“Is there an Arab superman? An Arab batman?”
A simple and honest question, voiced by a six year-old elementary student in Minnesota in the United States. The question took the classroom visitor, Suleiman Bakhit, by surprise. A native Jordanian and student at the University of Minnesota, Bakhit became an activist post-9/11 and routinely visited elementary classrooms to dispel stereotypes about Arabs in America. But until now, nobody had ever asked him about Arab superheroes - and he realized that there weren’t any. When the classroom visit ended and he returned to campus, the idea stuck with him.
Years later, in 2011, Bakhit published and sold 1.2 million comic books in Jordan. Thanks to the King Abdullah Fund for Development, Bakhit’s company, Aranim Media Factory, achieved early success and readership among Jordanian schoolchildren. But the journey was not easy, as the comic book entrepreneur never left his roots as a college activist. At the Oslo Freedom Forum last October, Bakit outlined a much greater purpose for his work.
“It’s a project dedicated to promoting heroism as an antidote to extremism,” explains Bakhit, speaking in front of a wall-sized projection image of his comics. “We are developing a terrorism prevention program that teaches young kids to take these heroic journeys… based on positive narratives of hope, of resilience, of love, of connection.”
Rather lofty goals for a comic book maker. But Bakhit believes in his moral message, and believes that comic books are the best medium to espouse it. More importantly, it’s a message that Arab youth need right now, says Bakhit.
“One things I do is a lot of focus groups in a low-income area of Jordan,” Bakhit tells his audience in Oslo. “And I go there, and I ask the kids, ‘Who are your heroes?’ The kids look at me and say, “Well we don’t really have any heroes, but we hear a lot about bin Laden, about Zarqawi [a Jordanian who founded the organization that became ISIS]… and that they defend us against the west.’”
Rather than argue with schoolchildren, Bakhit chose to give them free comic books. According to Bakhit, when he returned a few months later and asks the same question, “not a single kids mentions the names of bin Laden or Zarqawi. They’re all talking about the comic book characters.”
The heroic narrative of comic books, proposes Bakhit, is the natural antidote to the terrorist narrative. Referencing the “heroic journey” theory of mythologist Joseph Campbell, Bakhit claims that the terrorist narrative does not differ from any other heroic narrative we’ve seen humanity produce. A story in which a hero is called into action, discovers his/her role often through great suffering, and then returns as the hero that society needs. Campbell originally, and famously, applied his theory to the bible. Bakhit, on the other hand, applies this theory to the journey of Mohammed. And many years later, “bin Laden emulated that journey to the letter”.
Today, ISIS uses its own dark version of the same narrative to attract recruits – it calls to action Muslim youth of the Middle East and Europe to find their own role in Islamic Jihad.
So can comic books be the “antidote” to the dark narrative of extremism, like Bakhit claims? Well, if Bakhit talks the talk, he certainly walks the walk. His stories include “Section Nine”, a comic based upon on a real all-female counterterrorism unit in Jordan. One of Bakhit’s most successful comics, Element Zero, also follows a Jason Bourne-like counter terrorism agent.
His stories often integrate elements of Arab cultural heritage, and Bakhit has hinted that his newest project is modeled on A Thousand and One Nights and centers on female empowerment. It will be the first of his comics printed in English.
However, shortly after Aranim Media Factory’s lightning success of 2011, trouble started brewing. The company’s comic Saladin 2100, a post-apocalyptic comic set in the future, ruffled the Jordanian government’s feathers when its setting implied the absence of the ruling Hashemite Dynasty.
And although their comics were a hit in the classroom, others were not great fans of Bakhit’s work. An extremist attack left Bakhit with a long scar above and below his left eye. Bakhit takes it in stride, and jokingly references the wonders it’s done for his dating life.
Aranim Media Factory did not survive its joust with the government, but Bakhit’s optimism is alive and well. This last year, Bakhit re-envisioned his comic book venture as a new organization named Hero-Factor . According to its website, which is still under construction, Hero-Factor will carry on Bakhit’s work on “the development of stories, myths, and heroes that promote tolerance and counter a culture of extremism and discrimination against women and girls.” If Bakhit has any say, it sounds like his own heroic narrative has some life in it yet.
Check out Bakhit in action at the Oslo Freedom Forum this past October.