Middle Eastern Graphic Novels

Graphic novels are an intriguing way to showcase flavor, culture, history, and humanity. They’re typically more digestible in one sitting than novels, and can have alluring artwork that features not just an artist’s style, but the culture they represent.

Here are some graphic novels that feature Arab culture and created by Arab-x authors and/or illustrators.

The Arab of the Future #1: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir by Riad Sattouf 

In striking, virtuoso graphic style that captures both the immediacy of childhood and the fervor of political idealism, Riad Sattouf recounts his nomadic childhood growing up in rural France, Gaddafi’s Libya, and Assad’s Syria–but always under the roof of his father, a Syrian Pan-Arabist who drags his family along in his pursuit of grandiose dreams for the Arab nation.

Riad, delicate and wide-eyed, follows in the trail of his mismatched parents; his mother, a bookish French student, is as modest as his father is flamboyant. Venturing first to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab State and then joining the family tribe in Homs, Syria, they hold fast to the vision of the paradise that always lies just around the corner.

And hold they do, though food is scarce, children kill dogs for sport, and with locks banned, the Sattoufs come home one day to discover another family occupying their apartment. The ultimate outsider, Riad, with his flowing blond hair, is called the ultimate insult… Jewish. And in no time at all, his father has come up with yet another grand plan, moving from building a new people to building his own great palace.

Brimming with life and dark humor, The Arab of the Future reveals the truth and texture of one eccentric family in an absurd Middle East, and also introduces a master cartoonist in a work destined to stand alongside Maus and Persepolis.

Bye-Bye Babylon: Beirut 1975-1979 by Lamia ZiadéOlivia Snaije (Translator)

Like the Arab of the Future series, which focuses on Syria during key periods of its modern history, Bye Bye Babylon focuses on Beirut, Lebanon during the mid-late 1970s.

Beirut in the 1970s is a paradise. Wealthy families ride escalators and fill shopping carts with imported food and luxury products from Paris and New York.

Lamia Ziad, seven years old, dreams of banana splits, American candy, flying on Pan Am Airways, and visiting the local cinema. Considered by the elite the “Paris, Las Vegas or Monaco of the Middle East,” Beirut was in reality a powder keg, waiting for a spark.

On April 13, 1975 Lamia and her family returned from lunch in the countryside to find a city in flames. Looking back on the golden days before the war, and its immediate, devastating effects, Bye Bye Babylon positions an elegiac and shocking narrative next to a child’s perspective of the years 1975-79: of consumer icons next to burning buildings, scenes of violence and sparkling new weapons painted in vivid Technicolor–war as pop. It is a unique graphic memoir, and an important visual record of a terrible war.

Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab 

From the pen of former Lebanon Star reporter Samya Kullab comes a breathtaking and hard-hitting story of one family’s struggle to survive in the face of war, displacement, poverty and relocation.

Escape from Syria is a fictionalized account that calls on real-life circumstances and true tales of refugee families to serve as a microcosm of the Syrian uprising and the war and refugee crisis that followed.

The story spans six years in the lives of Walid, his wife Dalia, and their two children, Amina and Youssef. Forced to flee from Syria, they become asylum-seekers in Lebanon, and finally resettled refugees in the West. It is a story that has been replayed thousands of times by other families.

When the family home in Aleppo is destroyed by a government-led bomb strike, Walid has no choice but to take his wife and children and flee their war-torn and much loved homeland. They struggle to survive in the wretched refugee camps of Lebanon, and when Youssef becomes fatally ill as a result of the poor hygienic conditions, his father is forced to take great personal risk to save his family.

Walid’s daughter, the young Amina, a whip-smart grade-A student, tells the story. As she witnesses firsthand the harsh realities that her family must endure if they are to survive — swindling smugglers, treacherous ocean crossings, and jihadist militias — she is forced to grow up very quickly in order to help her parents and brother.

Kullab’s narrative masterfully maps both the collapse and destruction of Syria, and the real-life tragedies faced by its citizens still today. The family’s escape from their homeland makes for a harrowing tale, but with their safe arrival in the West it serves as a hopeful endnote to this ongoing worldwide crisis.

Beautiful illustrations by Jackie Roche — whose work on the viral web-comic, Syria’s Climate Conflict, was seen prominently in Symboliamag. com, Upworthy.com and Motherjones.com, among others — bring Kullab’s words to life in stunning imagery that captures both the horror of war and the dignity of human will.

