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Monday, June 9, 2008

The Superhero Goes East To Jordan

The superhero goes east

Dominic Wells

  • Last Updated: June 09. 2008 4:35PM UAE / June 9. 2008 12:35PM GMT

The artist Suleiman Bakhit’s rendering of a Royal Jordanian Air Force fighter is just one of the many strips his new company, Aranim Media Factory, plans to publish next year. Aranim Media Factory

Every comic book superhero has an “origin” story. Superman was ­rescued from a dying world; ­Spider Man was bitten by a radioactive ­spider; Batman fights crime to avenge his parents’ murder. The Jordanian entrepreneur Suleiman Bakhit has an origin story too, which explains how the son of a prime minister became one of the Arab world’s only publishers of comic-books. And it’s a doozy.

The incident that was to change Bakhit’s life occurred in February of 2002. It was a cold Wednesday night at Minnesota University where Bakhit studied engineering, the dream profession that his strict but loving parents had envisaged for their only son. Wednesday was a big night for drinking among ­American students. It was also, crucially, a Wednesday night fewer than six months after September 11.

“F***ing Arab,” shouted a gang of his fellow college kids, mean, drunk and bent on confrontation. They would have recognised him. He was well known on campus for standing up for the rights of Arabs and other foreign students. There were four attackers; broken glass was used; and even six years later, Bakhit still bears the scars – two livid, four-inch weals, one down each side of his neck.

On close inspection, though, these scars, bobbled like a necklace of rubies, look more like burns than cuts. Why is that? “I burnt them myself to try to stop the bleeding,” says Bakhit chillingly, and you begin to sense the measure of determination in this young man. “I went home, I burnt the cuts with a hot knife. It wasn’t a very sensible thing to do.

“Why didn’t I just go to hospital? You have to understand, I was in such a state of mind, I didn’t want anything to do with that country. I didn’t want any of their help, didn’t want to see an American in authority. The police came over and were like, ‘Can we do anything?’ and I was just, to hell with them. That was the mentality I was in. There were ­police officers trying to help and I was like, ‘F*** you man, get the hell away from me, I’m sorry, but I don’t want to see anyone.’ I was so angry – that someone who had come there for education…”

Bakhit’s voice trails off, and he stares into the distance before continuing. “After a while, I realised I had a choice: I could either get really angry in my life and start killing ­people, or I could do something positive. I figured that was the best way to really pay them back. If I succumbed to violence, they’ve won.”

So instead of embracing extremism, he visited American elementary schools, talking to six-year-old children about what they thought of ­Arabs, trying to unearth and weed out the roots of hatred and fear. “So I go there – this is after 9/11, remember – and one of these kids says, ‘Why do you guys hate us so much? Why did bin Laden do this to us?’ Now, how do you explain that to a six-year-old? How do you explain to a six-year-old about ­Afghanistan and everything?

“So I say to them, look at me. Do you know I’m from the same region that Bin Laden is from? He’s tanned like me, has the same facial hair, speaks the same language as me. So are you afraid of me? They go ‘no no no, you’re one of the good guys’. And I’m like, exactly, you’re one of the good guys too. But to me, you look and talk like the Ku Klux Klan. So I tell them, Osama bin Laden and al Qa’eda are exactly like the KKK. They did horrible things, but they don’t represent all of us. So next time you meet someone from the Middle East, remember me when you talk to them, don’t remember Bin Laden.”

And Bakhit also learnt from them. It was during these talks that he had his epiphany. “They started asking questions about kids in the Arab world. Like, ‘Is there an Arab Superman?’ Well… no. Why not? That idea just kept on banging on in my head, and I started to sketch in my book: what would an Arab superhero look like? One thing led to ­another, I started creating these characters, these stories, these ­designs, I started working with ­artists around the world, and here I am today.”

By “where he is today”, Bakhit does not, presumably, mean this cafe in central London, where I have caught him during a flying visit to meet ­potential investors; nor the London Cartoon Museum, where earlier we looked over the rich history of English graphic art, from Hogarth’s satirical sketches of the 18th century through to modern-day comic strips, and tried to pin down why the Arab world has previously had no such tradition.

He is the head of his own company, Aranim Media Factory – the name a combination of “Arab” and “animation” – with five full-time and ten part-time staff sending in work from all over the world, and with his own office in Jordan emblazoned with the motto “The Impossible Dream”. Having given up his studies to pursue this dream, he invested his $50,000 life savings, and after “jumping through hoops” for six months, attracted seed money from the King of Jordan’s ­Development Fund (not the Dh11 million reported recently in the Financial Times – “less than a tenth of that”). Other backers followed.

Unkind souls have suggested that it helped being the son of Jordan’s prime minister. Bakhit believes that, if anything, it was a hindrance. He started Aranim before his father, an army general, became PM; and besides, his parents disapprove of what seems so frivolous a ­profession. When his mother discovered her young son had bought comics for his eighth birthday, he recalls, she punished him and made him take them back.

