Comic book artist Suleiman Bakhit looks for stories and role models that will empower and inspire a new generation of comic book readers in the Middle East.
Marco Visscher | May 2009 issue
Ever wondered why Superman isn’t popular in the Middle East? “We don’t like our heroes to wear their underpants on the outside,” says Suleiman Bakhit, founder of Aranim Media Factory, a four-year-old firm in Amman, Jordan, that publishes comic books for the Arabic market. The real issue, of course, has nothing to do with costumes. “The problem is that Superman can literally do everything with all the great magical powers he was given,” Bakhit explains. “He hardly needs to put in any effort at all. His stories—and those of Spiderman and Batman—make a clear distinction between good and evil, presenting the world in black and white. We cannot relate to these Western heroes, because they’re so out of tune with our cultural values and our daily experiences.”
Much more popular in the Middle East is the ancient Persian tale of Sinbad the Sailor, the son of a wealthy man who loses his fortune and, during extensive travels in search of wealth, overcomes many obstacles. “Sinbad went through a difficult learning phase and discovered a sense of adventure,” Bakhit says. “Such character development is more complicated and more like our own lives. Such a story is not simply entertainment or a waste of time, but it offers values-based lessons on dealing with adversity and hardship and the importance of determination.”
According to Bakhit, these are the kinds of stories that appeal to Muslim and Arab youth. Young people in the Middle East aren’t looking to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but for the inspiration to deal with the challenges of their daily lives. And through the comics Aranim Media Factory delivers, Bakhit is giving it to them.
To date, the Aranim Media Factory has created about a dozen comic books; Bakhit expects that number to hit 30 by the end of the year. He’s currently working on a modern version of Sinbad, one that’s much closer to the original than the Disneyfied treatment familiar in the West. But Bakhit wants to go further than simply rectifying what, in his view, went wrong in the Disney version. He wants his comic books to temper the extremism he sees in his part of the world by providing local youth with positive role models. His stories are aimed at engineering dreams for young Arabs and Muslims of a bold future they can bring about themselves.
Is there really such a shortage of positive role models in the Middle East? “A shortage?” he asks. “There are few if any public leaders that youth can relate to.”
For Aranim Media Factory’s first book, Bakhit chose the story of Muwaffaq Al-Salti, a pilot who fought an eight-minute battle in 1966 when Israeli fighter jets penetrated Jordanian airspace. “This was the longest dogfight ever,” Bakhit says. “Yet hardly anybody in Jordan knows this legend, so it was an undiscovered gem in our culture. The feedback has been phenomenal. Kids want to be like him.”
With some pride, Bakhit tells of a girl who was 11 when they met, at a school where he regularly involves students in the development of his stories. After she read a comic book about the fictional adventures of the crew of the first Arab space shuttle, the girl told him her secret: She wanted to be an astronaut. “I told her I would include a female captain of a spacecraft in my new book and name it after her if she promised to follow her dreams,” says Bakhit. “Many months later, we talked again. She wasn’t an astronaut, yet, of course, but she had started drawing comics. She had started to unleash her creative potential. She started thinking, ‘Why can’t I be an astronaut?’ That’s how change happens: Someone will think, ‘Why can’t we have democracy? Why can’t I make a difference?’”
Bakhit wasn’t one of those boys who filled his school notebooks with drawings. In fact, he had a very different career in mind. In 1996, he went to the U.S. to become an engineer. After a few digressions, he got a degree in human resource development in 2005. He wanted to return to Jordan where there was no shortage of jobs; in the Arab world, in fact, there are few human resource experts.
But in the years prior to his return, the world had changed—and with it, Bakhit. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 led to a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in America, including at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where Bakhit had been studying since 2000. While out one evening, Bakhit was attacked by a group of young thugs—an attack that left scars visible to this day.
