Wednesday, 20 November 2013

... and more BD: Toktok! المزيد عن القصص المصورة: توك توك

TokTok #3 Front cover
In the last post, I already referred to TokTok, the more lighthearted (but by no means trivial) predecessor and pioneer in Egyptian BD magazines. If I add a separate post here devoted to that title, it is not because my conscience demands fair treatment, but because I had an opportunity to encounter, see and hear part of the editorial team last week. Meet the full team:

The TokTok editorial team (RTL): Makhlūf, Shinnāwī, Tawfīq, Hishām Raḥmah, ʿAbd Allāh, ʾAndīl
Dina Heshmat of the Arabic department had kindly taken the initiative to invite them for one of their informal lunchtime gatherings. Shinnāwī, Hishām Raḥmah, and ʾAndīl presented samples of their work, talked about their experience, and engaged with the questions from the crowd.

For the historical record: all three have a background in arts, and have 'real' jobs as illustrators/ caricaturists with Egyptian newspapers. The magazine began as an amateur (with a capital 'A', and a French accent) experiment before the 2011 revolution: the project of the magazine was first offered to two (unnamed) publishers, both of which refused, for various reasons, leading the group to publish themselves. Despite a lack of a formal distribution network (apparently, one has to publish an edition of at least 5000 copies to distribute via existing distributors; TokTok currently has an edition of 1000 copies), the magazine was a success, and has developed a relatively small, but faithful following -- students of the Fine Arts department, to begin with, but now it attracts readers from all walks of life.

TokTok #3 Page 1 and impressum
It helps that the content is humorous, that the stories are well scripted and visually appealing, and that the narratives often grow out of the illustrations -- indeed, there are several examples of narratives that rely on graphics alone, and do without text. Oh, and the text is mostly in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, so it has an 'authentic' flair about it, right down to the use of slang.

Here we come to the part that didn't appeal to the publishers: The magazine has warning on its cover: يحفظ بعيدا عن متناول الاطفال - Keep out of reach of children ... maybe because some of its content is graphic (as in 'explicit'), or because the texts contain sexual innuendo (or WORSE. Shush.). I read that the makers of Metro had themselves arrested and fined for infringing public decency, so this is not a trivial issue for publishers and artists alike.

It was interesting to hear ʾAndīl about the group's experience in offering the content to publishers. Because the concept is relatively new to the Egyptian market, publishers were reportedly not able to categorize the concept, or appreciate it fully. The artist also pointed out that the rough draft is less appealing that the finished product, and therefore tougher to sell. Responding to questions about alleged 'indecency' , the makers of TokTok pointed out that many recent novels contain language that is far more explicit than their magazine, and yet pass the censor without delay.

I am still trying to find out how one can buy an entire set of the magazine, and when I do, I'll add a note here that leads to the source. Enjoy.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Ta7weela / التحويلة

al-Tahwilah 1 (2013), front coveral-Tahwilah 1 (2013), back cover

At the Kotob Khan, I found copies of Ta7weela, a new Arabic comic magazine that came out with its first issue earlier this summer. For the bibliographically-minded, here is the citation:

al-Taḥwīlah: Qiṣaṣ muṣawwarah bi-al-ʿArabīyah lil-Kibār. Cairo, Beirut: The Comic Shop – Publishers.  al-ʿAdad 1 (Māyū/ Yūnyuh 2013) -- .
التحويلة: قصص مصورة بالعربية للكبار. القاهرة, بيروت: The Comic Shop – Publishers . العدد 1 (مايو\ يونيه 2013) --

The subtitle is essentially the editorial programme: Ta7weela publishes stories (in the broadest sense), in Arabic (dto.), for grown-ups. I say 'stories in the broadest sense', because some pieces in the volume--like the one about garbage-collectors--are not really narratives, but graphic documentaries, if you will. 

