Ever since Will Eisner's A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories was published in 1978, graphic novels have become a captivating and entertaining way to tell stories.
Unfortunately, though, like in many other narratives popularised in the West, Arabs have found themselves depicted negatively in these works. However, as the tide slowly turns on Arab representation in the media, there has been a surge over the years in authentic stories set in the Arab world in graphic novels in particular — stories that describe the Arab experience or that are written or illustrated by Arabs.
From Egypt to Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and even fictional Arab countries, here are 19 graphic novels, across genres, set in the Middle East that grapple with nuanced experiences through authentic storytelling.
'Habibi' by Craig Thompson
In a fictional, unspecified Arab country, two refugee child slaves, Dodola and Zam, find each other by chance. In a bid for their freedom they escape their captors to make a life for themselves in the desert, but are once again separated and struggle to find a way to reunite.
Craig Thompson’s Habibi blends traditional and timeless themes and story tropes from the Arab world, such as sprawling deserts, harems and contemporary aspects or city life, to create a rich, believable world, beautifully illustrated and captivatingly told.
'The Rabbi’s Cat' by Joann Sfar
Set in 1930s Algeria, The Rabbi's Cat is a comical tale about a cat belonging to a widowed rabbi and his daughter, Zlabya, who gobbles up the family parrot and gains the ability to speak.
What follows is an entertaining series that sees the rabbi educate the cat, who has a keen interest in philosophy and Judaism.
When Zlabya falls in love and decides to marry, the talking cat and the rabbi have to grapple with this new reality while discussing the mundane and essential details of life.
'Hasib & the Queen of Serpents' by David B
An engrossing story with original ideas and immersive artwork, David B's work is influenced by the structural frame of the classic One Thousand and One Nights.
Filled with stories within stories and unexpected plot twists, the main character Hasib is in fact Hasib Karim al-Din, a character from the famous tales.
In David B’s reimagining, Hasib is a young woodcutter who is abandoned by his friends in a forest. There he meets the Queen of Serpents who weaves a story of adventures spanning across the Middle East, from Kabul to Cairo, filled with princes, prophets, magic and demons.
'Pride of Baghdad' by Brian K Vaughan
Inspired by true events, award-winning writer Vaughan teams up with illustrator Niko Henrichon to create a compelling story.
Set in Iraq in 2003, a pride of lions, Zill, Safa, Noor and Ali, escape from the Baghdad Zoo after the city is bombed by American forces. Alone and lost but free, the lions roam the streets of the city, each sharing their perspective on the American invasion.
The story explores the true meaning of freedom through stunning visuals filled with allegory and a powerful story.
'River Jordan' by Merik Tadros
Set in Chicago and Amman, this story is about Rami, 9, who, while coming to terms with his father’s murder, starts to create art.
The therapeutic process takes him on a journey of discovery in which he meets with his father’s old friend Nabil, who began losing his eyesight the moment Rami’s father died.
Together, Rami and Nabil create art bonding them as artists while Rami discovers a way to spiritually connect with his father and deal with his loss.
'Palestine' by Joe Sacco
First published in 1996, Palestine is an innovative piece of graphic journalism by Sacco who has been called the first comic book journalist.
Featuring an introduction from renowned author, critic and historian Edward Said, Palestine documents Sacco’s experiences in the West Bank and Gaza in the early 1990s where he conducted more than 100 interviews.
Through illustrations and written dialogue, Sacco explores the Palestinian revolution and the Gulf War, detailing many of the difficulties faced by the Palestinian people.
'Baddawi' by Leila Abdelrazaq
Through powerful imagery and a compelling story, Abdelrazaq explores her father Ahmed’s harrowing childhood in Baddawi.
Raised in a refugee camp called Baddawi in northern Lebanon, Ahmad is one of the thousands of Palestinians who fled their homeland after the 1948 war.
Readers see Ahmed struggle to find his place in the world and attempt to forge his own path in life in the 1960s and '70s, while attempting to maintain an identity and his relationship to his country and culture as an exiled Palestinian.
'The Arab of the Future' by Riad Sattouf
Award winning French-Syrian cartoonist Sattouf’s autobiographical graphic novel is depicted from the perspective of a child.
Set in rural France, Libya and Syria in the 1970s and ’80s, the reader is taken on a journey through Sattouf’s childhood featuring three dictators that altered the course of his life — Gaddafi, Assad, and his father.
Produced in five volumes full of sensory symbolism, the first volume of the graphic memoir won the 2015 Fauve d’Or prize for Best Graphic Novel at the Angouleme International Comics Festival.
'A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return' by Zeina Abirached
Set in 1984, in East Beirut, during the Lebanese Civil War, this novel by Abirached is a sensitive and heart-warming story on the impact of war.
The graphic memoir is filled with stylised figures and clearly designed pages that tell the story of Zeina, 6, and her brother who must endure a night of bombings when their parents don’t return one day from a visit to the other side of the city.
Zeina’s neighbours band together to create a safe, fun and distracting indoor world for the brother and sister to make it through the evening until their parents return home.
'I Remember Beirut' by Zeina Abirached
While not an official sequel to A Game for Swallows, Abirached’s I Remember Beirut is a collection of stories based on Abirached’s childhood.
