significant when dealing with a text like Leila Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi which features a mix of traditional panels and gutters and images that bleed off the page (a significant example being the map of Palestine or the chess board that doubles as both a keffiyeh and a theater of war). Once we get to experimental novels like Ahmed Naji’s Using Life and Hilal Chouman’s Limbo Beirut, gutters are entirely absent.

Are genre borders different among Arab comix vs. among Western, the way Western genre classifications sometimes make no sense when applied to Arabic literature?

MR: Yes and no because comics/comix are a global phenomenon, but each literary tradition has its own antecedents. Scott McCloud gives a very useful comparative breakdown in his chapter on gutters. Western comics tend to feature more action-to-action and scene-to-scene transitions between panels whereas comics from Japan, to give one example from Asia, feature predominantly aspect-to aspect transitions. Each literary tradition has its own sense of time, space, and place. Generally-speaking, aspect-to-aspect transitions create a more holistic visual space and a more expansive sense of time. I wonder too, if we need to consider the colonial encounter when we speak of Arab comics and to question the designation “Arab” given the wealth of Arab comics composed in French. In Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture, Douglas and Douglas expand on these considerations. Arab comic strips of the 1950s and 60s drew inspiration from French and Belgian comics, but they also featured distinctly local elements and anti-colonial messages. If we take Scott McCloud’s definition of comics as “juxtaposed sequential visual art,” comics go all the way back to Pharaonic tableaux! McCloud actually discusses Pharaonic art and how it differs from contemporary comics because of its temporal and spatial layout. My interest in graffiti certainly has something to do with the question of genre. Some of the famous murals from the Mohammed Mahmoud wall, such as Alaa Awad’s funerary ladder, feature Pharaonic motifs. I do think that this art encapsulates some of the aspect-to-aspect orientation that was lost in comic strips that emulated European models. And perhaps I see these elements making their way back into the graphic novel with the manipulation of panels or lack thereof. When Arab comix start getting spelled with an “x,” we are seeing a global manifestation of youth counterculture and iconoclasm.

Sometimes comix feel to me like a shaabi form, like colloquial poetry—more local than “literary” poetry or novels. And yet certainly they can and do travel quite well into other linguistic contexts.

MR: Yes!!! We actually bring up the concept of shaabi very early in the semester when we look at the video on the making of Tok Tok. The video details the process of rendering a photographic image as a comic and specifically features the Imbaba bridge. I am a bit of a nut for extended metaphors, so I take the image of the bridge and run with it. We talk about the neighborhood of Imbaba and the ubiquitous presence of the tok tok. We then ask how certain images serve as a bridge between interpretative communities. We brainstorm about the different modes of storytelling and the kind of orality that you might encounter in a shaabi neighborhood. You do not have to be literate in Arabic or literate at all to associate the tok tok with a shaabi framework. In broaching the topic of the shaabi, I explain the concept of diglossia to students, and it really serves as a building block for subsequent texts. For example, when we get to Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro students already have a frame of reference for the term and its many connotations. Metro is fascinating in terms of how the novel situates the shaabi neighborhoods in relation to both the more upscale neighborhoods of Cairo and the places literally off the grid such as the ashwa’iyyat. And then we get to “The Parable of the King,” which is where your question takes a really interesting turn for me. In terms of storytelling, I absolutely see a relationship between comix and shaabi forms. What fascinates me about Metro, and what I hope to impart to my students, is how Magdy al-Shafee renders the idea of a shaabi repertoire both visually and verbally. “The Parable of the King” jumps off the page because of its strikingly cartoony illustration style and because the genre of the parable marks a kind of orality. Though the students do not read Arabic, they are certainly aware that with Metro, we have made the switch into a colloquial realm. Metro is followed on my syllabus by Walid Taher’s A Bit of Air and then by Ahmed Naji’s Using Life. A question that inevitably comes up in the sequence of those texts is why Walid Taher could get away with a scathing political critique when Ahmed Naji faced imprisonment. Is it because shaabi somehow gets refigured in the public sentiment as harmless, guileless, childlike? When your book looks too much like a book, is that when you get in trouble for “harming public morality”? We spend some time talking about the trial of Naji, and students are fascinated when they learn that Naji’s lawyers argued that the vulgarity of Using Life traces its roots precisely to the colloquial and to classical Arabic literature.

I assume broadening to a wider cultural sphere is roadblocked somewhat by the limited number of translations? I don’t think any Amazigh comix or graphic-novel works have been translated, nor most (any) of the regular anthologies (Lab619, TokTok, Skefkef, etc.). Or if any Libyan work has been translated, I don’t know of it.

