Egyptian illustrator Deena Mohamed discusses graphic novels, translation and pushing to represent the Arab community at Green Brain Comics in Dearborn
For many writers and artists from marginalized groups, the pressure to always represent their community is exhausting. The categorization of their work as “African American literature” when written by a black writer or “Arab American stories” when written by an Arab writer can be limiting for someone who just wants to write about. fantasy.
This is how the Egyptian novelist Deena Mohamed sees it. Even though her comics are set in Cairo and tackle socio-political issues, she wants them classified correctly – as speculative fiction instead of some other Arab story.
“I want my work to be respected for the content, not labeled as something just for Arab Americans, or the Arabic option on the menu,” she explains. “Unfortunately, pretty much all minorities have the same problem that their work is only seen at this level, just because that’s how books are sold.”
Mohamed is an artist in residence at the Arab-American National Museum in Dearborn for the month of July. She uses her time there to translate her comic book trilogy Shubeik Lubeik from Arabic to English. The 26-year-old illustrator lives in Cairo and is in Dearborn until early August, when the residency ends. A small crowd of comic book fans gathered in the sunny backyard of Green Brain Comics on Saturday, July 17 as Mohamed discussed the challenges of adapting his work to an English-speaking audience.
In Shubeik Lubeik, which takes place in Cairo, the vows are sold in three levels. First-class wishes are the most expensive, while third-class wishes are the economy option.
“A third-class wish is like a monkey paw, says Mohamed. “The more dear a wish, the more accurate it will be. ”
The problem is that the majority of the population of Cairo can only afford third class vows which have been banned in European countries because they are unpredictable and dangerous. In the first tome of the trilogy, we meet Aziza buying a first-class false vow from a shady roadside stall. The genie of the bottle grants his wish to lose a few pounds by dropping his arms.
Aziza– the book was named after the main character – takes the reader on a roller coaster of emotions with themes of loss, grief and inequality of wealth. He asks uncomfortable questions about race and class. Is happiness a human right truly accessible to all? How much does it cost to be happy and can people living in poor communities afford it? There is also magic and dragons.
In a roundabout way, this first book, published in 2015, is the starting point of Mohamed’s journey to Dearborn. The book won the Best Graphic Novel Award and the Cairo Comic Book Festival Grand Prize in 2017. At that festival, she met a friend she corresponded with online from Michigan-based Maamoul Press. They told her about the AANM residency and encouraged her to apply. From there, all the stars aligned.
As is often the case when creating art across linguistic and cultural boundaries, some things just don’t translate and context gets lost. This forces artists who want to address different audiences to choose what is most important – being accessible or upholding the artistic integrity of their work.
“I started with a webcomic that was on Tumblr in English and that talked about Islamophobia because it made sense to an American audience. We never think of Islamophobia in Egypt, because everyone is a Muslim, ”Mohamed explained. “When I started translating the comic into Arabic, I was talking about things like sexual harassment which was more topical for an Egyptian audience.”
The webcomic she’s talking about is Qahera, a series she started in 2013 about a Muslim superheroine wearing a hijab. Qahera’s overhearing alerts her when someone is about to say something Islamophobia or misogynist towards Muslim women so she can come to the scene and put them back in order.
The webcomic became immensely popular and was featured on the Washington post and BBC, among others. The most popular Qahera became, the more Mohamed felt locked in as an artist who always had to make political commentary in his work.
“I didn’t like having to talk about these issues All the time. I was 18 when I started Qahera and although I’m grateful, I felt like I had to do more for myself, ”she explains. “I love fantastic stories and long stories, that’s what I decided to do with Shubeik Lubeik, although it still touches on some issues that are important to me.
Ilocalization issues and how much you explain the culture to make it more acceptable to readers who may not understand certain references are common to Mohamed. During the Green Brain Comics Workshop, she voices her concerns about how the name Shubeik Lubeik will be received by American readers.
“‘Shubeik Lubeik‘It’s kind of an absurd pun, ”she said. “It’s like ‘Hocus Pocus’ – a made-up phrase that doesn’t mean literally, but everyone pretty much knows what that means. Basically that’s what a genius would say when he got out of his bottle. Maybe the closest translation is “your wish is my command”, but it’s not a good title. ”
When she asks the crowd if she should try to translate Shubeik Lubeik in English or change the spelling slightly to make the pronunciation more obvious to English speakers, my answer is neither.
But she replies, “Translation isn’t just about changing words, it’s about reframing them for a different audience. A lot of the translation is really about marketing.
The good thing is that Mohamed retains the creative freedom over the translation since she does it herself. Books translated into English from a foreign language are rarely translated by the writer himself.
“There are a lot of background jokes in the book that say if you don’t live in Cairo you might not know it and if something loses its context because it’s in English now I can just add a few panels to explain it a little better instead of getting lost completely. I’m more concerned with how the story works, “she says.
Even with that said, she is adamant about not changing things like the Arabic signs in the background and the orientation of the comics right to left, as she originally wrote them.
“In America, it’s like the publishers think it’s too foreign, but the point of reading something from a different culture is to immerse yourself in a different world. The Arabic signs in the background are part of the Cairo decor, ”she says.
Mohamed’s residence at the city museum with the largest proportion of Arab Americans in the country is not lost on him. The AANM is the only museum dedicated to the celebration of Arab-American culture and history in the United States. Its residency program gives emerging and established Arab artists from around the world the chance to add to this living history while sharing their art with the community. In the past year alone, the museum has hosted a wide range of artists, from dancers to documentary filmmakers and poets.
“We don’t even have a lot of museums that celebrate culture in Egypt, so I think [the AANM] is very important to this community, ”she said. “Even though I’m not an American, I can appreciate it because cultural institutions are a lifeline for many artists.
Dearborn looks a lot like Cairo to Mohamed. Her favorite foods are widely available and there is no misunderstanding when she instinctively speaks Arabic to the supermarket vendor without even realizing it. Everything is familiar except the ice cream trucks.
“What is it? Do they sell ice cream… in a van?” She blurted out as she was showing the crowd the progress of her translation as the truck neighborhood passes. It seems less strange when she realizes they have Spiderman popsicles – her favorite character. It’s both tragic and comical when he later melts the popsicle stick in her hand, but she laughs about it and continues to show us her comics.
The English translation of the three volumes of Shubeik Lubeik is expected to be published by Pantheon Books in spring 2022. Mohamed plans to leave copies of the original Arabic versions at the AANM library.