Emirati artist brings legendary story of UAE martyr to life

Artist Ali Kashwani has illustrated a comic book based on the real-life story of Salim the Flag Martyr, who was killed by Iranian invaders on the island of Greater Tunb in 1971.

Every country and every generation needs its heroes.

After doing sketches and drawings of one such hero, Ali Kashwani was inspired to create the UAE’s first historic comic-book hero, Salim the Flag Martyr.

“We have just one photo of Salim Suhail, when he was about 18 and wearing a police uniform,” says Kashwani, 18, an Emirati.

“I kept looking at the photo, imagining what he was like, until I felt I really knew him and could draw his story.”

Salim’s story is legendary. The young policeman, 20, was one of six officers stationed on Greater Tunb island when it and two others, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa, were taken over by Iran on the eve of the UAE’s foundation.

“At dawn on November 30, 1971, as the families of Greater Tunb were heading to morning prayers at the island’s mosque, monstrous noise overwhelmed the island from the sea,” the script reads.

“‘What is that noise? What is coming from the sea?’ yelled Salim as he ran to the police station to alert the other policemen of danger.”

Beautifully illustrated, with detailed facial expressions and action sequences full of colour and with an edge to them, the words printed alongside the drawings almost fade into the background as the powerful graphics grab the reader’s attention.

Against backgrounds painted in acrylic colour, the main figures were drawn using Copic markers, which are often used to draw animated Japanese figures.

“I knew about his story, but not in great detail,” said Kashwani, from Sharjah. “In schools they teach us a bit about him and what happened in the islands.

“So this comic is important as a historic reference and a reminder for all, regardless of age, about what happened as our country was being formed.”

Kashwani, a mechanical engineering student at the American University of Sharjah, has been drawing comics since he was 10, but it was posts he made on his Instagram account that landed him the comic-book project.

The cultural organisation Watani saw his work and contacted him n March. He agreed to start working on the project immediately, in his free time between studies, and finished it in August.

He was given the script of the story, and left to his own devices to translate the words into pictures.

His interpretation of what happened on Greater Tunb, and to Salim, was released in time for UAE’s 42nd anniversary.

The 43-page comic book was published by Watani and distributed for free to commemorate Salim’s heroic actions.

“Some people told me it is quite violent, but this was war,” Kashwani says. “It was violent and Salim died defending what he believed in, and what he believed in was his country as represented by its flag.”

At the time Salim died, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb belonged to Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Musa to Sharjah.

In the comic, the invaders, not directly identified as Iranians, and defenders battle it out across the island.

Al Qassimiya school, funded by the late founding father, Sheikh Zayed, had been open for just two weeks when it became one of the island’s battle zones.

During the fighting at the police station, which the six officers are defending, Salim kills the leader of the invaders.

“Then, as Salim climbed up to the pole carrying the flag, holding up a rifle and aiming it at the invaders as they tried to shoot down the flag, he was showered with shots from the enemy,” the script reads.

The words are printed under a close-up of Salim’s face, with bullets coming from every angle.

This image is one of the most powerful in the collection and one over which Mr Kashwani said he took great pains.

“I am very particular about facial expressions and details,” he says. “I spent many hours drawing that moment when Salim is about to die and he knows he is about to die.

“People asked me, ‘why does he have tears in his eyes? Is it because of fear?’ I tell them no, it is because he knew they have lost. It was tears of sorrow.”

Before the union, the flag Salim defended with his life was that of RAK, in the shape of a red rectangle surrounded by white.

In the comic, Salim’s blood is that of the colour of the flag, almost as if the two have united in death.

“I wanted to leave the reader with a powerful image. He was a hero and bravery should never be forgotten,” says Kashwani.

The comic art was on display at Dubai Mall and attracted more than 12,000 visitors, Watani organisers say.

One of the visitors was the son of Salim’s cousin, a teenager who did not know about the comic until he visited the mall.

“He was in awe over the story and he loved it that his relative is a superhero of sorts,” says Kashwani.

“I will admit I felt great pressure and stress to make sure I did a great job as the story is a national treasure.”

Ali Suhail, one of Salim’s brothers, has said his younger sibling was always a passionate character, much like the one portrayed in the comic book.

“He was a very passionate, stubborn person and so I wasn’t surprised when I heard he was killed defending something he believed in,” said Mr Suhail, who was also a policeman, stationed at RAK’s main police station.

He was on duty at the time of the invasion and recalls an urgent message sent from Greater Tunb by morse code.

“My brother was barely there a month before he was killed,” said Mr Suhail, who is in his 70s. “He died a hero’s death.”

Salim was one of five brothers, three of whom joined the police.

He was buried on the island he helped to defend.

Mr Kashwani says almost half of the visitors to the art display had never heard of Salim.

“The Arab visitors, particularly from other Gulf countries, loved the comic and the story,” he says. “They suggested I do more of these where I highlight other heroes from Arab history.

“But I want to do more mystical, fantasy-related comics, as they are boundless and not tied down to facts.”

Whatever projects the young artist undertakes, he will always be the one who brought “Captain UAE” to life.

“The US has Captain America, so we have Captain UAE in the form of Salim Suhail,” he says.

“We need more heroes like him.”