The story takes an apolitical outlook of post-war Lebanon and is filled with poignant and powerful details on the impact of war. There is no linear structure to the story but is instead a series of anecdotes on the aftermath of violence and civil unrest
The graphic novel is a collection of Abirached’s wartime memories where she recounts some poignant and beautiful details of Lebanon at a specific time and place.
'Metro: A Story of Cairo' by Magdy El Shafee
Set in busy, dynamic Cairo and translated by Chip Rossetti, this novel tells the story of Shihab, who, in an attempt to pay back a loan, decides to rob a bank. But things don’t go according to plan.
Shihab and his friend Mustafa come across evidence of vile actions taken by a corrupt government on their excursion. They find themselves as targets of the regime and set off to execute a complicated plan while running for their lives through Cairo’s metro system.
Fast-paced and edgy, Metro paints a detailed portrait of a city and country and its oppressive government at a particular time in recent history.
'Cairo' by G Willow Wilson
An urban fantasy set in Cairo, Wilson’s graphic novel is a unique tale full of an unlikely cast of characters.
An Egyptian drug dealer, a journalist, a troubled student, a girl from California, an Israeli soldier — five strangers whose lives are changed forever as they race through present-day Cairo in search of an artefact of formidable power — a jinn trapped in a stolen shisha.
From travelling to the spiritual underworld and dealing with a gangster magician, Cairo is filled with humour, adventure, action and the fight between good and evil.
'Squire' by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas
An exciting fantasy adventure and illustrated by Nadia Shammas, Alfageeh's novel is a story about swords, knights and squires.
It follows Aiza who has always dreamt of becoming a knight. As part of the conquered Ornu people, Aiza's only way to be a full citizen of the Bayt-Sajji Empire, which finds itself on the brink of war once again, is through knighthood.
But when Aiza enlists into one of the most competitive squire training programmes she has to navigate through new friendships, rivalries and an intense training all while hiding her true identity.
'Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution' by Sherine Hamdy
The story of an unlikely friendship, Hamdy brings anthropological research to life with scholarly insights through beautiful images and storytelling.
The story follows Anna and Layla, two young girls who come from different classes, cultural backgrounds and religions as they form a friendship despite their differences.
But years later, when Anna learns that she may carry the hereditary cancer gene responsible for her mother's death and Layla's family are faced with a decision about kidney transplantation, their friendship is put to the test when the stark realities of their lives are laid out in front of them — especially when Egypt’s revolution changes everything.
Through a wonderfully illustrated story, Hamdy sheds light on issues around global politics, inequalities and friendship.
'I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir' by Malaka Gharib
A graphic memoir about heritage, self-discovery and family, Gharib's novel is a beautiful and thoughtful insight into the lives of modern immigrants.
Identity and culture are explored through illustrations that describe her life as a teenage girl living in a pre-internet world trying to please her parents’ high expectations while navigating the customs of her Egyptian-Filipino family within a very white, American culture.
'It Won't Always Be Like This: A Graphic Memoir' by Malaka Gharib
Over 15 years of annual summer holidays, readers see how Gharib navigates through awkward adolescence and figuring out boys in a country whose language, culture and religion seem completely foreign.
While discovering more about Arab culture from Nancy Ajram to melon-mint shisha and trips to the desert, G also reconnects with her father and forges new bonds with her stepmother whom she realises might be more like her than she first assumed.
While discovering more about Arab culture from Nancy Ajram to melon-mint hookah and trips to the deseraribt, Gh also reconnects with her father and forges news bonds with her stepmother whom she realises might be more like her than she first assumed.
'Shubiek Lubiek' by Deena Mohamed
An incredibly original and imaginative graphic novel set in a version of Cairo where wishes from genies are not only real, but for sale. The story was originally written and illustrated by Mohamed in Arabic, but will be available in English in January next year.
The book, whose title translates to "Your Wish is My Command" in Arabic, tells the story of three characters, Aziza, Nour and Shokry, from three different backgrounds in Cairo.
In a world where different tiers of wishes are for sale, each character finds themselves in a position of a first-class top-tier wish that could potentially change their lives for the better.
Mohamed tells a fantastical story through humour, irony, wit and drama weaving together feminist and sociopolitical realities in modern-day Egypt with magic.
'Zahra's Paradise' by Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib
Set in modern Iran after the 2009 election, this story follows a chain of events after the disappearance of a young protester and activist Mehdi.
Most likely abducted by the government’s secret police, a search is conducted by Mehdi’s mother and his brother, a blogger, who uses technology for clues to help them on their search.
While fictional, Zahra's Paradise is based on actual events and was inspired by the very real experiences of protesters who vanished and journalists who investigated their disappearances.
'The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya' by Reimena Yee
A magic realist, historical epic with elements of Gothic fiction and literary themes, this one is a story of love and loss in the Ottoman era.
The two-volume graphic novel tells the story of a carpet merchant, Zeynel, and his wife, Ayse, whose lives we see from the start of their teenage romance to them navigating life in 17th century Istanbul.
But after helping a stranger who turns out to be a vampire, Zeynel is turned into a vampire himself and is forced to return home to Ayse with his new identity. He’s also burdened with the knowledge that he will eventually outlive the love of his life.
The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya is a fascinating and engrossing tale of how Zeynel reconnects to faith, love and home after his “death” by a vampire.