Mazg, a new breath for comic strip in Egypt
Océane Besombes / Egypt
Océane Besombes / Egypt
Created in January 2013, Mazg—which means “mixing” in Arabic—is an exchange and meeting place that has become essential for the promotion and development of comics throughout Egypt.
“Manga” in Japan, “Bande dessinée” in French, or “Comics” in English, In Egypt it is the expression “qissa mussawwara” (literally illustrated history) which refers to comic strip. if the story of Mazg was told in a comic book, the caption of the first panel would probably say: “our story takes place on the first floor of a building located on a busy street of the Wust el Balad district, right in heart of Cairo.”
Three young women, Nogla Kora and two sisters, Mona and Sara El Masry initiated this project. Mona, who defines herself as a cultural activist was no stranger to the world of comics. While working at the Hisham Mubarak Legal Aid Center, she participated in the production of El-Doshma magazine, which addresses the issue of human rights. Sara was also working in a civil society. Within the Information Technology Support Center first, then the Egyptian Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) before she decided to join Mazg. Prior to becoming a member of Mazg, Nogla Kora worked in the field of art therapy and then she was the director at the El Darb El Ahmar Art School in Cairo, a school that trains children from disadvantaged neighborhoods in circus arts, art, and music.
By the end of 2012, “depressed” as Sara El Masry explains, by the fate of human rights in the country, they decided to create their own artistic organization. They chose to focus their attention on a single discipline from the outset. They then thought about comics. For Sara, “comics can be used to cover a wide range of topics; and fiction is a good way to simply deliver ideas to adults or to children as it is easily accessible.” Especially because this support “allows one to express ideas through an image, even the lack of text is no hindrance.” A powerful means of expression that offers a great freedom, on the condition that censorship does not hinder this freedom.
Magdy El Shafee experienced it with the publication of his graphic novel “Metro”, which retraces the path of Shihab, a young computer scientist who decides to commit a robbery to pay off his debts. In the busy streets of Cairo, the characters express themselves in crude language, sometimes using frank and vulgar expressions of the Egyptian dialect. And, at times, the pencil of Magdy El Shafee reveals the naked body of a woman. Sufficient grounds for the album to be censored for attacking morals only two months after its release in 2008. A decision that was upheld until 2013 and which was probably no surprise given the very political content of the book that squarely addressed corruption and injustice in the country.
Freedom of expression is a particularly sensitive issue now in Egypt. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), more than one hundred websites are currently blocked in the country and this has been the case for some months. Targeted censorship that particularly affects independent media, thus undermining freedom of expression and one of its fruits, freedom of information. In 2014, Mazg organized the “Info Comics Workshop” dedicated to the right to information, with the assistance of an organization for support of information technology. A project that ended with the production of two issues of a magazine called “Allak feen?” (And did he tell you where?). A journalist looking for a Minotaur, a vengeful chicken looking for justice and answers, sheets of paper chatting together... A collection of short stories introduced by Article 68 of the Egyptian Constitution about access to information and data protection.
Comics, a popular art in Egypt
“Cigars of the Pharaoh” (The Adventures of Tintin), “Asterix and Cleopatra”, “The Mystery of the Great Pyramid” (Blake & Mortimer)…Goscinny and Uderzo, Hergé, Jacobs and many other cartoonists, have been inspired by Egypt. In contrast, comics from Egypt are less famous than the albums which evoke the history of the country. However, the 9th art is very popular in the country and has a long history in Egypt even though—before “Metro”—it was dedicated specifically to a young audience and was only published in children's magazines or comic strips in newspapers.
In “Comics Bil masri” (Comics in Egyptian), a documentary produced by Mazg, cartoonists and comic book writers start by citing their childhood heroes. Mickey, Asterix, Tintin, Superman, Corto Maltese... Many comics from abroad, often translated into Arabic, but they also cite some local comic strip characters who were available in regional publications such as Majid or Samir.
“Al-awlad” (Boys), the first original serial comic book of the Arab world was published in Egypt in 1923. Until the 1990s, the production intended for children was very prolific in the country. But in the late 1990s, a "veritable black hole" marked the world of Egyptian comics. It is in these terms that Sara qualifies this period during which most cartoonists and writers emigrated, creating a void in the country. The production was then realized only through large institutions or magazines and the independent production was too expensive, a discouraging situation for the participators of the field.
The 2000s marked a decisive turning point. “Metro”, the graphic novel by Magdy El Shafee, was released in 2008, paved the way for comics for adults in Egypt and even across the region. Then, other initiatives took over. TukTuk, Garage, several magazines dedicated to comics for adults have emerged and several comic stories have begun to flourish on the internet. Sharif Adel, for example, publishes “Al-Ragol al-Barbatoze” since 2011. This is an online comic book that addresses everyday Egyptian life, politics or society. Ahmed Saad, who has a lot of followers on social networks, regularly publishes comic strips on his Facebook page, while the comical drawings of “Coffee & Cigarettes Comics” (C&C) are broadcasted in English on Tumblr.
Encouraged by the flourishing of initiatives around an Egyptian comics that were no longer just for children, Sara, Mona, and Nogla decided to launch Mazg. The adventure began with the organization of a forum about comics in Egypt. They brought together cartoonists, editors, fans and comic book writers to determine the needs and issues one encounters in developing the 9th art in the country.
For a 9th art throughout Egypt
One of the goals behind the creation of Mazg was also to get away from Cairo centralism that affects culture in Egypt. Originally from Mansoura, a medium-sized town located just over 100 kilometers northeast of Cairo, the three founders of the project experienced the profound problem of centralization that affects the country, especially when it's about investing in an artistic activity.
Thus, they launched a tour of workshops in different governorates across the country. During these workshops, one section is devoted to learning writing while another is devoted to drawing. In a second moment, writers and designers are invited to work together. For the first edition, which was a great success, they went to Mansoura, in Alexandria, and to Minya and Sohag, two cities in the center of the country. In these cities, it was the first time such workshops had been organized and that residents were invited to make comic books. In Sohag, “it was the first time most people had heard of comics, they did not know what it was,” explains Sara. In the end, the most talented participants were gathered for three days in Cairo, overseen by Egyptian cartoonist Magdy El Shafee and Danish artist Thomas Petterson to work on a magazine, L'Express, bringing together several original stories.
“Allak feen?”—Name of the magazine
Encouraged by the success of their first round, they decided to repeat the experience. Thus, new workshops will be organized organized in the country with the support of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation starting in August 2017. Workshops are planned in Mansoura, Luxor and Aswan before a meeting in Cairo for the production of a new magazine.
But Mazg is above all an advisory body that wishes to contribute to a more developed spread of comic book culture. Thus, much of the work of its members involves connecting artists to each other or to organizations that wish to use this art form to spread ideas. It is mainly about encouraging the use of this medium as a means of expression. For example, the Egyptian feminist organization Nazra turned to Mazg for the purpose of making a comic strip addressing the issue of feminism. Mazg then acted as an intermediary to put the organization in touch with an artist for the project to be completed. But Mazg's activities do not stop there. Exhibitions are also organized at their premises in downtown Cairo, the library is open to the public and cartoonists and writers are regularly invited to speak.
Thanks to Mazg but also to other parallel initiatives, such as the CairoComix Festival whose third event will take place from September 22nd to 24th 2017, the comic strip is booming in Egypt. The 9th art has not finished drawing its history in the country. A story that Mazg intends to conserve and to make available in the form of an online archive called “Wiki Comics” that should be available soon.
Editing Sidney Cavaricci WhiteTweet