Cairo, Coltrane and a fictional village
Three newly translated graphic novels
 
 
 

Back in 2008, a small publishing house named Malamih published the very first Egyptian graphic novel for adults: Magdi El-Shafei’s Metro, a story about an angry young man on the run in a Cairo rife with corruption and intrigue. Upon its release, both Shafei and the publisher, Mohamed El-Sharkawi, were charged with violating public decency and promoting a pornographic publication. Metro was banned by a legal order from a Cairo court, and would not be available again in Egypt until 2011.

More than a decade after Metro’s release and subsequent ban, Sharkawi is still publishing graphic novels, albeit on a wider scale. Nool Books, which Sharkawi co-founded, was established in 2018 by a group of Arab friends from Lebanon, France and Egypt. With offices in Cairo and Beirut, the publishing house’s administrative headquarters are in Angoulême, France. Nool’s main target audience, however, is in the Arab world, and all of their releases so far have been Arabic translations of graphic novels originally published in other languages. 

Although graphic novels have become more popular among Egyptian readers in the years since Metro’s release (particularly after the revolution and the subsequent rise of comics in mainstream media), there are still challenges in popularizing the form when compared to conventional literature — challenges Nool is attempting to address. 

The publisher’s mission, according to Nool’s editor, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, includes publishing and distributing significant works that would be relevant for Arabic language readers, but even more, it is to promote the art of manga and graphic novels in Egypt and the Arab region. “One of our biggest challenges is to convey to the Arab reader that the format of graphic novels primarily addresses adults and is not restricted to — and is often not even suitable for — children,” he says. “Some of the works we choose to publish deal with war, death and corruption.”

Earlier this year, Nool distributed its first three releases in Cairo: Al-Qahera Tabaa Tania (Cairo Blues) by Italian artist Pino Creanza, Coltrane by Italian artist Paolo Parisi, and El-Khaldiya (Over the Bridge) by Dutch artist Milan Hulsing, adapted from a 2004 novel of the same name by Egyptian writer Mohamed el-Bisatie. 

Since I’ve been extensively exploring the format of graphic novels for research purposes over the past year, the notion of a publishing house in Egypt specialized in graphic novels was an exciting one for me. I delved into Nool’s first three titles in an attempt to get a feel for the direction they’re taking and what their releases might add to the Egyptian publishing scene and the evolution of the format in Egypt. 

Cairo Blues by Pino Creanza: A traveler’s account of a city on the brink

Originally an engineer, Italian artist Pino Creanza spent many months in Cairo from 1998 to 2000, and then again in 2014. Cairo Blues (2012) serves as travel reportage in graphic form that presents a political, social and cultural profile of Cairo in 2009. 

Creanza starts his reportage with his trip from the Cairo airport to downtown, introducing readers to the long, crowded Salah Salem Street. The artist takes obvious pleasure in drawing the Nile, with its boats and the island of Zamalek in the background, then Tahrir Square and downtown, with its vibrant and chaotic traffic.

In the first 58 pages of the reportage, Creanza touches on a range of the period’s most significant political issues. He comments on the architectural decay of downtown Cairo by linking the beautiful but neglected buildings to the obliteration of Cairo’s cosmopolitan nature following the 1952 military coup and Nasser’s subsequent rule. He then makes a smooth transition to demonstrate the effects of Hosni Mubarak’s reign, visualized in the heavy presence of riot police on the streets of downtown. On the same page, is an illustration of a Kefaya demonstration, emphasizing the presence of those who opposed Mubarak’s police state. Creanza also touches on the murder of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim by business tycoon Hisham Talat Moustafa to highlight the government’s corruption and the unholy alliance between the country’s political and business elites. 

Pino Creanza’s Cairo Blues

Creanza’s style is different from Joe Sacco’s work in Journalism (2012), which is often considered a touchstone of the format. Maltese-American Sacco always drew himself as the pivotal character in his graphic reportage, conversing with refugees, victims or soldiers in homes or barracks or the streets. On the other hand, Creanza’s narrator stays in the background and presents profiles of his subjects, as if he were using a camera. His narrator only appears in one drawing throughout the entire book, during a visit to the Nilometer. Despite the fact that Creanza lived in Cairo for some time, he often portrays his reportage from the perspective of a tourist. 

What makes Creanza’s drawings more entertaining than Sacco’s, however, is that he does not only focus on victims or conflicting parties, using their testimonies to elaborate complicated political situations. Creanza’s reportage is diverse, as he offers a personal, panoramic view of Cairo. For instance, he takes readers on a tour of Islamic Cairo, stopping at landmarks like Bab al-Khalq and Bab Zuweila, with their old alleys and stores, as well as the famed City of the Dead. His drawings are dominated by ochre, which he tells me he’s always associated with Cairo: “Buildings in Cairo often remind me of the color of sand.”

In his reportage, he gives a voice to vendors, ordinary citizens conversing on the streets, and a woman in the metro who insults him for mistakenly riding in the women-only car, to name a few. In a depiction of Mansheyet Nasser, a neighborhoood in Cairo, he again mingles politics with the culture of the everyday, by addressing discrimination against Copts, and illustrating the mass slaughter of pigs by the government in 2009 in response to an outbreak of the swine flu in Egypt. 