Bakhit was furious, but quickly realized that leaving the U.S. would mean his assailants had won. So he decided to dedicate himself to reducing people’s fear of Muslims and the Middle East. He went to local elementary schools and spoke to kids in their classrooms. He told them that not all Arab men with black beards are like Osama bin Laden, just as not all white men are members of the Ku Klux Klan. Students could ask him anything they wanted, he said—about what kinds of clothes Arab kids wear, what school there is like, what TV programs they had: everything and anything.
Then one day a student asked him what the Arab superheroes look like. “We don’t have superheroes,” Bakhit replied, but he didn’t have a ready explanation as to why not. The question remained with him, and when Bakhit found the answer, he decided it was time to publish comic books in the Middle East. “I wanted to change how the Arab world sees itself, and change the way the world sees the Arab world,” he says. He wanted the heroes he would draw to fit in with the culture and inspire kids to work toward change. So Bakhit took up his pencil and drew—something he’d never had the ambition to do.
“The problem with the Middle East is that the youth were always told what to read and what to believe,” Bakhit says. “That needs to change, and it’s already changing. On the Internet, we can express our thoughts and feelings without much censorship. That’s a breakthrough in our society. I think the Arab youth will eventually stand up and become decision-makers and masters of their own destiny.”
One of his first comic books touched on that subject: a world set in 2050, in which oil has run out and there are no more adults. A group of children with superpowers must find a way to do a better job than their parents and grandparents. “Imagination is very important for change,” Bakhit says. “There’s no creation without imagination.”
It will take imagination, and persuasion, to gain an audience for comic books in the Middle East. Until recently, comics were imported and translated, but not made by Arabs. In general, the form is frowned upon and in this conservative region not seen as a smart career choice as readership is traditionally low and the creative industry is still in its infancy.
Besides that, Bakhit himself is a somewhat unusual comic book promoter. He’s the son of Marouf Suleiman Bakhit, Jordanian prime minister from 2005 to 2007, and was expected to follow a conventional line of work. “If people hear what I do, they’re shocked,” he says. “People might have expected that I would take a government job. They can’t imagine why I choose to make comics. It’s not prestigious, not something to be proud of. My father was clearly shocked when he heard my plans.”
Although he’s not the first to publish comic books in the Middle East—AK Comics launched the genre in 2004 in Egypt, followed a year later by Teshkeel Comics in Kuwait—Bakhit’s approach is different. He doesn’t copy the American style but presents his own eclectic mix of what he considers the best of American and Japanese drawing cultures, complemented by Arabic cultural values and stories. At the same time, he encourages young people to help in the creative process and stimulates them to develop their own drawing talents to craft a distinctive Arabic style. In his studio in Amman, where he has five employees, he draws the characters and the key scenes. Then a team of several artists in Japan, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela complete, refine and color the drawings. This international cooperative effort, in turn, creates an international allure, Bakhit says.
That allure will be sorely needed to achieve commercial as well as creative success. So far, he has distributed the comic books free, at schools or as newspaper supplements. Soon he plans to post them on the Internet, in both Arabic and English. He hopes this will spark a host of fans who represent a market for toys, video games and films. Bakhit would then earn money by selling licensing rights. He’s not worried that this group may not have money to spend at the moment. “The Middle East is one of the fastest growing toy markets in the world,” he explains. “We have the largest population of youth in the world, with 50 percent under 15.”
Bakhit is aware it may be “a long struggle” before his readers will change the world, but he doesn’t have a problem with that. “Many major changes in society have taken time,” he says, pointing to the gradual move toward the emancipation of women worldwide, a process he says is not yet complete, judging by the way Western pop culture portrays them. Bakhit singles out James Bond, a typically Western hero who, in his view, is a sexist with good manners. Bakhit’s comic book equivalent, in a project he’s working on, won’t only be rougher and tougher but will “learn from the mistakes.” The Arabic James Bond will work with female secret agents.
And he will, of course, wear his underpants on the inside.
Marco Visscher, Ode’s managing editor, stopped wearing his underpants on the outside a long time ago.
Drawn from life