CAIRO – A new feminist comic book, the Jewelry Box, has emerged in Egypt, the latest addition in a blossoming scene of alternative comics, as artists seek freer outlets of expression in a country where independent voices are finding it harder to speak.
Cartoons and political satire go back over a hundred years in Egypt, and are a staple in newspapers that have often lampooned social mores and officials in public office. But a new generation of young comic artists is finding space to express what is often a hard sell in mainstream media. Building on the region’s spirit of rebellion over the past four years, they are experimenting with new and more subversive style to look at Egypt’s realities.
This month’s first issue of Shakmagia, which means “Jewelry Box” in Arabic, focused on sexual harassment and violence, so endemic in Egypt that finally the government this year had to toughen penalties against perpetrators. A dozen artists presented stories depicting how women endure harassment and how men get away with it so easily when most people turn a blind eye.
Other new magazines feature vignettes, often presenting slices of life among young people. The most successful is an alt-zine named TokTok, where stories deal with love, joblessness, the attitudes of their elders and the authorities or the chaos of Cairo. Sometimes the approach is humorous, sometimes dark, and sometimes surreal.
“Doors on new worlds have opened,” said Muna AbduRahman, a 27-year-old scientist who after the 2011 uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak took a leap and started as a newspaper cartoonist. She contributed her first story to Shakmagia, published by the Nazra Center for Women’s Studies.
“People started to care about new art as a way to connect with the changes taking place in the country,” she said.
Jonathan Guyer, a Cairo-based scholar researching Egyptian comics, compares the new zines to the founding of Mad magazine in the 1950s in the United States, with underground stories challenging the status quo.
Often, he said, that doesn’t mean literally addressing politics, but instead looking at social issues behind the 2011 revolution – dignity, justice, economy and class. “They are teasing out all these difficult issues and often through a backhand way.”
With changing politics, the space for cartoonists has shifted. Satirical cartoons were prominent during the 2011 protests. After Mubarak’s fall, interim military rulers bristled at criticism, putting journalists under investigation and pressuring editors to tone down criticism. Newspapers pushed back some: One independent daily ran a cartoon of military boots stamping down on pencils.
After the election of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, TV political satirist Bassem Youssef was briefly detained and questioned for his lampoons. But cartoonists had a field day mocking the Islamist leadership.
Since Morsi’s June 2013 ouster by the military, newspapers have largely bent to demands by the newly elected president, former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to mute criticism. In general, voices of dissent have been hounded out the media and dozens of pro-democracy activists have been arrested for protests, while the government also wages a fierce crackdown on Islamists. The red lines are not always clear, but comic artists know again that Egypt’s leader is off limits.
Hagrassy, one of the country’s promising comic artists, said his newspaper stopped running cartoons altogether after el-Sissi’s election. Recently, the paper asked them to restart, but nothing has been published yet.
“We are not back to 2010. More like the Middle Ages,” Hagrassy said. He and several others in the magazines go only by their artists’ names.
Andeel, another of the genre’s rising stars, quit his newspaper last year. It wasn’t only because of censorship but he wanted to try something more “confrontational” artistically.
“There was always constant pushback against any attempt to experiment or get out of the familiar,” said the 28-year old artist, known for his dark, heavy-stroke drawing style.
Andeel was among the founders of TokTok, named for the three-wheeled rickshaws that crowd the streets of Cairo. Launched in early 2011, the quarterly is considered a success. It just put out its 12th issue, printing 2,000 copies each edition – a high number in Egypt’s prolific publication market.
“The idea is to open up and change the way people think,” Shennawy, another TokTok founder, said. “Not just on political issues, but in thinking about what’s around us, relationships, girls, social relations and love.”
That can mean just straight-up gags. One character created by Shennawy is street parking attendant – a well-known figure around Cairo, grubbing for tips as he finds parking for drivers. In one strip, he parks the tanks of the extremist Islamic State group as it invades Cairo, only to be beheaded when the militants’ vehicles are booted.
Or stories can be more complex, like one depicting the travails of a man on his motorcycle trying to make it home through Cairo’s monstrous traffic to see his dying grandmother.
Andeel calls it starting a dialogue at a time when the culture of dialogue is missing.
“The regime fears the idea that someone has an opinion to express … even if it is about zucchini or onion.”