MR: Yes, this is admittedly a challenge in terms of broadening the content of the course. One way to mitigate this issue is to Skype in working artists/authors from less represented countries and languages. I Skyped in Algerian political cartoonist Amine Dahman, and we had a very rich discussion about the Algerian context. Dahman did a beautiful presentation on the history of political cartooning in Algeria. Students were able to identify some points of comparison in terms of the visual lexicon at his disposal and to relate this information back to our course content. Of course, a Skype conversation does not replace the reading of a graphic novel or anthology, but it is a great way to fill in some missing pieces. I would be interested myself in learning more about Amazigh comix!!

Yes, learning Amazigh is definitely one of my next big projects, and the reward will be buying myself so many comix.

How does grounding students in a visual language enrich their understanding of the world of the book? Has putting together a graphic-novel course changed how you think about using comix or graphic-novel works in and around other courses? Some of Lena Merhej’s non-verbal stories—I have no idea how to classify them (nor why I am insisting upon classification).

MR: I am still struggling with the title of this course and specifically with the “Contours of the Middle East” idea. Most students come to this course with little or no background knowledge of the region, and that leaves me with the enormous task of filling in historical and political context for a vast and varied body of literature. At the moment, most of my texts come from Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon. At this juncture, I could either embrace that concentration and dig deeper into the Levantine circulation of text and image, or I could expand the selection toward a broader regional framework. Muqtatafat is a valuable resource and excellent introductory sampling of both variations in illustrative style and some of the major themes that recur throughout the semester. Lena Merhej’s “Manal and Alaa: A Love Story” introduces students to the potential of “cartoony” illustration to deliver a poignant political message, often under the radar of state censorship. Nidal Al-Khairy’s “Liberty Gone Wild” features a rich concentration of visual iconography, and students can easily relate the montage to their immediate political context. Mahdi Fleifel and Basel Nasr’s “Filsteezy” does a brilliant job setting up the relationship between identity, language, and diasporic communities. I feel that each example from Muqtatafat provides a snapshot and allows students to piece together the parameters of the kind of textuality that we are examining in the class. Muqtatafat provides a launch pad for considering caricature, iconography, intertextuality, line and movement, temporality, synesthesia, and other building blocks of our critical vocabulary. Lena Merhej’s introduction to the anthology does an excellent job of contextualizing Arab comics vis-à-vis global developments in comics and graphic literature. In his preface, co-editor A. David Lewis playfully refers to Muqtatafat as a “scattershot regional portfolio” that serves as both “appetizer and feast.” I absolutely love this metaphor because I do use Muqtatafat to get students started, to whet the appetite so to speak. At the same time, the building blocks that they take away resonate throughout the semester as students are faced with larger tasks.

Near the end come Using Life & Limbo Beirut. Do the students read all of Limbo in order to see how each of the artists “translated” their section? Why Limbo? (I’m sure you’ve seen Hilal say he saw the visual predecessor more as the Naguib Mahfouz novels with pictures in them vs. graphic novels.) How do the discussions shift around Using Life and Limbo? What is Walid Taher’s Bit of Air in English-language terms? 

MR: Broadly-speaking, the course moves in this sequence: comics/comix (establishing a working definition and contextualizing Arab comics/comix vis-à-vis global currents), “cartoony” graphic novels, graphic novels that experiment with the juxtaposition of illustrative styles or manipulate space and temporality through innovative use of panels (or lack of panels), experimental novels such as Using Life and Limbo Beirut. Walid Taher’s A Bit of Air is definitely the outlier in this sequence, and it is a hard one to categorize. On the syllabus, I attach the label “graphic poetry collection” and I definitely make the connection to a shaabi framework. At this point in the semester, students are both fatigued and uniquely primed to draw connections. A Bit of Air serves as both a breather before we get to the most challenging readings of the semester and a wonderful opportunity for synthesis of concepts. I absolutely love approaching A Bit of Air as poetry, with a keen eye toward nuances. To give kind of a silly yet profound example, we watch Youssra El-Hawary’s “El-Soor” and note how she playfully emphasizes the word “pee-pee.” Then we look at the corresponding poem in A Bit of Air and talk about how the dotted pee line in the illustration correspond to the ellipses in the text!! An ellipse of course signifying a continuation of thought, perhaps a question, an expansion of the text. I do think that the translation of A Bit of Air is beautifully rendered, but some of the more colloquial phrases need a bit of explanation. A Bit of Air is followed on the syllabus by Ahmed Naji’s Using Life, and the contrast between the lean poetic idiom and the denser dystopic prose, with their respective modes of illustration, is illuminating.

