Superheroes rescue Arab culture

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Hundreds of years later, the 99 stones are found in different corners of the world by heroes who come from 99 different countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Portugal, Hungary and Indonesia.

Jabbar, the Saudi hero, is a Hulk-like figure whose name means “the Powerful.” The American hero, Darr, or “the Afflicter,” is a young man paralyzed from the waist down when a drunken driver crashed into his car, killing his family. His power is to take away or inflict pain.

While Mr. al-Mutawa used Islam as the basis for his comics, none of the heroes prays or reads the Koran. There is no mention of religion, and the characters are roughly divided between men and women - one of the main figures is Noora, an 18-year-old woman - and only a few of the women in the comics wear the Islamic head scarf.

Such moves were calculated, Mr. al-Mutawa said.

“Our [Islamic] story has become [more] about what not to do, than about what to do,” he said. “I wanted to … go back to the same sources others have pulled out a lot of negative ideas from, and pull out positive, tolerant, multicultural, accepting ideas.

“I’m not trying to sell religion here. I’m trying to sell the idea that at the values level, we’re all the same.”

The message has resounded in the Muslim world and beyond. About 1 million of the comics are distributed monthly in several languages. The first of six theme parks built around “The 99” is to open in Kuwait later this year, and the superhero characters will appear on water bottles under a deal signed with Nestle SA and at an Arab arts festival next month at Washington’s Kennedy Center.

While his comic books are broadening their reach, the computer games developed by Egypt’s Good News Group also have a potential for a widespread audience.

Across Cairo, small storefronts and apartments are converted into video game salons, where an hour in front of an LCD TV hooked to a Playstation 2 console costs $1 to $5, doing brisk business day and night.

“What else is there to do?” 22-year-old Mustafa Abdel-Rahman said, when asked why he was playing a soccer video game at 3 p.m. on a weekday. “I’ve put in applications, but still haven’t found work.”

Young adults such as Mr. Abdel-Rahman can be found in large numbers in much of the Middle East, where sluggish economies do not provide nearly enough jobs to keep up with fast-growing populations. The situation provides a healthy market for the Good News Group’s video games, said Ayman Shoukry, the company’s managing director.

In Egypt alone, a country of about 78 million, “there are 40 million mobiles,” said Mr. Shoukry, referring to cell phones. “We don’t have 40 million [other types of] devices anywhere in Egypt. Not 40 million TVs, not 40 million washing machines.”

Mr. Shoukry declined to reveal any revenue figures from the games, saying only that they had registered “hundreds of thousands of downloads.”

Mr. al-Mutawa, also the author of a prize-winning children’s book, said part of the motivation for his comics was to introduce Arab youths who have grown up in a world dominated by the West to heroic characters drawn from the Arabs’ glorious history.

“I really think that we [Arabs] limit ourselves with this catastrophic thinking that the world is controlled by others and there is nothing we can do,” Mr. al-Mutawa said. “I think this is rubbish.”

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