Redrawing the Arab World

This collaboration brings Uchicago Assistant Professor Ghenwa Hayek (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) together with Beirut-based artists Fadi "the fdz" Baki and Omar Khouri as they engage the roles of science fiction and comics within Arab cultures, and explore how they might be used to envision different futures in the Middle East. 

The impetus for this project derives from a shared interest and a longstanding multidisciplinary engagement with questions of representation, mediation, and translation. Fdz and Omar Khouri are founding members of Samandal, a multilingual Beirut-based comics art collective at the forefront of the Arab graphic narrative movement. Ghenwa Hayek (Modern Arabic Literature, NELC) is a scholar whose work has often dealt with the manner in which emergent forms, including graphic narratives, instigate and reframe crucial social and cultural questions. She is also a translator, and has worked on translating Samandal from Arabic and French into English since its inception. 

The project title suggests the stakes of this project: a temporal one, that attempts to hone in on the historical in its project to envision the future, and a political-representational one that intervenes in current contemporary debates about art from the Arabic-speaking world. Many of the issues raised in this proposal are open-ended questions that we would like to spend the next year (and beyond) tackling collaboratively. 

Specifically, this project is theoretically invested in beginning to probe a series of inter-related questions: 1. Is genre (graphic) fiction a way out of the ethnographic/autobiographical impasse of graphic narrative - and fiction, more broadly construed - from the region? Does it disrupt external (mostly Western) expectations of what politically-engaged art from the Middle East, and what its subjects might be, or is this a delusion born of the excitement of the new? 2. Is science fiction, more particularly, this kind of intervention – and if so, what roles do the internal divisions of science fiction, represented in this project by the distinction between the two categories of hard sci-fi (Omar) vs. chaos fiction (Fdz), play? 3. How does this project, which takes the premises of science fiction seriously, also intervene in current debates around Arabofuturism and what it might look like - and, relatedly, how is the precedent of Afrofuturism both an inspiration and a provocation for a comparable Arab future-oriented science fiction project that is grounded in the recuperation/interrogation of a distant past? What does the term "Arab" even mean in this type of writing: is it a language, visual or textual? is it a shared history? 

The project will be anchored by two main events that take place a year apart, in Spring 2019 and Spring 2020. The first is a collaboration organized around "Drawn Together: Comics Culture in the Middle East" (Spring 2019). We envision this class as the launchpad for a series of provocative questions and engagements that will inform and enrich our individual practices. Playing on  the multiple meanings of the concept of being “drawn together”, this course brings a combined theoretical and practical lens to understanding the histories, politics, and practice of Middle Eastern comics. It does this through a collaboration between scholarly and artistic approaches to comicsComics, like all graphic narratives, are a hybrid form that draws the visual and verbal together into a dynamic interplay. Modeling this interplay, we will bring a dynamic simultaneity of theory, practice and translation into the classroom. In this class, we combine a theoretically informed historical engagement with the region, comics studies, and a comics practice that seeks to imagine and complicate the future. We will chart the dominant genres and practices of comics production in the Middle East from the points of view of both scholars and practitioners. At the same time, we will experiment in creating a hands-on workspace in which all we collaborate on all aspects of creating two ongoing comics projects – Nahḍa (Omar Khouri) and Jāhiliyya (fdz) – from the world-building to the characters, design, stories, and translation. 

Following that, the second event will take place in Spring 2020, and bring us back together on campus in a reflective symposium that gathers us with former students and interlocutors on the local and international scenes. This symposium will allow us to gather and reflect, and will raise more provocations as we continue our individual and collective projects.