In the last third of the book, Creanza suddenly shifts to the events of January 25, showing the results of the political and social conditions he depicts in the first two thirds of the book. For this part of the reportage, he relied on material from the web and interviews he conducted with activists and public figures via email. Oddly, he includes a conversation with television preacher Amr Khaled, who was in no way a key player in the uprising that toppled Mubarak. 

To me, Cairo Blues primarily addresses a European reader. Creanza’s depiction of the city is that of an outsider, one who takes particular interest in old buildings, crammed shops in Islamic Cairo, football fans celebrating, Ramdan lantern craftsmen and veiled women in the metro. At times his drawings resemble random photos a traveler would take while discovering a city.

This approach evoked a sense of estrangement in me as I read the book, especially with its focus on events that seem so distant today, and I found myself wondering why Nool decided to translate it now. 

“I think there’s something in there for Egyptians. It is interesting to see Cairo through the eyes of an outsider,” Sharkawi says when I ask him about it. 

What I think is even more interesting for Arab readers about this book, however, is the concept of the graphic reportage itself, rather than the content, since it is a genre that has not been fully experimented with in the Egyptian or Arab graphic novel scene. At the 2018 CairoComix Festival, illustrator Mohamed Wahba and writer Mohamed Gamal released Yawmiyat Rassam Mutajawel (Diaries of a Passing Painter, 2018), documenting a painter’s relationship with Cairo on a day-to-day level. It is an interesting project, yet the drawings and reportage lack a plot or a coherent thread. Even though Creanza does not have a protagonist other than the near-absent narrator, he still offers the readers something of a dramatic structure, as he paints a  socio-political portrait of a volatile and vibrant city, full of tensions that eventually culminate in the moment of revolution.

Coltrane by Paolo Parisi: An imperfect portrait of an icon

In this simplified biography of John Coltrane, Italian artist Paolo Parisi sums up the most important periods of the legendary jazz musician’s life and work. 

The illustrations introduce Coltrane’s upbringing in North Carolina, his fascination with music and his relationship with his wife Naima, to whom he dedicated one of his most famous compositions. Parisi also briefly touches on the musician’s drug addiction and the influence of civil rights leader Malcolm X on his life, but does not dig much deeper beneath the surface. He also profiles other iconic musicians who performed with Coltrane, such as Duke Ellington and Bill Evans, placing most emphasis on drawing their faces, which Joe Sacco once described as being “the most important element” in a graphic work. 

All good graphic novels feature many drawings without dialogue, and Coltrane is no different. Parisi presents many such frames, like when Coltrane takes a stroll in the city, or when he plays with other musicians in the studio or on stage. The drawings, in their shades of black and white, evoke the many documentaries one has seen about this era, which was irrevocably defined by the civil rights movement. The chapters of the novel are actually named after the tracks of A Love Supreme, which many critics regard as Coltrane’s finest work; the album was released in 1965, the year Malcolm X was assassinated, and its fierce and unconventional tunes mirror the tumult of the African-American struggle at the time.

Paolo Parisi’s Coltrane

Parisi’s graphics are as unorthodox and as unexpected as Coltrane’s compositions. He does not stick to a chronological narrative order. His depiction of Coltrane’s face captures an immense sadness, reminiscent of the musician’s expressions when he played live. The artist conveys the racism Coltrane encountered as a child and as a grown-up in many parts of the novel, most memorable among them an illustration of Coltrane sitting in the back of a bus (in many cities in the South, black people were only allowed to sit in the back of a bus and had to give up their seat if a white passenger couldn’t find a vacant one). Parisi also includes several images of protests and demonstrations, some of which feature the Black Panthers. 

Nevertheless, despite the richness of his subject, Parisi’s drawings remain a bit tedious. In one page, he draws three almost identical versions of Coltrane’s agent’s face. Moreover, I could not really grasp a narrative thread to link the novel’s chapters; it felt more like disjointed vignettes from Coltrane’s life. In Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness (2012), a graphic biography of the country musician by German artist Reinhard Kleist, I was immediately sucked in by the narration, especially that Kleist chose an unusual approach to Cash’s life, beginning the story with a murder case.

Paolo Parisi’s Coltrane

Over the Bridge by Milan Hulsing: Fraud as fiction

Even though Hulsing mostly remains loyal to the plot of Bisatie’s novel, El-Khaldiya (Over the Bridge), his surreal illustrations are a radical divergence from Bisatie’s realistic approach in his depiction of Egyptian village life.

Bisatie’s novel differs from most of his stories and novellas in that he adds a fantastical element to the plot. A corrupt government clerk invents a small village in Upper Egypt called El-Khaldiya so he can embezzle money, which he then claims to spend on the fictional town’s police station. Thus, the novel unfolds in two parallel narrations: one follows the clerk, Salem, while the other focuses on the fictional head of the police station, a dark, brooding police officer, who — like in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (1979) — starts to haunt the real character. 