I love the genre marker “graphic poetry collection,” even though whenever I append “graphic” to something I’m worried about the reader who’ll think I mean NSFW. I have also called Apartment at Bab El Louk (Donia Maher, Ganzeer, Ahmed Nady) a “noir poem.”

Ellipses can also, perhaps, mean a dribble of pee . . .

What do you get by ending on Using Life and Limbo Beirut, the latter of which is largely textual?

MR: Students do read all of Limbo Beirut, and this brings them full-circle round to Muqtatafat. At least two of the artists featured in Muqtatafat make a return in Limbo Beirut. Again, the juxtaposition between visuals with sparse text and text with sparse visuals is very illuminating. In fact, the Muqtatafat excerpt by Barrack Rima has no English translation, so students are left reading only the visuals and the single translated introductory phrase: “The events of this story took place in a dream I had while having a nap one day (and a dream expresses one’s interior through a symbolic language).” In Limbo Beirut, Rima’s distinctive illustrations are connected to a vivid storyline. Another fascinating interplay between text and visual intertext is the mention of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in the first section of Limbo Beirut. The character of Walid is about to graffiti a wall when he encounters a militiaman, and in the same narrative thread, he mentions The Little Prince literally flying off a bookshelf, commanding his attention. I bring in the image of the Little Prince sitting on a wall as he is about to get bitten by the snake, and we circle our discussion back to walls as canvases, the writing on the wall, walls as physical and conceptual barriers. As you can see, by the end of this course, the concept of textuality is very fluid. It gets back to my interest in how we read. I love the idea of The Apartment in Bab El Louk as a noir poem. I think that there is so much more to say about genre and the type of literature emerging from the confluence of word and image. In his introduction to Using Life, translator Ben Koerber gives a fantastic account of these emerging voices in Arabic graphic literature. Despite the idiosyncratic and experimental nature of Using Life, students seem to embrace the label “novel,” perhaps owing to the popularity of dystopian fiction. We talk about Using Life as a piece of ecocriticism, and students find a great deal of meaning in #FreeNaji.

Michal Raizen received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature with a sub-specialty in Ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. Her current book project, Ecstatic Feedback: The All-Stars of Arabic Song and the Literary Acoustic, explores a burgeoning literary and cinematic phenomenon characterized by a sustained thematic emphasis on the great twentieth-century performers of Arabic song and their artistic legacies. Ecstatic Feedback looks at how writing—broadly conceived as prose, poetry, essays, graphic narratives and cine-writing—engages the affective purview of a cadre of musicians that effectively scripted a dynamic socio-cultural interface from the mid-twentieth century to the present day.

Works Cited

Abdelrazaq, Leila. Baddawi. Charlottesville: Just World Books, 2015.

Ashour, Radwa. The Woman from Tantoura: A Palestinian Novel. Trans. Kay Heikkinen. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2014.

Beran, Paul, A. David Lewis, and Anna Mudd, Eds. Muqtatafat: A Comics Anthology Featuring Artists from the Middle East Region. Cambridge. Ninth Art Press, 2015.

Chouman, Hilal. Limbo Beirut. Trans. Anna Ziajka Stanton. Austin: Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, 2016.

Douglas, Allen and Fedwa Malti-Douglas Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Folman, Ari and David Polonsky. Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Naguib, Saphinaz-Amal. “Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring.” Transcultural Studies 2016 (2): 53-88.

Naji, Ahmed. Using Life: A Novel. Trans. Benjamin Koerber. Austin: Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, 2017.

Sattouf, Riad. The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon, 2004.

Al-Shafee, Magdy. Metro: A Story of Cairo. Trans. Chip Rossetti. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012.

Taher, Walid. A Bit of Air. Trans. Anita Husen. Austin: Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, 2012.


  1. Hi
    Do you know what is the proportion of comics in algerian daridja ( the language spoken by all Algerians and mother tongue of about 80% of them) compared to comics in Amazigh? Check out. It must be 1/100!
    constantinoise67@gmail. Com

    1. Sent you an email — would love to hear your thoughts on the Algerian comix scene.

  2. Love this for the new (to me) titles and resources. Will place this link on my course resources page to guide students’ reading selections.

    1. So grateful always for your support, Layla!

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