Summer of Lock-in Lit: Cartooning with Popeye & Curly

Emily Selove, the translator-illustrator of Selections from the Art of Party Crashing in Medieval Iraq, by al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, has a new project, translating medieval Baghdad into Instagram cartoons:

This isn’t the first time Selove has paired translation and illustration. Her translation of the irreverent and humorous Party Crashing, which came out in 2012, is illuminated by her line drawings. Starting this April, she’s had a new cartoon series: “Popeye and Curly.” The two main characters, as she writes, are based “(loosely) on al-Jahiz (Popeye) and Abu Nuwas (Curly) in the city of Medieval Baghdad.”

Each “Popeye and Curly” has three panels and a footnote about the fact(s) behind the invented scenario:

In addition to sharing a few comics with ArabLit, Selove answered questions about this translational project.

Where did they come from? When did cartooning & medieval Arabic literatures begin to intersect in your life, and how did these two (in particular) come about?

Emily Selove: The idea for a Popeye and Curly cartoon strip came to me in the shower, the way that random shower ideas do.  I thought, “Popeye and Curly would be a good name for a comic strip!”

It’s pretty common to translate the name al-Jahiz as “Popeye” (it refers to an ocular deformity that caused his eyeballs to protrude). And Abu Nuwas’s name means something like “Guy with a curly lock of hair.”  Then I thought of one entirely inappropriate joke for such a comic strip, and abandoned the idea for a few days. This must have been the end of March.

I see that Popeye & Curly came to instagram relatively recently (April 3). Were you drawing them before that, or have they all been drawn in the last few months?

ES: Gripped by a sudden impulse, with no more ideas than the vaguely dirty one I mentioned above, I announced my plan on Facebook on April 1st. This met with an enthusiastic response. Still under the influence of a cartoon-inspiring spirit, I then sat down and drew three strips on the spot. My old friend Awad Awad gently and wisely advised me to save the dirty stuff for later, so my first idea became episode 39. The other two became episodes 1 and 2.

Have you really not . . . missed a day? 

ES: I really haven’t. Looking back at this story, I must be possessed by a playful and hopefully benevolent but still rather demanding jinn.

So the Popeye & Curly instagram bio links to your 2019 book, Baghdad at the Centre of a World, 8th-13th Century: An Introductory TextbookWhat’s the relationship? Are Popeye & Curly another sort of introduction to medieval Baghdad?

ES: I’d like to publish this cartoon strip as a book to be sold together with Baghdad at the Centre of a World; I think they’d make a good pair. The comic strip is an inviting first step into the medieval city of Baghdad, and Baghdad at the Centre of a World is a good second step for people looking for more depth. Medieval Baghdad ought to be studied in schools around the world for much the same reason that ancient Rome and Athens are. It was a city that changed the world, and it’s criminal that so few school-kids have even heard about it in the West.

Why Popeye & Curly?

ES: Al-Jahiz and Abu Nuwas are, in my opinion, the most important authors of prose and poetry in medieval Baghdad. And like so many medieval Arabic authors, they are both hilarious in their own way– it is endlessly fun to imagine what would have happened if their paths crossed. It occurred to me long after I had begun drawing these strips that it’s a bonus that al-Jahiz was black and Abu Nuwas was gay (in so far as you can apply that somewhat anachronistic term here). Just another bit of proof of what I’ve found over and over again studying medieval Arabic literature– the topics and voices that you would, in ignorance, expect to find marginalised were, on the contrary, firmly in the spotlight and influencing everything else. I think that’s what made Abbasid Baghdad such a creative, tumultuous, fun, and important place and time. I’d also like to mention that the other two stars of this comic strip are the singing girl Coral (“Marjan”) and the caliph. Again, that is because these two voices are some of the loudest from medieval Arabic literature; the voices of men in power are always loud, but highly educated enslaved women loom large here as well.

Who do you imagine as your audience? That is . . . did you imagine this as a pedagogical tool, artistic adaptation, something else?

ES: I think it’s a kind of translation– it’s just a way to allow modern people to appreciate medieval jokes. I am always trying to get students– probably high school students and first year university students– interested in medieval Baghdad, so they are my primary audience. But my most loyal audience members so far have been my lovely colleagues who study medieval Arabic literature all over the world. I have always found that for some reason, such people tend to be kind, generous, and have a good sense of humour.

Do you read in search of inspiration, or do you start drawing whenever you stumble across it?

ES: Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea in my head. Other times I ravage entire books looking for the spark of a joke. I have read more widely on the subject of medieval Baghdad this spring and summer than I have since grad school, and this has been time very well spent.

You can follow the series at

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