So it’s lucky that Bakhit, not yet 30 and an unlikely mogul with his soft brown eyes, bald head and goatee, is both charismatic and persuasive, for this is uncharted territory for investors. The opportunity, says Bakhit, is that the population of the Arab world is 325 million, greater than America’s, and 60% are under the age of 29 – a prime target for comic books. But there are major threats: “There’s a lack of ­infrastructure for distribution, and a lack of a comic book culture. We’re not even a ­culture of readers. The average time spent reading a week by an Arab is, like, five minutes.”

Indeed, many Muslim countries lack any kind of tradition of representing the human form in pictures, let alone in comic books. Unlike in the West, where the patronage of the Church kept representational art alive, Islam of course prohibits depictions of the Prophet Mohammad, which in some countries ­extended to a distrust of capturing the human figure in general.

Bakhit downplays this, pointing to the artistry of the Ottoman and Persian empires. Nevertheless, he is conscious of the scale of the challenge. Only two publishers previously have attempted Arab comics. The first, Egypt’s AK Comics, peaked at 15,000 monthly sales and ceased publication in late 2006. The second, a Kuwaiti company called Teshkeel, launched a comic series last autumn called The 99, in which 99 characters each possess one of the 99 attributes of Allah. But to do so, it raised a staggering $7 million.

Bakhit has developed two secret weapons to aid his comic launch in September (in Jordan – early 2009, all being well, for the rest of the Arab world): he has enlisted 150 schoolchildren as guerrilla marketers, and will create a buzz by plying them with free comics to give to friends; and then to counter short attention spans, each issue will contain several strips, each ending with a cliffhanger — a model familiar to Japanese and English readers, but unknown in America.

Besides, says Bakhit, comparisons with other publishers are invidious: he is confident that his comics present a wholly new approach. “For me, both AK and Teshkeel are too much a copy of an American style. It’s all muscly characters in spandex, the only difference is they have Arab names.”

Instead, Bakhit is going back to first principles. He spent three years reading and researching everything he could find about Arab history and mythology; he even learnt Hebrew in order to read sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He uncovered significant literature and artwork on angels based on Muslim culture, which differ from the Christian and Judaic traditions: they have wing feathers like the Middle Eastern version of the phoenix, and a tail of 30 colours. “I designed one of them and it was such a pain to colour, I gave in and only did the seven colours of the rainbow.”

One strip will follow a troupe of warrior Bedouins – “the Arab ninjas, if you will” – with a fictional storyline based on historical ­circumstance. Another abandons history altogether, imagining a bunch of spiky-cropped youths in the year 2050 who must forge a new life after both oil and grown-ups have disappeared (though hair gel, clearly, remains abundant). All his strips explore what it means to be an Arab hero.

“I hate all that stuff with tights and spandex,” Bakhit explains. “And whereas America is a very individualist society, we are much more social, based around the tribe. So my heroes would likely be in a group.”

He also mistrusts the way America sees everything in black and white: its superheroes always good, the supervillains always bad: “Look at the Americans in Iraq – they see it as good versus evil.” When he resurrects Sinbad in comic book form, Bakhit will go back to the more morally complex original, not the Hollywood bowdlerisation: “It’s forgotten that Sinbad was a spoilt bastard when the story starts. He’s the son of a rich man, and mean to the poor; but then he becomes a beggar and learns some tough lessons.”

Bakhit has tested the market ­already with a strip about one of the longest dogfights in history. In 1967, one Jordanian pilot held four vastly superior Israeli fighters at bay for nine minutes – an eternity at 1,000mph. The Israelis told the BBC the next day that he was the bravest pilot they had seen. Typically, ­Bakhit played down the political background – “I don’t even mention why the battle took place” – in favour of the human story. He printed 50,000 copies of a ten-page extract, and gave them away in a newspaper: “It sold out by 6pm, the first time this had ever happened.” In the days that followed, hundreds of illegally copied versions appeared in bootleg shops. Instead of getting mad, he befriended the shop owners, and has co-opted them into his official distribution network.

The next military story he wants to tackle is set during the 1948 war, when Arab civilians were massacred by Israeli forces. “There’s a lot of exaggeration about this time,” Bakhit is quick to point out of the debates that still rage between rival historians. “Basically it was only two villages, and the Israelis used them as scare tactics. But there’s a famous quote later from the Jordanian army commander, after they surrounded the entire Jewish quarter, all these civilians. They gave them help, gave the wounded water, and then let them go. One of the Israeli guys asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ And he said, ‘That’s our answer to your massacre.’”

That sounds familiar: was that not, effectively, Bakhit’s own response to that vicious racist attack of 2002? He nods. “These are extremely important stories. They say ‘this is who we are, this is who we want to be.’”

Over the next couple of years, he wants to branch out into animation – “Freej” has proved that home-grown cartoons can be successful. And how about in five years’ time? Where does Bakhit see himself?

“Can I dream?” he asks. Well of course. Aranim’s office logo is, after all, “The Impossible Dream”.

“Then in five years’ time, I want to be inviting you to visit Aranimland, our very own Disneyland, full of all our characters.”

And the way he says it, somehow it doesn’t seem impossible at all.


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