Breaking the comic book ceiling: Arab graphic novelists are making their mark – OZY

A growing group of Arab women are shaping the future of the region’s comic book industry, defying the odds as their characters do.

  • A growing group of Arab women is emerging as a central part of the future of comics and graphic novels in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • At a time when the genre is gaining popularity across the region, their books are agents of change, as are themselves.

If you could buy a wish at a neighborhood kiosk, what would it be? This is the bold and fantastic question that Egyptian comic artist Deena Mohamed asks in her three-part graphic novel. Shubeik Lubeik. Mohamed self-published the first part, Aziza, and sold it to the Cairo Comix Festival in 2017, where it won two awards. Now the third story is on its way in Arabic.

The English version of the consolidated trilogy is expected to be released by Pantheon Books in the US and Granta in the UK next year, but Mohamed is focusing on his domestic audience.

“I want to tell Egyptian stories for an Egyptian audience, instead of worrying about how my words will be interpreted by an international audience.”

Mohamed is one of a growing group of Arab women who are becoming central figures in the future of comics and graphic novels in the Middle East and North Africa. At a time when the genre is gaining popularity across the region, their books are agents of change – as are themselves, in a world where Muslim women are often locked into stereotypes.

In the Arab world, especially in Lebanon and Tunisia, many artists today are women.

Lina Ghaibeh, Director, Arabic Comics Initiative, American University of Beirut

There is no regional database, but industry insiders believe most of the emerging comic artists and storytellers in the region today are women. Their rise is facilitated by the emergence of comic book publishing collectives such as Maamoul Press, based in the United States, and Samandal and Tosh Fesh, based in Lebanon. Comic book festivals reward the quality of the work of women artists in the form of awards like the ones Mohamed won in Cairo. And apps like Rusumat primarily cater to Arab fans of Arab comics, graphic novels, and manga.

Meanwhile, the American University of Beirut is hosting an Arab comic book initiative. The initiative holds an annual award for children’s comics, graphic novels and book illustrations, and its director, Lina Ghaibeh, says a large portion of this year’s nominations have come from women.

“Social media has helped women promote their work themselves,” says Ghaibeh. “In the Arab world, especially in Lebanon and Tunisia, many artists today are women.

Aya Krisht, who co-founded Maamoul Press in 2019 with cartoonist Leila Abdelrazaq, says she wants to publish stories “by us, for us”. She adds: “In the comic book world in the West, there are rigid ideas about what kind of stories have a platform or what story someone of Arab or South Asian descent should tell. .

This new generation of creatives is fiercely determined to have their work recognized for its quality, not its genre. “I’m generally tired of conversations about empowerment, and I’m also tired of conversations that showcase my work just because they have to fill a feminist quota,” Mohamed says. “It’s very transparent when it’s only superficial or even offensive about your work as a measure of diversity. ”

They face challenges that will not be easy to overcome. Most of the Arab cartoonists have other day jobs. They are “either graphic designers, illustrators or screenwriters who do not make a living from comics or graphic novels”, explains artist and editor Lena Merhej. “We have to fight to grow our market. “

Comic book publishing collectives that self-boost their work depend largely on cultural grants, donations, and partnerships with global nonprofits like Oxfam. Editors work on a voluntary basis and also have full-time jobs. “Most of the income goes to artists,” says Krisht.

But what women have is a treasure trove of stories and a determination that mirrors the guts of their characters. This is not surprising, as these artists often draw on their life experiences to create their stories.


Merhej started drawing after the Lebanon War in 2006. Its critically acclaimed Yogurt and Jam, which was released as a comic book series by Samandal, talks about his strained relationship with his German mother. Merhej is a founding member of the collective. Her next book is a silent comic about the refugee crisis in Europe, which she witnessed firsthand in Marseille. Likewise, Mohamed made his comic book debut with the online series Qahera, centered on a Muslim superheroine. “I read a very misogynistic article on a website run by Muslim men, and I did a satirical comic in response to that,” she says. Her character “tackles issues such as misogyny, liberal feminism, Islamophobia and sexual harassment through the prism of superhero tropes.”

This rise of female cartoonists in the Middle East is also helping to stimulate a new and rare phenomenon: female characters who figure prominently in new men’s works.

At Odaï Karsou Layaal and the search for reason recounts the adventures of a mentally handicapped girl from medieval Arabia. “It’s rare to find male writers who write about female protagonists,” he says.

It’s changing. Women – as writers, illustrators and characters – are leaving their mark on the Arab graphic novel industry like never before.