The Apartment in Bab el-Louk by Donia MaherGanzeer (Goodreads Author) (Illustrator), Ahmad Nady (Illustrator) 

Described as a “fabulous noir poem by Arablit’s Marcia Lynx Qualey, The Apartment in Bab El-Louk was first published in Arabic by Dar Merit as a slim 40-page experiment of a book that ended up taking away the Kahil Award for Best Graphic Novel in 2015.

Translated to English by Elizabeth Jaquette, this new edition from Darf Publishers has been expanded to 84 pages, with meticulous art direction by Ganzeer.

“In just 84 pages, downtown Cairo comes to life in all its messy glory” wrote Bookblast.

This ‘fabulous noir poem’ has been simply described as ‘the reflections of an old recluse in busy downtown Cairo neighbourhood of Bab El-Louk’ by Egyptian artist, Ganzeer.

Cairo-based writer Donia Maher was first published in Arabic by Dar Merit in 2014, and then received the Kahil Award 2015 for the Graphic Novel Prize.

Using Life by by Ahmed Naji (Goodreads Author), Ayman Al Zorkany (Illustrator), Benjamin Koerber (Translator)

Internationally acclaimed Egyptian author Ahmed Naji won the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award after his imprisonment on charges of “violating public morals” with this dystopian novel of life in modern Cairo.

Upon its initial release in Arabic in the fall of 2014, Using Life received acclaim in Egypt and the wider Arab world. But in 2016, Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison after a reader complained that an excerpt published in a literary journal harmed public morality. His imprisonment marks the first time in modern Egypt that an author has been jailed for a work of literature. Writers and literary organizations around the world rallied to support Naji, and he was released in December 2016. His original conviction was overturned in May 2017 but, at the time of printing, he is awaiting retrial and banned from leaving Egypt.

Set in modern-day Cairo, Using Life follows a young filmmaker, Bassam Bahgat, after a secret society hires him to create a series of documentary films about the urban planning and architecture of Cairo. The plot in which Bassam finds himself ensnared unfolds in the novel’s unique mix of text and black-and-white illustrations.

The Society of Urbanists, Bassam discovers, is responsible for centuries of world-wide conspiracies that have shaped political regimes, geographical boundaries, reigning ideologies, and religions. It is responsible for today’s Cairo, and for everywhere else, too. Yet its methods are subtle and indirect: it operates primarily through manipulating urban architecture, rather than brute force. As Bassam immerses himself in the Society and its shadowy figures, he finds Cairo on the brink of a planned apocalypse, designed to wipe out the whole city and rebuild anew.

Embroideries by Marjane SatrapiAnjali Singh 

From the best–selling author of Persepolis comes this gloriously entertaining and enlightening look into the sex lives of Iranian women. Embroideries gathers together Marjane’s tough–talking grandmother, stoic mother, glamorous and eccentric aunt and their friends and neighbors for an afternoon of tea drinking and talking. Naturally, the subject turns to love, sex and the vagaries of men.

As the afternoon progresses, these vibrant women share their secrets, their regrets and their often outrageous stories about, among other things, how to fake one’s virginity, how to escape an arranged marriage, how to enjoy the miracles of plastic surgery and how to delight in being a mistress. By turns revealing and hilarious, these are stories about the lengths to which some women will go to find a man, keep a man or, most important, keep up appearances.

Full of surprises, this introduction to the private lives of some fascinating women, whose life stories and lovers will strike us as at once deeply familiar and profoundly different from our own, is sure to bring smiles of recognition to the faces of women everywhere—and to teach us all a thing or two.

A Bit of Air by وليد طاهرAnita Husen 

Award-winning Egyptian children’s author and illustrator Walid Taher targets a wider audience with A Bit of Air.

Inspired by the long tradition of Egyptian colloquial poetry and its relation to social and political movements in Egypt, Taher creates a unique blend of visual art, poetry, and architecture.

These darkly humorous poems and their accompanying images are snapshots of a state of mind and a space of fantasy that convey the absurd, the comical, the profound, and the idiosyncratic.

This illustrated, bilingual edition comes at a time of political and literary upheaval.

An unprecedented number of Arab authors are producing new and noteworthy works by appropriating the language of blogs, poetry, comic strips, and film, to name a few.

This mixing of media gives shape to new experiences emerging from and redefining a rapidly changing social and political reality. A new generation is ushering in a new language, a new literature, and a new Arab world.

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