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Qifar.... first saudi comic book

Reader comment on item: Arabic Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture

Submitted by Muhannad Shono (Saudi Arabia), Jul 24, 2003 at 09:30


JEDDAH, 26 June 2003 — Muhannad Shono is the first Saudi comic book illustrator in history. The Riyadh-born, 26-year-old architecture graduate has since childhood been passionate about comic books.

"All through high school I wrote stories and drew comic books, so when the opportunity to work on one came I took it without hesitation."

Muhannad had met Maha Muhammad Al-Faisal, a novelist in her own right and the founder of Dar Noon company, a creative studio for the production of children's books, a year before his graduation whilst he was preparing to apply to art school in the US.

"The portfolio found its way through friends to her... I had a short segment in the portfolio about a character called Qifar...she liked the idea and asked me if I wanted her to write a story for the character. I became very excited and things just developed from there."

Muhannad says the book is an illustrated fantasy novel and is "without precedent and without equivalent in the Arab world." The hero, Qifar, is Muslim, perhaps the first Muslim superhero ever. But unlike other superheroes, Muhannad says: "Qifar differs in that there is nothing super about him. He is just a regular man; his power is his knowledge. Reading and the importance of knowledge are a strong theme in the book."

However, Qifar will not appear until the third book.

"The first book is about Qifar's grandfather. The second book in the series will be about his father, and in the 3rd book, Qifar is born and from then on, the series revolves around him, his companions and adventures"

The companions of Qifar are as exotic and fantastical as the story's Medieval Arabian Nights setting. His steed is a horse made out of water named Bahar, his friend and protector is Kinzah, a female jinn sent to protect him, and a magical bird who lives in a silver ink bottle named Basheer transports him on his back and fetches him books from a library within a distant mountain.

"I believe that the story is timeless in its message; true to nothing but our culture and our beliefs." He said. "It is a classic struggle between good and evil. You won't find a car or a computer in this story; the characters don't have credit cards and don't use an Internet connection."

Explaining how the storylines were formulated, the artist, who is also a freelance graphic designer, said: "The struggle against darkness and the loss of knowledge and beauty...these types of stories are long overdue in the Arab world.

"We have become so accepting of being on the receiving end of everything. Our stories and what we read and see — there are no original Arab characters anymore — none that I know of and none that I saw or read about when I was growing up. Everything is imported and translated. Our culture, our stories are stuck in the past, and even that is neglected, distorted and forgotten. Creativity is dead in the Arab world, and it's time to jumpstart it."

Unlike most illustrators, Muhannad uses both traditional techniques for drawing as well as computer software to enhance and color the images. In describing the process of giving virtual life to the characters, he says:

"Maha Al-Faisal envisions the story and explains what she would like to see. Then I start sketching thumbnail storyboards based on what we discussed. After that the actual larger-sized pencil drawing are produced and finalized. Next the pages are inked and scanned into the computer for coloring, and finally speech bubbles are added as well as text. The second book in the series is just the same: The only difference is that it is inked on the computer using a graphic tablet rather than a brush."

Muhannad did experience his share of difficulties in publishing his work. "Getting such a book to see the light in the Arab world is more difficult than some people may realize." He said. Why? "Because the system to support artistic ventures is not there. There is a lot of talent in the Arab world, but no support system for that talent." He explained that many talented artists ended up working in banks or as engineers simply because that is believed to pay better salaries. "And that's true," he continued, "because you can't study this type of work in our colleges. There are no companies that are doing this work and thus there is no demand for it. With a few exceptions, those few that are trying are still not capable of producing original work reflective of our culture." Muhannad said that most creative projects are operated from abroad by local companies, which stands in the way of utilizing and developing local talent. He also stressed the need to encourage literacy among Arab communities.

"If on some rare occasion innovative and authentic work is attempted, it ends up being produced by some company in some country by people who don't even know the culture or the people this is being made for. That things are done for us by others because local talent is not utilized is unfortunate. Another hurdle in this work and in publishing in general in the Arab world is that no one reads."

Muhannad said for the time being Qifar is being produced in Arabic only. "We are writing for everyone and that is very important for people to understand, but for now these stories are in Arabic, for the Arab world. We hope to soon sell our books and stories all over the world in every language, and who knows, maybe they'll sell better outside the Arab world...we will see in time."

He believes in the importance of enabling children to follow their dreams. "We are hoping to bring a character to children that they can read about, remember and be inspired by, instead of reading recycled stories from the US, Europe and Japan. I have nothing against these stories — I grew up inspired by them. What upsets me is that there are almost no Arab equivalents. Our children, our youth deserve much more, and for a new generation to change things, they need a solid foundation. They need to read their own stories and to see that they can rise to the challenges we are facing.

"If we forget who we are and abandon our stories and lose the need to be creative and to produce, then we will lose our identity and become subject to those who will dominate and control us."

In the long term, Muhannad wants to turn Qifar and the characters of the book into household names and to help new talent and provide them with support in developing their own comic books. "Qifar" is now sold in all major bookstores in Saudi Arabia, and since last Wednesday has been released in all Gulf countries. Dar Noon also publishes other comic books, such as "Zulfah and ibn Al-Muqaffa", which is a rework of "Kalilah Wa Dimnah", and "Saif Bin thee Yazen".

For more information, visit the website: www.darnoon.com. Muhannad's e amil is: shono@darnoon.com

Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

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Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

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