graphic artists in the arab countries

The brave pencils of Arab women

On the pages of newspapers and dedicated magazines, but more and more often only on social media, politics, society, marriage, love, sex, every aspect of human life has taken shape from their pencils. Because it is true that talking about crucial problems with the bitter smile of satire, at times, makes people better understand the importance of things.

Even if it is equally true, Arabs and Europeans laugh differently. We think, for example, of the massacre of January 7, 2015 when two armed men burst into the cry of "Allah is great" at the headquarters of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, in Paris. The magazine known for its ironic and provocative style, which has always tried to claim its freedom of expression (despite the threats of the most radical Islamists), only a quarter of an hour before the attack had posted a vignette on the Twitter profile on the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Published at the end of 2017, the French volume entitled 50 artistes de caricature et de bande dessinée, edited by the association Alifbata based in Marseille, collects the works of some cartoonists and political illustrators from the Arab world, proposing an unusual full immersion in a contemporary Arab reality little known, but which can still count on a hundred-year-old history.

In terms of aesthetics, the drawings of the authors from North Africa and the Middle East are rather heterogeneous, depending on whether they are influenced by the tradition of the Franco-Belgian comic, that of Japanese manga, or American comics.

But it's the women's cartoons that capture the reader the most. Perhaps because they sink their finger into the scourge of gender equality. A game that rarely puts everyone together. Not even in 2018.

The Arab cartoonist and cartoonist told in this volume stubbornly pursue reality, commenting on news events with jokes and a sign that arouses a mixed feeling between irony and bitterness. They choose a moment to tell a universe, focusing exclusively on one or a few illustrations.

If the cartoons of Saudi Arabia Manal Mohammad face social issues, denouncing on the pages of Al Jazeera Plus - the volume reads - the absence of equality between men and women in the workplace and in politics, those of the Tunisian Nadia Khiari ridicule with great courage the government in power and hurl themselves against human rights violations. Or rather, to do so is a character, the cat Willis, sketched with the hasty stroke of a black marker. In a 2012 vignette, Willis is dressed as a gendarme and jokes about the fact that graffiti is considered a real crime (a few years ago the sensation of some young street artists who ended up in handcuffs in Tunisia), with a joke in which - with a play on words that works well in French - spray cans become the jargon of street art "bombes", which in French also means bombs.

The volume, over 220 color pages of cartoons and illustrations with the biographies of the authors divided into three parts (classics, cartoons and comics), takes stock of the history of comics in the Arab world, compiling a rare collection of images designed for a audience of fans of the genre. Not only. It also helps us to understand facts that affect us in an indisputable way, and that is what happens on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

There are, for example, the cartoons of Omayya Joha, the first woman to publish cartoon in the Arab press, the volume reads. For her Arab colleagues she is the female heir of Naji al-Ali, perhaps the most famous of the Arab cartoonists who died in London in 1987. Omayya, born in Gaza in 1972 from a family that will emigrate to the Emirates, used the character of Handala - representing a child (originally only Palestinian) barefoot, and dressed in rags, invented by Naji al-Ali - in some of his drawings made for the newspaper Al Qods. It is sad and resigned the life that lead his characters: they can not free themselves from the chains and the barbed wire in which they remain trapped, becoming in the eyes of his many fans the symbol of the condition of subjugation and imprisonment of the Palestinian people.

Another decidedly sharp pencil is that of Sara Qaed, born in Bahrain in 1990. Her cartoons, which are read from right to left, are original and unique. They are recognizable both for the use that makes of the color and for the flexible and rounded shapes with which he draws his characters. Since 2010 he has created strips for the weekly Al Naba, but it is on his Instagram account where, today, many young people follow her. In one of those chosen by Alifbata, denounces the cruelty of the media - and the international community - who are not moved and do not stop even in front of the corpse of the little Aylan, the child symbol of the Syrian drama drowned on a beach in Turkey.

Jana Traboulsi and Lena Merhej are the two authors from Lebanon - land of intrepid illustrators including Mazen Kerbaj and Jorj A. Mhaya - proposed in the last part of the book, the one dedicated to comics. Both are part of the Samandal community ('salamandra', in Arabic, or perhaps also 'gecko', an animal with a strong symbolic charge), the anthology of the Arabic comic that comes out annually in three languages ​​(English, French and Arabic), and that has become a cult project for lovers of the genre. In "Là où nos histoires se heurtent" Traboulsi recounts with a characteristic black and white tract the urban transformations suffered by his city, Beirut, which becomes the symbol of the dramas experienced by its inhabitants. Its tables reflect the silence and wait typical of comic storytelling, a map of an illustrated story that gives its author more 'hours and more' paper than a cartoon, because it can develop different scenes. The black widely used in his illustrations becomes the symbol of discomfort, a strong dissatisfaction lived with awareness by his characters and, most likely, even by the author.

Reading the introductory texts to the collection, we realize that among the new protagonists of the so-called Ninth Art in the Arab world today there are, perhaps even more than women, a handful of festivals: from Algiers, to Tetouan, from Tunis to Beirut and Cairo, born to support the fortunes and misfortunes of a market constantly in crisis. On the shelves of the stands lie graphic novel from bookstore, but also, and perhaps more, the books, whose stories are quite similar to the American underground comics, which over forty years ago forced this medium so captivating to take new paths. Before the underground comics, the characters were essentially superheroes with healthy principles and talking animals. The stories were mostly small sketches, funny comedies and family adventures. The new books designed today, on the other hand, deal with themes that are more suited to an adult audience: from crime stories to science fiction, from fantasy to unfortunately often war memories.

It seems that today more than ever the activity around the drawn narrative is important. Or at least it is more than ten years ago. I begin to get the impression that the evolution of the comic corresponds to another evolution.

This article was translated from Italian. Click the source for the original article.