The idea of a magazine for grownups is not new, of course. In Egypt, there is TokTok magazine, which has been around since 2009, and there may well be other, similar ventures in the Maghrib (if you are aware of any, please point them out to me in your comments below). What distinguishes the two is that TokTok is a standalone venture, that  it has a certain amateurish charm to some (but not all) of its artwork, that its narratives are shorter, and that it is essentially humouristic. Ta7weela, on the other hand, is part of an array of publishing products that include acclaimed titles such as Metro by Magdy Elshafi (2012); that the artwork is professional throughout; and that it is far more serious in tone (think MAD vs. Persepolis). 

Since we are talking about Persepolis: the striking cover image is taken from a piece about Iran, albeit a translated one. Indeed, much of the content in Ta7weela appears to have been published previously in other languages. Here are some samples of the content:

So the artwork is professional (as in, consistently well-produced), but does it add to the narrative experience? This is where the content of Ta7weela is somewhat uneven: in some pieces, the illustrations are rather bland, and add no visual appeal. A few pieces, however, make good use of the medium by providing imagery that enhances the narrative.

The final verdict: Noteworthy. One single issue is hardly enough to allow me to talk about a new trend, about a groundswell of interest in graphic novels; indeed, compared to the Francophone world where we have an entire industry devoted to la BD, including museums and libraries with tens of thousands of titles, the local production is negligible. Then again, the genre is new enough to Egypt to be of interest, and it is certainly a positive sign to see graphic novels prominently displayed in bookstores around Cairo. Will they catch on? I can't say, but I'll be watching out for the Comic Shops next publications ...

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Al Kotob Khan Book Shop

Image by MPM (CC-BY)
Al Kotob Khan Book Shop
مكتبة الكتب خان

Let's begin this tour of Cairo bookshops close to home -- just across the street from our place, in fact.

Al Kotob Khan Book Shop can be found at 13, Road 254 in Maadi (nearby landmarks are Cairo American College and the Shell supermarket). They have a well-designed website and (wonder of wonders) a searchable inventory online.

I suppose one could call this a concept-bookstore-cum cafeteria. Indeed, they offer a decent selection of (modern) Arabic literature, English books (literary classics, some bestsellers, Art books, translations), in addition to a little German (Reclamheftchen!) and French. They also have CDs, DVDs, handcrafted stationary, local handicraft (kites, book bags), and a very pretty children's section with books in Arabic, English, German and French.

In some ways, Al Kotob Khan is similar to al-Diwan. What distinguishes the two is that the latter has turned into franchise, whereas Al Kotob Khan retains the atmosphere of a family business. One certainly does get the impression that the owner, Mrs. Karam Youssef, and her staff are very engaged in running the store, and eager to make it inviting and special.

The store itself is certainly inviting. Though quite well-attended, Al Kotob Khan is never crowded, or noisy, but feels like a place where one likes to read before buying. The tables are small, but have a view of a calm side street and lush green gardens. As far as I know, there is no other place nearby where one can sit quite so pleasantly -- just what one needs after a hellish commute on the ring road.

Now what makes Al Kotob Khan special? First, the selection of books available: In addition to bestselling and classic titles in Arabic in Literature, they offer a good selection of translations into English. What is find far more interesting is that Al Kotob Khan staff make an effort to promote niche publications, such as graphic novels in Arabic, or CDs of experimental music released on the 100 Copies label.

The store hosts cultural events (poetry readings and the like) from time to time, and serves as a space for exhibits of original artwork. Particularly noteworthy: the book display / فرشة كتب, a regular event to share gently used and new books at reasonable prices.

Oh, and Al Kotob Khan is a publisher. Among other titles, they published: Muḥammad Rabiʿ. ʿĀm al-tinnin. Al-Qāhirah: al-Kutub Khan, 2012. The novel was chosen as winner of the Sawiris Foundation prize for young novelists in 2011. Just so you know.

There is something reassuring about having a bookshop in the neighbourhood, and I am particularly glad that my local bookshop is such an interesting one. I am confident that  Al Kotob Khan will continue to make its mark, despite the competition elsewhere in Maadi.