graphic artists in the arab countries

Four stories drawn in 16 variations

Behbod Negahban| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: If all translators are traitors, as the proverb suggests, then the new issue of Samandal, Lebanon’s comic magazine for the open-minded, is unapologetic in its betrayals. Titled “Experimentation,” it takes four written works and “translates” each four times, into English, French, Arabic and “silent” (dialogue-free) comic adaptations, for a total of 16 discrete pieces.

Since each work is by a different artist, even adaptations of the same work seem, at times, to bare no relation to one another.

In Karen Keyrouz’s version of a story by Abir Gasami, for example, construction-paper cutouts outline a bleak cityscape.

In Alex Chauvel’s adaptation of the same tale, one-eyed kung fu fighters ride an eel-like creature across a moon-like landscape.

Those apparent excesses were the central point of the issue, Alex Baladi, the guest editor-in-chief, told The Daily Star by phone. Each text posed a challenge that the artists had to overcome, he said, hyperbolizing their own styles to make the often-dense works work visually.

Samandal President Joseph Kai agreed, saying that experimentation has been a hallmark of the magazine since it was launched in 2007.

“What’s cool about our publication is that we can do whatever we want. We’re not in an author-publisher relationship where we have to make things that will sell. It’s really easy for us to shift attention from whatever is conventional or classical and really experiment.”

Kai drew one of the submissions himself and said he felt freed by having been assigned a written scenario. “Since I didn’t have to worry about the text and the events, I was really focused on finding interesting images,” he said.

In the text he was given, the leader of an isolated village argues with a citizen about whether to bring the internet into their community.

The leader opposes the net. The citizen does not. So Kai drew a mass of creatures marching through a computer screen to represent the leader’s anxieties about the web.

Other adaptations of the same text used entirely different images.

In one, a friend grabs, swigs and slams a whisky glass, yanking the reader’s eyes across the page and highlighting the townsman’s violence toward the leader, feeble in the village that he, supposedly, rules.

In another depiction, the townsman isn’t violent but a friend, not a man but a woman.

In this version of the scene, the leader seems less embattled and more tyrannical, both anti-democratic and patriarchal.

What both depictions have in common is the dynamic of the conversation, rather than its content - the ways democracy and civil order can collapse when stakes are high, with or without the internet.

Samir Yousef who wrote the text, which has been extracted from his upcoming novel, said these visual elements were faithful to his work to varying degrees.

He had mentioned the whisky, but it wasn’t central, and the leader’s interlocutor was neither a violent jackass nor a woman, but a dearly held male friend.

The limits of civil, democratic exchange was, he admitted, one of his central concerns.

“The internet is the introduction of the problem, not the problem itself,” he said. “I’m introducing this problem to the village to talk about something else.”

Asked how he felt about handing his novel over to such vastly different artists, Yousef was ambivalent.

“I was afraid, a little bit, because I’m not a serious reader of comics,” he said. “I love literature. I love sentences with points and commas and beautiful vocabulary. I find myself in it. But other people might find themselves in comics and maybe this will help my message get to them,” he went on. “Art is not a mummy. It’s not something that should be kept in one place.”

With “Experimentation” released, Samandal will soon release an entire book by illustrator (and experimental musician) Mazen Kerbaj, marking the first time the collective has ever devoted an entire issue to a lone author.

“We’re trying to do this more often,” Kai said, “because there are no publishing houses in Lebanon that are specialized in comics.”

“Experimentation,” the latest edition of Samandal, can be found in discriminating booksellers around Beirut.