First of all, that's a weird phrase isn't it : 'the Arab world'. Like a sci-fi planet from one of the less impressive Franco-Belgian comics.
The full title of the exhibition was "Comics and Cartoon Art from the Arab World" and I was determined to check it out on my trip down to London.
I woke up before dawn for my first train. I had a whole load of cheap train tickets bought in advance, because I wanted to go see a talk on steppe nomads of Eurasia.
The talk was down in London so well in advance I planned a day off work in order to catch a couple of exhibitions too. The trains were a mess, and getting to London took me 9 hours, mostly sitting on the floor in the crowded vestibule. So by the time I got into London there wasn't time for much except appreciating being off the train. (I spend a lot of time tweeting my exasperation at the cut-up train system we currently have. It does no good.)
Of the things in London to see, I prioritised "Comics and Cartoon Art from the Arab World" in the British Library, because I'd noticed an intriguing little mention of it once, and it's an area of comics I'm really ignorant of. Turns out it was pretty small scale: really just a display cabinet with a dozen examples of comics. But they were well-chosen examples, and well-lit, and each one was completely new to me. I'm really happy to have come across them and they are worth talking about.
1. Abou Naddara, "The Man with Glasses", an Egyptian Jewish dramatist and satirist who produced anti-establishment cartoons that ridiculed both imperialist and local elites. What an excellent person to discover - the kind of chap who gives comics history some real heart and character. These are our allies, our kin, these early creators of comics culture.
2. Alexander Sarroukhan, the Armenian-Egyptian 'godfather of political cartoons', who produced the kind of caricatures that give that wartime era its classic and recognisable stamp. I've seen a lot of these from the British (and also the anti-war European) perspective, and I love the style of that era's clearness and rounded edges. Now I want to see more about Sarroukhan's character, the Egyptian everyman 'al-Masri Effendi', and work out where exactly Sarroukhan's perspective was (aligned with the allies; fiercely independent; just making the obvious puns; conflicted; neutral?)
3. Fatimah al-Yusuf, a famous actress I of course had never heard of, who founded this important satirical magazine Ruz al-Yusuf in Cairo in 1925.What's the angle?, I again wonder. Now look at this cartoon below, a collaborative cartoon indeed, well-chosen by the exhibition: doesn't it just make you want to see a whole lot more?
Jumping forward to the present day:
4. Nadia Khiari and Naji Al-Ali are artists whose styles I did recognise. Nadia Khiari gave active commentary on the Tunisian uprising and has gained some European recognition. Tunisia is the only one of the represented countries I have visited, and I did find a few comics available there at the time, including Khiari's.
5. Secondly, you too would recognise the most famous character of Palestinian refugee Al-Ali, Hanthalathe, the 10 year old boy in rags used to express a moral conscience for those enduring the realities of life under Israeli-Palestinian-Other World Powers conflict and exploitation. Like many of our cartoonists, he was assassinated (in London in 1987).
The next selection of comics included early twentieth century publications such as Sindbad and Samir, aimed at a younger audience and often introducing western (Disney or Franco-Belgian) characters. I would like to learn more about the home-originated ideas, such as 'The Adventures of Arnabad', a rabbit Sindbad? Let's hope there's a cheap compilation out there. Artist names to look out for, named here, are 6. Hussein Bicar, 7. Muhiedden El Labbad and 8. Nadia Fayiz.
I loved this one! I didn't make a note of its name! I sometimes wish I lived in that particular era of simple, pre-manga, pre-Marvel, pre-tones and pre-digital characterful comic storytelling. What's going on there? I don't know, but I 'feel' for the character and a smile bounces onto my face each time I look again!
Of course some comics are not for me. I just don't like all the styles that abound in current comics and that's fine: it's a big scene and if some comics are a bit simplistic, even propagandistic, then they are the ones to forget as time goes on. I am naming names on purpose here: artists, magazines and comic characters to search out and treasure, but most importantly, to remember!
Meh, another comic.
Algeria and other French-speaking, French-colonised parts of North Africa clearly took a lot of influence from Francophone culture. As a comics-lover, I would like to celebrate some of the (independent, critically minded) results of this. Like 9. Zidya Bouzid : look at that classic 1980s comic style, still to my mind the glory days of comic culture! Yes some of it's reprints (maybe most of it is - I haven't yet flicked thru a copy myself), but these comics were printed to be read on a popular scale by all sorts of people in a way that I lament does not really exist now. Think of the contrast to some of the tomes on our shelves now: none of that niche marketing of glossily bound designer stuffiness, no cultivating a geek subculture or hiding out from the mainstream world, not even any sadism or porn. This is the kind of product that I love, probably sometimes a 'bit' shit but genuinely shared and shareable - and there's copies still out there in dusty back-piles, I know it and I hope to find them one day!
But this is the comic I want to search out and buy when I get my next paycheque:
10. Zeina Abirached. No idea of the storyline but it is a great format, perhaps innovative, suggesting the apartment blocks of their living quarters. Black and white (which I love), no superhero pants or machismo sadism. Not even a daft grinning mangaschoolboyherovillain with supereyes or explosive speed-lines. Elegant, interesting, and different to UK stuff.
11. Mazen Kerbaj, another Lebanese artist. New to me, and perhaps the book hits the spot more softly than Zeina Abirached, but maybe you'd prefer it.
Hard to tell, but anything claiming to be the "first Arabic graphic novel for adults" is probably a bit middle-class and soulless in a reportage-for-the-Guardian-reader way. What do you reckon? 12. Magdy El Shafee. I have no idea what's below this cover, so I may well be being unfair: it may be truly insightful, raw, unexpected. It's just that the avoidance of 'comics' terminology for 'graphic novel' terminology usually spells a rather boring pretension. like talking with the sort of person you don't want to talk to.
13. Benyoucef Abbas Kebir, focussing on Algerian history. I do think comics are a good way to comment and remember history, and it's purely the glut of English-language and French-language publications trying to sell stock on that basis that makes me put this to the back of my interest list.
14. Samandal. You hear me? SAMANDAL. This is the organisation to google after I write this post. A volunteer-based organisation promoting comics in Lebanon, publishing anthologies like all the best comic initiatives do. Good luck to them and let's hope they've got some good stuff out there.
More from Samandal (Salamander).
15. Tok Tok is another (Egyptian) comic I recognise, presumably because some French comic shops stock it. Also it seems a pretty simple style.
Also from Egypt, 16. Islam Gawish's wee book looks like interesting comment, if I could understand it. 17. Al-Shaymaa Hamed and Mai Koraiem, meanwhile, have done a book whose look I've forgotten but whose biographical focus is of interest to me: Constantine Cavafy, a poet who, even in English translation, is something of a gripping and mind-altering substance. And as a reminder that Arabic does not, like anything, live in a vacuum, he was Greek speaking from a Greek-speaking city, which is nowhere near the Greece of today (and he had no illusions or loyalty to such a facile and demeaning notion of a 'nation state').
Then I went to my talk on the Steppe nomads of Eurasia, and after that spent a couple of hours loitering until the last (and cheapest) train set off back north, where I've now come into the office to do an all-night computer session. So to finish, here's a last bit of psychological aggression from a poster for you: