East meets East

The arrival of Arabic manga is yet another paving stone on the modern day ‘Silk Road’ of cultural exchange between East and East. Vision learns more from Arabic manga’s enterprising Emirati creator, Qais Sedki

Japan’s traditional manga books are, along with anime, sushi, and karaoke, arguably its most popular cultural exports over the past decade. Millions of devoted fans around the world read the latest manga from Japan in translation. Although often referred to in English as ‘comic books’, Japanese and international manga readers, authors, and cultural commentators say that’s something of a mistranslation, as it can imply only modern, simply drawn newspaper-style, four-panel humorous comic strips.

In fact, Japanese manga has a long history (how long is disputed by cultural historians, but most agree the current form came into being after World War II). More importantly, it’s a very diverse art form, nor are the storylines limited to humour. Manga covers every conceivable aspect of life, and different genres appeal to different tastes and age groups.

This broadness is one of the main reasons why manga has captured the imagination of readers worldwide. Now, thanks to Dubai-based Qais Sedki, this old form of Japanese culture has been given a new twist.

Sedki is the head of Pageflip, a Dubai-based manga publishing house, and his success in combining Japanese artistic traditions with Middle Eastern culture and storytelling is the latest example of how international audiences are responding to manga and creating something the same, yet different. The company’s Gold Ring manga, authored by Sedki and drawn by two Japanese female manga artists who go by the collective pen name of Akira Himekawa, was published only two years ago, and is the UAE’s first original Arabic-language manga. In 2010, it won the UAE’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Children’s Literature.

Gold Ring is based around the adventures of a teenaged Emirati falconer named Sultan. He becomes involved with a fictional sport called Gold Ring and must undergo a series of trials in order to compete in a contest. The bond between Sultan and his falcon is a strong one that is rooted in Emirati tradition.

For Sedki, the interest in Japanese culture began as a child, when he watched Japanese anime, which had been dubbed in Arabic, on television. “These anime programmes were popular throughout most of the Arab world and this is probably the main reason why most Arabs are very comfortable with the Japanese aesthetic in terms of anime/manga,’’ he says.

This early interest in television anime on Sedki’s part led to a further interest in written manga. In some very practical ways, he says, it was easy for the Arabic-speaking world to embrace manga. “Arabic, like Japanese, is read from right to left and our pages turn in the same direction.’’

When considering how to best adapt Japanese manga for a non-Japanese readership in the Middle East, Sedki had to make a few decisions. The often excessively violent and sexually explicit material that characterises some Japanese manga, which has been condemned by many countries and some government officials within Japan itself, was one area that had to be adapted to fit the environment of the UAE. But in terms of style, Sedki says his manga remains true to the original format.

“The distinction lies in the content itself, not the way in which it is presented. The storyline [of Gold Ring] is authentically Arabic and not a non-Arab’s interpretation of what an Arabic story might be like. There are many cultural elements in the storyline that I hope will rub off on the readers, just as we in the Middle East picked up our first bits of Japanese culture from anime and manga.’’

The success of Gold Ring will, Sedki hopes, lead to something that the manga world has only recently begun to see more of in recent years: Japanese translations of international manga. At the Kyoto International Manga Museum, for example, works by Japanese and non-Japanese manga artists sit side by side, and Sedki hopes that Gold Ring will be one of the first original Arabic manga to be translated for a Japanese audience.

Given the growing popularity of manga among Arab youths, it is likely that the coming years will see more and more Middle Eastern manga titles. (Sedki is already working on a second title.)

Indeed, in an age where many children are glued to their computer games or plugged into their iPods, Sedki says Pageflip often receives grateful comments from parents who say that his manga has inspired their children to read more. “That’s exactly why I started this project. I firmly believe manga can play a strong role in endearing reading to a generation,’’ he says.

Sedki’s Gold Ring is a pioneer manga form, but it also has to compete against Japanese manga titles available in the UAE that are popular throughout the world. But whatever commercial temptations there may be to import or translate Japanese manga, Sedki says that Pageflip is focused on producing original content rather than making Japanese titles available in Arabic.

If Japanese manga is influencing the Middle East, it also appears the Middle Eastern world is starting to influence some Japanese manga artists. On his previous travels to Japan and in his own research, Sedki noticed an interest among some Japanese manga artists in using the ‘mystique’ of the Middle East in their works. “There are often Arab influences in character development, for example. The manga El Hazard seems to have heavy Arab influences in a fantasy setting, and many of the character names seem to have influences from the Arab world,’’ he says.

For the future, Sedki and Pageflip hope to do with UAE manga what Japan has done with its own manga, which is to make Gold Ring and other Arabic manga a cultural export that is widely embraced by not only the Arabic-speaking world, but also internationally.

The concept is new, but the impulse is actually quite old. Over a millennium ago, Japan served as the far eastern terminus of the famed Silk Road, which brought people, goods and ideas from the Middle East to Asia, and vice-versa. Today, a new Silk Road is arising, one that uses modern technology to introduce ancient cultures to each other. Manga has travelled beyond its shores to reach the Middle East. There, thanks to Sedki, it is being both adapted and passed on to the larger world, continuing to evolve by embracing the culture of the places it passes through.