Something amazing is happening in the Middle East. It is uniting people of all walks of life, breaking social norms and connecting cultures outside the traditional insular bubbles in which they have existed for centuries. Neither politics nor religion can lay claim to this exciting development, which is promoting art, writing, and film in a way that this region has never seen before. What is this monumental force, you ask? You might be surprised to find out that Geek Culture has invaded the Islamic World and its agent of change, is Comic Con.
The Comic Con craze first found its Middle Eastern legs in a region known for its splendor and beauty, Dubai. There, the desert landscape is filled with towering skyscrapers, modern luxuries and impressive feats of architecture. While the primary industry in Dubai remains finance, it is known for being focused on its international appeal in the areas of fashion, travel, and food. Capitalizing on its other burgeoning market, animation, and film, The UAE realized that there was a huge comic fan base among its population. Heavily influenced by Japanese Manga and in the 90’s by Western comics which found their way into sporadic book shops, local artists and fans began forming “comics clubs” to meet and discuss their passion and develop their own talents in the field of comic artistry. In 2012, with an eye toward showcasing its more progressive environment (along with its own artists and writers) while simultaneously attracting the pop culture celebrities who attend stateside comic conventions, the “Middle East Film and Comic Convention” was born. Now in its sixth year, thousands of residents from the UAE and beyond attend to compete in cosplay competitions, meet stars from shows such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, interact with comic book legend Stan Lee and celebrate home grown celebrities like Qais Sedki whose Original Arab Language manga Gold Ring (which is also available in English) is a bona fide hit in the UAE. (link)
While the spread of Comic Con culture across the UAE is impressive, it is not entirely mind blowing, given Dubai’s more secular leanings and love for the opulent lifestyle that many of its neighbors abhor. However, when a nation such as Saudi Arabia holds a Comic Con, the unifying power of geekdom becomes undeniable. Owing much to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salam’s austerity programs and recognition that the youth of his nation would embrace entertainment as a means of avoiding mischievous behavior, Comic Con found its way to Saudi Arabia this past February. Over 20,000 Saudis filled an enormous custom tent in the city of Jedah to join their fellow geeks in the spectacle of art, cosplay, music, and comics. (link)
While there were significant differences from the Dubai Con, such as a partition where women could remove their traditional dress and don their costumes outside the presence of men, an event such as this even a year ago, was almost unthinkable. Ironically, the Saudi Government had been looking for ways to compete in the areas of entertainment and film, as its citizens spent money on recreation in Bahrain and the UAE. The religious community, however, was staunchly opposed to events such as Comic Con. Even as the event itself was occurring, religious leaders branded Comic Con “The Devil” and warned about its corrupting effects. The Saudi General Authority for Entertainment did its best to quell fears by closely monitoring the event and did, in fact, “punish” at least two individuals for undisclosed “inappropriate acts”. Yet, despite this, the Authority is now working with the private convention developer to bring the event back next year while also examining the logistics of opening cinemas within its borders so as to retain the cash its young people have been spending elsewhere. (link)
In the same way that Comic Conventions have proliferated in the U.S., word of their success shows no sign of slowing down across the Arab world. Just this month, the first ever Comic Con, Tunisia was held. The focus of this event was to help foster the Tunisian market for comics and develop the talents of its citizens. Mariem Oueslati, a member of the event’s organizing committee, explained “Comic Con Tunisia has a specific message, which is to produce our own culture of comics instead of consuming, to network and to have a market for these creations…this culture remained underground for years as the fans never had the platform here in Tunisia,” said Oueslati, noting that fans of comics and video games rarely have an opportunity to meet in person.” Here they got to meet in real life and the connection can lead to career opportunities. It is not just a show,” she said. (link)
Is it possible that Geek Culture and Comic Conventions could be instrumental in unifying not only different regions of the Middle East but also in bridging the gap between Islamic Nations and the world at large? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain; the hunger for all things comic related is spreading like wildfire in countries where even discussing such things was once forbidden. As Islamic youth begin to find a compromise between adherence to their culture and a post 9/11 society where entertainment and social media are a driving force, they will begin to move past the restrictions of previous generations and find common ground with their fellow geeks across the globe. The most satisfying thing about this transition is that it was not forced at gunpoint or brought about by nation building. It has been entirely authentic, born of a true love for the things that challenge the status quo and that make all of us, just a little weird.
Is there any better path to peace? Perhaps, but I certainly can’t imagine one that’s more fun.