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An Introduction to the Middle East through Graphic Novels

As the news from the greater Middle East continues to dominate the media, graphic novels can be a good way of getting to know the vast region, which is diverse and complex. In the past 20 years there have been a spate of graphic novels revealing that Iranians, for example, are for the most part Muslim, but are not Arabs and consequently do not speak Arabic, but they use the Arabic alphabet to write in Persian. Or that Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and Egyptians can be from multiple Christian backgrounds. Some of these graphic novels recount the coming of age during a revolution, or the hardship of being a refugee in one’s own country. Others recall the daily struggle of living in a megalopolis like Cairo, or present the history of US-Middle East relations over the decades, or simply the story of a little boy. Here is a selection of graphic novels that will provide a good start:

    Best of Enemies

    Given that the US has become entangled in the Middle East in recent times, it’s a good idea to begin with some history. Best of Enemies, a History of US and Middle East Relations is by a winning combination of author Jean-Pierre Filiu, one of France’s best historians and Arabists, the award-winning illustrator, David B, one of the founders of the revolutionary French publisher L’Association, and last but not least, Edward Gauvin, a stellar translator who works for many comic book publishers. Volumes 1 and 2 take the reader from 1783 to 1984, Volume 3 is yet to come. But stories of Gilgamesh, inter-war French and German involvement in the region, and world changing events such as the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan make these volumes a rollicking adventure story. 

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    Best of Enemies

    The second volume of Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B.'s acclaimed history of US-Middle East relations documents a period of dramatic conflict and change, beginning in the 1950s and ending with the Lebanese War of 1982. The Blitzkrieg of the Six-Day War saw the Jewish state triple in size. In less than a week, the Middle East was transformed: Israel had taken the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. It was a conflict that began an era of U.S.-led intervention in the Middle East, which continued in the lead-up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The demise of the Shah, and the ascent of Ayatollah Khomeini, stoked anti-American sentiment in the country, and the U.S. became known as "The Great Satan". When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, the CIA began a proxy war by supporting anti-soviet Muslim forces, among them a young Saudi, Osama Bin Laden. Best of Enemies, Vol. 2 is a perceptive and authoritative account of a turbulent historical period. Intelligent, accessible and beautifully drawn, it brings to life a period of history that is of great relevance to international relations today.

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    The Complete Persepolis

    The immensely successful Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi is now available as a single volume. Satrapi recounts her coming of age in an upper middle class family in Teheran, and the revolution in 1979. She describes her experience as an exile in Europe, and her return to Iran once the Islamic government is in place.

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    Zahra's Paradise

    A contemporary look at Iran is seen in Zahra’s Paradise, by Amir and Khalil, a book about a young protestor who goes missing during demonstrations that took place after the fraudulent elections in 2009. Zahra’s Paradise began as a web series on a blog in 2010 with the authors relying heavily on social media to complete each chapter, often integrating suggestions and descriptions from people living in Iran who were following the series. 

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    No reading list about the Middle East would be complete without the groundbreaking work of comic book journalist Joe Sacco’s graphic novels. Sacco, who spent several months in the Occupied Territories in Palestine during the first Intifada, wrote nine long form comic/articles about his experience that became the 1996 graphic novel Palestine, for which he won the American Book Award. 

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    Magdy El Shafee's Metro, a Story of Cairo, deftly translated by Chip Rossetti, is a look at former President Mubarak's corrupt Egypt through the lens of a young software designer trying to escape a loan shark. The pulsating city amidst a crumbling society reflects the desire for modernity and an entrenchment in the past, and gives the reader a look at modern Egyptian society. 

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    The final two graphic novels are coming of age stories, one of which is part of a series. The first, Baddawi, by artist Leila Abdelrazaq, describes her father's childhood growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Like Amir and Khalil, with Zahra's Paradise, she began Baddawi as a serialized web comic and it caught the attention of a publisher and became a graphic novel. Through a child's eye, the reader revisits history, the stigma of being a refugee in Lebanon, but also young love.

    The Arab of the Future

    The French comic book author Riad Sattouf, who spent part of his childhood in a village in Syria, embarked on a four-part graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future, translated by Sam Taylor, the first of which was published in 2014, and became a global publishing phenomenon. Three volumes exist in French, two are out in English so far. Sattouf, who takes no prisoners no matter which culture he is describing, rather, he seems to delight in the failings of human beings, doesn't aim to give readers a history lesson. He focuses a child's observant eye on the small village living under the dictatorship of Hafez-al-Assad and the system built around it. Alternately bitingly funny and bleak, The Arab of the Future is also a boy's perception of his father, a man slipping backward rather than forward.

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    The Arab of the Future 2

    In Volume 2, Riad, now settled in his father’s hometown of Homs, gets to go to school, where he dedicates himself to becoming a true Syrian in the country of the dictator Hafez Al-Assad. Told simply yet with devastating effect, Riad’s story takes in the sweep of politics, religion, and poverty, but is steered by acutely observed small moments: the daily sadism of his schoolteacher, the lure of the black market, with its menu of shame and subsistence, and the obsequiousness of his father in the company of those close to the regime. As his family strains to fit in, one chilling, barbaric act drives the Sattoufs to make the most dramatic of changes.

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    Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.


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