10 Graphic Novels Based in the Arab World

Visual, literary, fiction, non-fiction – it’s all good story telling when they are real stories

Lead image is mock up of A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached, Habibi by Craig Thompson, Palestine by Joe Sacco and Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq.

by Ayesha Ifteqar and Staff Writer

Culture 19 February 2019

After the Cold War, villains in comics (and the entertainment industry generally) had names like Mikhail and Ivanovic. But around the 1980s there was a shift. The names of villains changed to to Ahmad and Mostafa and the colour of their skin became brown.

The depiction of Arabs and other people of colour as villains or stereotypes of themselves unfortunately continue to this day. Particularly in the world of comic books, graphic novels and their live action TV shows and film adaptations, we see that the settings and and characters have been limited to either the West or the Far East.

Basically, it just doesn’t feel real.

However over the last decade or so, things have been slowly changing. While are seeing more diverse characters and settings across different mediums of story telling, there is still a long way to go.

But to start you off on what to read from the world of graphic novels, here are ten graphic novels based and about the Arab world.

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf

Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf has produced an autobiographical graphic novel where he recalls his childhood featuring three dictators – Gaddafi, Assad, and his father. The graphic novel is set in rural France (not Arab, but bear with us), Libya (see?) and finally, Syria in the 1970s and 80s and is written from the perspective of a child. An excellent work of literature The Arab of the Future effectively gives the reader a feel of these countries.

A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached

Another autobiographical graphic novel, A Game for Swallows is set in 1980s Lebanon, when the country was engulfed in civil war. Although Abirached narrates through black and white the images are still vibrant and illustrated the story of Zeina and her brother one afternoon when her parents leave them to visit family. The anxious siblings face an evening of trepidation when their parents don’t return from a visit to the other side of the city and their world is punctuated by the sound of bombs.

I Remember Beirut by Zeinab Abirached

A sort of a sequel to A Game for Swallows, I Remember Beirut is about post-war Lebanon when Abirached was still a child. The graphic novel is a collection of her wartime memoires where she recounts some poignant and beautiful details. It is another captivating story that allows the reader to explore Lebanon at a specific time and place for themselves.

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Set in a fictional land, Habibi is the story of young slaves Dodola and Zam and their journey through life. Creating a brand new world from his imagination has allowed Thompson to blend the old and the new, the tropical and the frigid. The book explores themes such as sexuality, vanity and surrogacy. Thompson uses Arabic writing and stories from the Qur’an to make the setting more “Islamic” at the same time never declaring that the novel is set in the Middle East.

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

A truly entertaining series, The Rabbi’s Cat is set in Algeria. Spanning across five series of comics, the story is of a rabbi, his daughter Zlabya and their cat – who, having swallowed a parrot, is now a wise philosopher with an affinity for satire. The rabbi aims to educate the cat who now holds a keen interest in converting to Judaism.

Hasib and the Queen of Serpents by David B

Hasib is a young woodcutter who is left in a forest by his companions. He eventually ends up alongside the Queen of Serpents, who entertains him with stories based in cities from Kabul to Cairo. Hasib, unsurprisingly, is Hasib Karim al-Din from the 1001 Arabian Nights and this book gives us a greater insight to this character.

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan

Written by Brian K Vaughan and illustrated by Niko Henrichon, Pride of Baghdad is set in Iraq. Based on a true story, this graphic novel is about a pride of lions – Zill, Safa, Noor and Ali – that escaped from the Baghdad zoo after the city was bombed by American forces. Every lion has his/her own perspective about the Iraqi invasion, giving the novel a diplomatic tone.

River Jordan: A Graphic Novel by Merik Tadros

River Jordan is set in Chicago and Amman. Nine-year-old Rami tries to cope with his father’s death by creating art. In the process, he sets about discovering his roots and ends up collaborating with his father’s old friend Nabil, a blind artist. Together they create art, and Rami is able to spiritually connect with his father.

Palestine by Joe Sacco

This non-fiction graphic novel is one of our favourites. Joe Sacco tells the story of his experiences in the West Bank and Gaza through illustrations where he explores the Palestinian revolution and the Gulf War. Most of the novel is written/illustrated in the form of dialogue. Sacco chooses to illustrate some of the smallest details of the difficulties faced by the Palestinian people.

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

Baddawi follows the story of Ahmed, a young boy raised in a refugee camp called Baddawi in northern Lebanon. The refuge camp is home not only for Ahmed’s family but for thousands of Palestinians fled their homeland during the 1948 war when the state of Israel was established. Baddawi beautifully illustrates Abdelrazaq’s father’s childhood in the 1960s and ’70s as he attempts to come into his own while the world crumbles around him.

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