The Arabic ‘Antarah’ Comic: ‘An Experiment Worthy of Praise’

This year sees the landmark translation of Antarah ibn Shaddad’s sixth-century War Songsby James Montgomery with Richard Sieburth; the Nnedi Okorafor English-language comix adaptation Antar: The Black Knight; and Moemen Helmy’s Arabic-language comix adaptation, Antarah, drawn by Ashraf Gouri,:

By Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi

Translated by Emad El-Din Aysha

It is always refreshing to see Arab attempts at the art of comics, an art that we are too used to seeing in English only, or at best in translation. We do see, from time to time, serious attempts to produce Arab works in this art, but most of the attempts in this region come in the form of a hero with superpowers, either an Arab or from ancient Egypt. Either that or a satirical comic, and rarely do you get anything outside of these two possibilities, which is why I was so happy to find an extraordinary comic book that presents an epic character from Arab history, the character of Antarah ibn Shaddad, the warrior poet.

The story was published by ‘COMICS,’ a subsidiary of Kalimat Group in Sharjah. The company has published a number of comic books translated from English into Arabic – I had the good fortune of translating several – but its work was not limited to translation. The story of ‘Antarah’ was authored by Moemen Helmy, a writer and editor and great fan of comics and the manga genre. He has several publications in the field of children’s books and young-adult literature but this is his very first comic book. (He’s also currently working on his first novel.) As for the artwork in Antarah, the honour goes to Ashraf Gouri, an Indian illustrator and filmmaker who graduated from the University of Houston in the United States and is currently based in Dubai. He has won several awards and is known for the first-ever CGI animation film made in the UAE. His work has appeared in several major publishing houses such as Dark Horse and IDW.

The story follows the character of Antarah, the child who was born a slave from a Black mother, Zubaidah, a father from the tribe of Abs, Shaddad ibn Qraad al-Absi. This is his journey to make his father recognize his paternity, to prove his noble origins to his tribe, and to marry his cousin, the lovely Abla bint Malik ibn Qraad, and all this means in terms of dangers and  surprises and adventures.

I liked the choice of ‘Antarah’ as a storyline for a comic, although we have seen this story in more than one place, most notably the film starring Farid Shawqi. (There is also Ali Ahmed Bakthir’s masterful treatment of the story, which we all studied during freshman year of high school.) Nonetheless, this comic-book version is closer to the new generation, who may not have seen the film or know anything about the historical Antarah ibn Shaddad, and this work has presented us with a picture that I can proudly proclaim as more ‘epic’, as well as closer to the mindset of the contemporary reader. This comic is also a tremendous opportunity to introduce distinguished figures from our history, such as Antarah ibn Shaddad, to the non-Arab reader. This comic could be translated into English and other international languages to deliver this work to as many readers as possible throughout the world, introducing foreign readers to aspects and characters from Arab history that they most likely know nothing about and would remain ignorant of.

Collaboration between the author and the artist presents the character of Antarah in the best possible way. The dialogue is simple and enjoyable, and the writer has chosen his words well as he builds the conversations between characters. I was also very impressed by the poems of Antarah ibn Shaddad chosen for the events of the story; some of my favourite verses were in there. The illustrations were beautiful and very professionally done, no less than the drawings you see in the comics produced by the major publishing houses abroad. I loved the details of the characters, especially Antarah and Abla, the two chief characters in the work.

I won’t lie to you here, as I was particularly impressed with Abla in this work more than any other I’ve seen or read before. Some scenes, especially the battle sequences, were full of detail and showed the versatility and sheer genius of the artist. My favourite scenes in those sequences were ones where fighting was interspersed with poetry. They make the blood surge enthusiastically in one’s veins.

I also liked the use of black and white for Antarah’s flashbacks — memories of his childhood — to make them distinct from the rest of the other scenes. It is a delicate touch, and emphasizes the tragic childhood Antarah suffered, both as an enslaved person and as someone who was also the son of one of the highest-ranking members of his tribe.

This little experiment by COMICS, to present an Arab historical figure in a comic book, is an experiment worthy of praise, and I hope this will spawn other such experiments that take as their subject more personalities from Arab history.  This is a golden opportunity for us to introduce ourselves both to the contemporary reader and to the international audience via translation. That is precisely what I hope the company will in fact do. I’m already eagerly awaiting their next work.

Also read: Ahmed Al Mahdi On Writing Young-adult Literature in Egypt

Buy: On Jamalon

Originally published in Arabic on the Egyptian website https://comicsgate.net.

Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi — author of the popular books Malaaz and Reem — is an Egyptian SF and fantasy novelist. You can find more about his works on GoodReads.

Emad El-Din Aysha is an academic researcher, freelance journalist and translator and also an active member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction.

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