If you are anything like me, you stared in slack-jawed disbelief as you witnessed the shameful debacle of the now infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
It was shameful on both sides of the “conflict”. On the side of the cartoonists involved and the Danish paper that hired them to draw the cartoons, it was a shameful example of an irresponsible publicity stunt gone horribly wrong (no, it wasn’t about “freedom of the press”, it was about shock value, circulation and money).
On the Muslim side, it was a shameful example of a few unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of a perceived “attack” on their culture and values by an “enemy culture” to promote fear and anger and whip up a wave of animosity and resentment among large numbers of people, the real end goal of which was to give those particular individuals increased political power. (Sound familiar?)
Through it all, cartoons emerged as tools of divisiveness, as waves of hate cartoons, aimed at Christians, Jews and Muslims, followed from the pens of “cartoonists” of dubious skill and even more dubious integrity.
The point to be taken, of course, is that cartoons are tools, whether in the hands of geniuses or fools, and can be well used or horribly misused like all tools.
How refreshing it is, then, to find efforts to use cartoons and comics to promote understanding between these same two cultures, which seem to have a great deal of difficulty understanding each other even in the best of circumstances.
Teshkeel Comics is the creation of Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, who is publishing Arabic language versions of Marvel comics in the Middle East and Northern Africa and has just expanded to include translations of Archie comics. (Somehow, I just love the idea of Jughead speaking other languages.)
Perhaps more importantly, Teshkeel Comics is also attempting to bridge the gap in the other direction with an original series called The 99, with superheroes conceived from aspects of Islamic culture. To do this, Teshkeel is enlisting the skills of American comic book veterans Fabian Nicieza, Dan Panosian, John McCrea and James Hodgkins. There is a preview online. Go to the main page of theninetynine.com and click on the graphic of “The 99” just under the nav bar. You can also see a preview and short article on Newsarama, but the version on the Teshkeel site has the added advantage of offering both English and Arabic language versions. It’s interesting to compare the two.
In another form of “cartoons”, in this case the 3-D style of animation that has developed out of traditional cartoon animation, a Jordanian multimedia company called Rubicon is launching an animated TV show called Ben and Izzy, about two boys, an American and an Arab. The comedy/adventure show has the support of the Jordanian royal family (apparently, King Abdullah II of Jordan enjoys watching The Simpsons via satellite).
Rubicon is headed by Randa Ayoubi, a Jordanian woman who regards Pixar as a role model for the company. Her creative team for Ben and Izzy includes Americans, Iraquis, Jordanians and a Palestinian. A promotional event for the series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York included Queen Rania of Jordan as well as Barbara Walters, Katie Couric and other American royalty. There is a good New York Times article, which includes a short video clip from the show.
I originally learned of Teshkeel Comics from an interview with Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa on the PRI radio show The World, during which he discussed the origin of The 99. Apparently, Allah has 99 names, and corresponding attributes like compassion, generosity, kindness, mercy and others, which form the basis of some of the Teshkeel Comics’ heroes and their powers.
See? I’ve already learned something about Arabic culture from comics. However superficial or even inaccurate my understanding may be, it’s a start.