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Graphic Novels to Introduce you to the Middle East

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on September 20, 2016

By Olivia Snaije

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:


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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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Here, two graphic novels take the reader through recent Iranian history. The first, which is now available as a single volume, is the immensely successful Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. 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. A more 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. Many books later he wrote the nearly 400-page long graphic novel, Footnotes in Gaza, in pen-and-ink about the Israeli military’s massacre of Palestinian civilians in Khan Younis and Rafah (Gaza), during the 1956 Suez Crisis.

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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. 


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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.


    Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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