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Arab Superheroes Leap Pyramids in a Single Bound

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page C01

CAIRO -- He's a mild-mannered philosophy professor who wears button-down shirts, lives in a drab, anonymous apartment and pronounces maxims such as "There is no glory without virtue" and "Free will pushes toward creativity." But beneath the meek and pedantic exterior lies a buff, masked fighter in tights who is endowed with supernatural strength and a mission to "fight evil until the end of time."

Holy banality! Not another self-effacing Everyman who is actually a powerhouse, the stuff of comic book creations ranging from Batman to Spider-Man through Superman to Zorro! No, this is new -- at least for the Middle East.

"Why can't the Middle East have its own heroes?" asks Marwan Nashar, managing director of Egypt's AK Comics. (Daniel Williams -- The Washington Post)

The professor is Zein, aka the Last Pharaoh, billed as the first Arab superhero in a year-old line of comics. It's time, his creators say, to move beyond Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, those Westerners laboring in Metropolis and Gotham City, respectively. Bring on Amgad Darweesh, Zein's alter ego, who is 14,000 years old and lives in Origin City, which, with its pyramids, museums, traffic and random chaos, looks a lot like Cairo.

"Why can't the Middle East have its own heroes?" asks Marwan Nashar, managing director and editor at AK Comics, an Egyptian publishing venture.

AK Comics intends to flood the Arab world with Zein and three other action idols: Rakan, a hairy medieval warrior in Mesopotamia; Jalila, a brainy Levantine scientist and fighter for justice; and Aya, a North African described as a "vixen who roams the region on her supercharged motorbike confronting crime wherever it rears its ugly head."

AK Comics, which publishes in Arabic and English, sells in Egypt and is beginning distribution in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. It plans to move on to Lebanon, Syria and North Africa this year and next. Like Zein, AK Comics is on a mission. As spelled out on the first inside page of various issues, the goal is "to fill the cultural gap created over the years by providing essentially Arab role models, in our case, Arab superheroes to become a source of pride to our young generations." Truth, Justice and the Arab Way, indeed.

"I grew up reading 'Spider-Man' and loved him," says Nashar. "But I couldn't get into Peter Parker. I mean, he lived in New York. I always wondered why there weren't any Arabs leaping off buildings."

Behind the creations is a pop desire to show that Arabs can do anything Westerners can. Democratic activists are quick to point out that they have been fighting for freedom for years while U.S. presidents were content to overlook friendly dictatorships. Islamic liberals who have long preached tolerance lament that their religion is tarred by extremists and by Westerners who contend that the Osama bin Ladens of the world represent a whole culture. Business people say that given the chance, they, too, can compete in the rough-and-tumble global trade arena. And AK Comics creators say they can hold their own with the Marvel and DC comics of the world and encourage Arab empowerment.

"I believe this region will see much chaos for some time," says AK Comics founder Ayman Kandeel. "But after that, the dust will settle, peace will come, through development and a rediscovery of our true selves."

For all this inward-looking pride, AK Comics is very much a product of globalization. Nashar said the inspiration for an Arab superhero series was rooted in contact with not only Western comic books but also Japanese animation and even the "Kill Bill" movies. Kandeel, like Zein a university professor, albeit of economics at Cairo University, gleaned styles and production methods from contact with other publishers at comics trade shows in the United States. Because Egypt has no homegrown tradition of comic strips (unless you count illustrated hieroglyphics), AK Comics decided to outsource the drawings to a studio in Brazil. English dialogue is honed by a writer in California.

This cross-fertilization led to some problems. The steroid-quality muscles of Zein and Rakan posed no difficulties, but the attributes of the two female do-gooders, Jalila and Aya, created decency jitters. Seems the Brazilian artists wanted to put Jalila in a string bikini and mount colossal breasts on her and Aya. But what goes in Ipanema doesn't necessarily play on the Nile, so tights replaced the tanga and the bosoms were downsized. Even so, "we've had issues where censors go through page by page and blacken out the breasts with a marker," says Nashar.

Otherwise, there seemed to be no gender issues in the futuristic Middle East. In focus groups, Aya challenges Zein as reader favorite. "It's because she's smart and doesn't just rely on physical strength to win," says Nashar. So far, AK Comics distributes 7,000 Arabic-language issues and 5,000 English issues in Egypt and the Gulf, along with 10,000 issues printed in black and white on dull newsprint for Egyptians on tight budgets. The glossies cost the equivalent of 80 cents; the black-and-white versions cost about 20 cents.

In the tradition of Western comics, tales of the Arab superheroes play obliquely on current events and the fears and hopes of its readers. The 1940s-era Justice Society of America featured Superman, Green Lantern, Batman and other heroes who battled Hitler on behalf of Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover. Zein, Jalila and Aya operate in a world recovering from the "55-Year War" between unnamed superpowers. Their main aim is to keep this universe from sliding into the hands of evildoers.

Zein was born the son of a wise pharaoh whose astronomers foresaw the arrival of a giant meteor that would destroy the magnificent civilization -- a fantasy version of the chronic Arab preoccupation with Golden Eras of the past. Anyway, the pharaoh put Zein into a time capsule that would keep him alive until he was rehatched in some distant future. Armed with exceptional strength and agility, not to mention immunity to bullets, he would resurrect the old way of life. In one issue he saves a United Nations secretary-general from assassination, and in another stops terrorists from blowing up a soccer stadium full of 100,000 oblivious spectators.

Aya, the lawyer, is the victim of injustice. Her mother was wrongly accused of murdering her father and is in the slammer. Aya is trying to free her but along the way runs into the mysterious Number Zero, who recruits her to join an underground group of crime busters -- sort of the Untouchables armed with ninja knives.

Jalila survived an explosion at the Dimodona nuclear plant -- a barely disguised reference to Israel's Dimona nuclear research reactor, which was instrumental in developing the country's nuclear weapons. She was protected from radiation by a lead suit tailored by her father, a scientist. Nonetheless, rays penetrated and gave her elephantine strength, the speed of a gazelle and the ability to send out vibes that melt metal. She stays busy protecting the City of All Faiths (read: Jerusalem) from the warring Zios Army (the Zionists) and the United Liberation Force (the Palestine Liberation Organization). Both forces, according to a description of Jalila's activities, cling "to their extreme views, both wanting to solely control the City of All Faiths."

Jalila also has to deal with domestic problems. She lives in a small flat with her two brothers. One belongs to a secret terrorist group. The other is addicted to drugs. Neither knows that Jalila is fighting crime and terror in her spare time.

Even the stories featuring Rakan, who survived a Mongol invasion of Mesopotamia and was raised by a mystical saber-toothed cat, distantly parallel more recent events. His country is a constant target of invasion -- by Mongols, Turks and Crusaders. If the place and mayhem sound like Iraq, so be it. "We can't help but touch on the real world," says Nashar. Anyway, the constant wars give Rakan plenty of opportunity to protect innocent bystanders from medieval collateral damage.

One thing distinctly missing from the AK Comics series is any direct reference to the religion of the heroes. A note in one issue explains why: "The religious backgrounds of the heroes remain undisclosed so that no religion or faith can be perceived as better than another." Yet another first in the region.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company