Bisatie’s Over the Bridge is dark and filled with violence, corruption and sex. It was the fantastical element to it, however, that attracted Hulsing most, he says. Hulsing’s police officer is identical to the cover image on the Arabic Dar al-Hilal edition, illustrated by Egyptian artist Mohammed Hijji. 

El-Khaldiya, Dar al-Hilal edition

The Dutch artist, who lived in Cairo from 2006 to 2011, told me in an interview that he loved to watch old Egyptian films and collect their posters, and that they often influenced his style. “I sensed things were pretty dark politically and economically in Egypt, especially outside Cairo. I like to work on stories with an element of fraud, because fraud in itself entails the creation of fiction,” he says. 

Initially, Hulsing had planned to work on Tawfik al-Hakim’s Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1933), which he thought was overall more compelling work than Over the Bridge, but ultimately, he says, the alternate reality in the latter offered better material for a graphic novel. 

Although he sketched on paper first, Hulsing’s drawings for Over the Bridge were actually done digitally, on a tablet. “First I did the pages in silhouettes only and then added all the shading and lightning. I hardly use any photos while drawing; it’s all from memory and observation.”

Milan Hulsing’s Over the Bridge

At first, Hulsing says, he chose black and white for all the drawings, then he opted for ochre for the fantastical parts. I was surprised by his choice of outfits for Salem, as I’d always imagined him — when reading Bisatie’s novel — in shabby and worn-out clothes. In Hulsing’s novel, however, he looks neat, dressed up in a suit and tie. Unlike Creanza and Parisi, Hulsing does not necessarily aspire to realism when creating his characters; rather, he draws distorted faces with dark, hollow circles under their eyes. It does seem at times as if his characters were copied from an old Egyptian film poster. The buildings and streets in the background also come across as unfinished sketches, without any elaborate detailing. Hulsing’s warped illustrations seem to mirror Bisatie’s corrupt political climate, which was a priority of his. 

Contrary to Coltrane and Cairo Blues, the dialogue seemed to me a bit awkwardly translated. Having read Bisatie’s novel first in Modern Standard Arabic, I was a little jarred at first by the colloquial Egyptian of the graphic novel, matched with the surreal drawings. And there were some sentences that struck me as odd coming from a middle-aged clerk like Salem, like when he prides himself on his devilish plan, saying: “Enta gamed!” (You are so cool). 

Milan Hulsing’s Cairo Blues

In 2011, Hulsing met Bisatie at the restaurant Le Grillon in Cairo to give him a copy of the graphic novel. “He was surprised it was an actual, full adaptation,” says Hulsing. “Maybe when we asked him initially he couldn’t really envision what it would look like as a graphic novel, but he seemed to like it, or at least not be bothered by it.”

***

Although two of Nool’s first three novels take place in Egypt, each of them transports the reader to an entirely different world, as they vary in form and drawing style. One thing that connects them, however, is that they were all translated into Egyptian, rather than Modern Standard Arabic, in order to keep the dialogue light, I presume, making the books accessible to as wide a range of readers as possible. Even the explanatory footnotes printed below some drawings in Cairo Blues use a mix of colloquial Egyptian and classical Arabic. Nool’s fourth release (not yet available in Egypt), Yalla Bye (2015), by Lebanese-French writer Joseph Safieddine, with illustrations by South Korean artist Kynguen Park — which chronicles the ordeals of a French-Lebanese family during the 2006 Lebanon War — was also translated into the Lebanese dialect, upon the author’s request. 

According to Nool’s website, the company has more interesting titles in the pipeline, chief among them Maus (1992), Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust saga, which critics often refer to as the best graphic novel in history. Another is Jérémie Dres’s Alexandria Again! (2018), graphic reportage about the artist’s Jewish grandparents, who were involved with the Egyptian Communist Party, in addition to Alexandre Franc and Jérôme Tubiana’s Guantánamo Kid (2018). 

No real change on the Arab graphic novel scene can be expected, however, without a platform for local artists, many of whom have so far been struggling to self-publish, with only a few managing to land deals with publishing houses. According to Sharkawi and Abdel Aziz, Nool has signed on seven Arab graphic novelists who are currently working on books to be released in 2020, including Mahmoud Hafez, Mohamed Khaled and Samar al-Gayar, whom I think is one of the most promising illustrators working today. Also among those artists are Mohamed Amr and Mahmoud El Abbassy, who are working on the first Egyptian manga book, Bain wa Bain (In Between), set to be released early next year.

At a time when some of the country’s most talented illustrators — those who helped put comics back on the map in the wake of January 25 — are now residing abroad, while many others here face growing restrictions and scarce opportunity in light of a struggling economy, it is encouraging to see several graphic novels being published in Egypt over the course of one year, even if so far they are only translations and not original works by Arab artists. Such releases, I think, could at least help the genre survive in the Egyptian market until more Arab and Egyptian graphic novelists are able to bring their work to light.

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Sherif Abdel Samad 
 
 

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