When we at Time Out heard Dubai was launching the first ever Arabic Manga title, our immediate reaction was: ‘Cool!’ Which is exactly the reaction that its author, Emirati Qais Sedki, was looking for. If Arabic Manga takes off the way he hopes it will, there’ll be people all over the Middle East getting excited about it. That’s right – people getting excited about a book.
For Sedki the most important thing about his first foray into the literary world, Gold Ring Volume 1, is that it’s written in classical Arabic. Talking to Time Out over a coffee in Times Square, he tells us: ‘More and more the education system here is shifting strongly towards English. I think a lot of parents have it in the back of their minds that to study abroad is something they’d like for their children, so they try to strengthen English [for that reason]. That’s great, but it shouldn’t happen at the expense of the mother tongue.’
Sedki argues that, for younger generations of Emiratis, ‘Classical Arabic is more or less seen and read when they absolutely have to. It’s not initiated from them. That can’t possibly be as effective as a kid saying, “Volume three is out! Pleeeeaaaaasssseeee! Get me this book!”’ He laughs. ‘Once we have that interest, and it starts from within the reader, it becomes a seed for interest in the language.’
A renewed interest in the mother tongue is inextricably bound up with ideas of embracing national identity. Sedki wants Emiratis to take pride in their country’s history and traditions. This is easier said than done when you consider the dizzying effect that rapid growth and an influx of other cultures must have had on Dubai’s indigenous population. With so many new distractions, with so much change, how do you get younger generations to take an interest in their roots? ‘I want to convince people that we can look inwards and find fascinating things,’ says Sedki. ‘We can find a lot of talent, we can find great entertainment. People have to be proud of who they are and a lot of positive things come out of that. There’s a bad pride and a good pride and obviously I’m not talking about the kind of mentality that’s like, “Hey, I’m Emirati, that makes me better than everybody else.” But it saddens me when I see that interest very heavily pours outward when people are looking for things that are fascinating.’
It’s for this reason that, with Gold Ring Volume 1, Sedki has chosen to tell an unmistakably Emirati story. In it, protagonist Sultan faces a sporting challenge based around traditional falconry, and the pages are populated by sand dunes, desert foxes and dishdashas, lending the authentic Manga graphics a distinctively Arabian feel. Sedki worked with two of Japan’s foremost Manga artists, duo Akira Himekawa (who worked on both Nintendo’s Legend Of Zelda and Astro Boy, fact fans), to produce the book. ‘They’re extremely talented individuals,’ says Sedki. ‘They’ve been working together since ’91 and have an international following. It was a nice match because their preference is to illustrate animals and Gold Ring revolves around animals by nature of the falconry theme. They were very excited to become part of the project and I was equally excited because of the calibre of their work.’
Manga comics appeal to a broad audience – they’re read widely by people of all ages in Japan, and in 2006 the US Manga market alone was worth US$175-200 million. Sedki says Gold Ring is aimed at both children and adults, and contends that rather than just getting kids interested in reading, the Manga format can help reach all of those who believe they don’t like books. ‘There is a target in mind of people who have this perception of, “Oh, books are boring, they’re too long, they’re too much effort”,’ he says. ‘I think Manga is a nice way for them to start.’
If Sedki gets his way, this will only be the beginning. There are plans for a local English language version and one aimed at foreign markets, as well as an intention to distribute the Arabic version across the Middle East. Sedki wants to continue the Gold Ring series and develop parallel storylines, and is even considering an animated series, which he hopes would attract yet more people to the books. All of this will require the help of local talent, too, creating all manner of opportunities for UAE industry. ‘I want to start locally and make this into an Emirati export,’ Sedki says. ‘I really feel that this could be the start of something very big.’
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