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Fundamental Comics: G. Willow Wilson Creates Modern Muslim Identity with ‘Cairo’

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

Writer:  G. Willow Wilson
Artist/Colorist:  M. K. Perker
Letterer:  Travis Lanham
Editor:  Joan Hilty    
Publisher:  Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics
Publication Date:   November 7, 2007
No. of Issues:  Graphic Novel

SPOILER ALERT: There are major plot reveals that may impede the reader’s enjoyment if reading Cairo for the first time.

Egypt is the seat of one of the longest civilizations and is often referred to as a cradle of civilization.  While there were forms of localized governments and established cultural practices that can be traced back to 10,000 BCE, 3150 BCE marks the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt and the beginning of pharaonic dynasties.  Over the centuries, the ancient Egyptians developed and led many societal and cultural changes; they were often victors, but, eventually, their power dissipated as other cultures expanded and exerted their political power.  It wasn’t until the early 20th century before Egypt found independence once again.

Egypt gained their independence in 1922, but it wasn’t until the U.S. became involved during the Suez Crisis (1956) that the two countries established ties.  The U.S. brokered a peace agreement in 1979, supporting Egypt with military aid and positioning them as a key ally in the Middle East, which eventually evolved into a bilateral friendship.  Egypt initially supported counterterrorism steps taken by the U.S. after the attacks of 2001 but drew the line at Iraqi occupation efforts.  A crack in the friendship formed and manifested itself through a period of tension and transition that finally erupted in 2011.  It was during this time, in 2003, that American writer G. Willow Wilson moved to Cairo to teach English.  This move coincided with her conversion to Islam.  In 2007, this ancient city became the backdrop and namesake of her first graphic novel, Cairo (Vertigo), which paired her with artist M. K. Perker.  Although Muslim characters were not new to comics, Wilson’s ensemble cast was an early effort to portray a group of Middle Eastern characters that did not traditionally fit into the stereotypes that American audiences were familiar with from other comics, films, television, etc.

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The Plot
“So, today, I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck,” states a young man, smoking a cigarette with a hookah at his side.  This is Ashraf, an Egyptian smuggler, looking to make some money and have a better life.  An Israeli special forces soldier, Tova, is traveling with a group of Bedouin, and, unbeknownst to her, she has crossed the border into Egypt and must quickly find a quiet way to get back home. American Kate and Lebanese-American Shaheed are on the same flight bound for Cairo.  She is an aspiring journalist looking for a writing job that matches with her political views, while Shaheed is a student headed for Beirut where he plans to don a bomb and sacrifice himself.  Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egyptian dissident journalist Jibreel harbors big dreams for himself and his girlfriend (Ashraf’s sister) Salma.  

All five characters are on a collision course towards each other via the hookah Ashraf stole from power-hungry crime lord and secret magician (Nar) who has nefarious plans.  Ashraf peddles the pipe to Shaheed, but later seeks to get it back when he learns that the hookah is home to a djinn, Shams, who is both cursed and coveted by Nar.  Each character brings their insight and personal baggage into the story, proving that life’s issues transcend political and cultural differences.  Each character must grapple with the cause/effect of their actions, as well as seek to understand (and challenge) their beliefs and prejudices.  All of the characters’ stories quickly intertwine with Shams, protector of East (an unimaginable power), and along the way, each finds friendship and clarity of purpose.  Much of the action crisscrosses present-day Cairo (a supporting character of the story), while the mystical aspects unfold in the world of Under-Nile.  

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Reception Upon Original Release
As mentioned in the introduction above, the U.S./Egypt political relationship blossomed with the peace agreement and military aid; however, Egyptian and Middle Eastern characters portrayed in American popular culture mediums did not fair well.  In an August 2019 The Hollywood Reporter article, “Ms. Marvel, Muslim Identity and a Changing Hollywood” written by Sheraz Farooqi, Muslim characterization is often “pigeonholed into a villainous stereotype; they are terrorists with heavy accents. […] or just bad guy fodder for our heroes to mow down…” Muslim men are often bearded, talk with a heavy accent, angry, and are driven by conservative ideologies; for example, look at successful films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg), True Lies (1994, James Cameron), The Siege (1998, Edward Zwick), or the recent London Has Fallen (2016, Babak Najafi).  The same stereotypes populated American television viewing experience.  Not mentioned in Farooqi’s article, but just as important, was the casting of non-Middle Eastern actors to Middle Eastern roles in American films and television, which excluded their own agency and experience that they could bring to these roles. reporter Latonya Pennington gathered together “15 Muslim Characters in Comics You Should Know” in an article dated February 3, 2017, and included a long list of superhero characters including Wilson’s Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), a Pakistani-Muslim living in the U.S.  This was the first comic in which a Muslim character headlined their own title.  Other than Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, about her childhood in Iran (translated into English in 2003/2004), there are no other Middle Eastern non-superhero characters mentioned in the list.

So, where does this put Cairo at the time of its release in 2007?  First, the graphic novel challenged well-worn Muslim stereotypes by taking place in Cairo and by having an international cast (Egyptian, Israeli, Lebanses-American, American) in which to explore and step away from the stereotypical Muslim portrayals.  Wilson’s efforts to capture her experiences and engagement with Cairo and its inhabitants resulted in one of the first Western sequential stories to provide a positive view of a Middle Eastern culture.  It resonated with American audiences, and, in late 2007, Cairo was named one of the best graphic novels of the year by Publishers WeeklySchool Library Journal named the paperback edition one of the Best Graphic Novels for High School Students in 2008 while in 2009, the American Library Association named Cairo one of the Top Ten Graphic Novels for Teens.

Critical Analysis
Fulbright scholar and professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Dr. Jack Shaheen dedicated much of his career to challenging and giving visibility to Arabs and Muslims.  In his seminal essay, “The Comic Book Arab,” published in The Link (November-December 1991, Vol. 24 No. 5), he studied the vast field of comic books, identifying three categories of Middle Eastern character stereotypes:

Repulsive Terrorist
These individuals are portrayed as “fanatics who wish to subjugate the western world through a reign of terror” in an us vs. them mentality.  Individuals in this group are overweight, uncouth, and whose appearance is unkept (facial hair for example).  They are angry, dangerous, and armed and ready to engage in violent acts against others.

Sinister Sheikh
“With his dark sunglasses, white headdress and fierce beard, the sheikhs of comic book lore vary little in the malevolence of their aspiration to world domination.” These individuals are evil super villains driving towards fulfilling their maniacal plans.  They are often associated with big business and have unlimited money to bankroll their plans.

Rapacious Bandit
Individuals in this group tend to fall into one of two subcategories.  They may be killers, but they tend to be backward and a more localized threat.  Of the three categories, among this group is a subset of characters that are more balanced, helpful, and sympathetic; however, this goal is seldom achieved.

In Shaheen’s research, he mentions the silencing nature of women stereotypes in the comics he reviewed.  He compared that women in a profession, such as dancer, had some voice (dialogue), but that women as housewives, often did not, particularly when wearing a full-body-length naqab.  Shaheen notes these women are “voiceless, featureless, and, for all [intents] purposes, mindless, she is wholly devoid of personality.”  Complicating women’s position in the story are those occasions when a Middle Eastern woman and an American man (hero) are attracted to and/or trust each other; as a result, “Arab men react with hostility to such events.”  Interactions between Arab men and western women are “almost without exception icy, overflowing with hate, lust, and mutual contempt.”  Educators Marvin Wingfield and Bushra Karaman state in their essay, “Arab Stereotypes and American Educators,” published in ADC in 2007 (the same year as Cairo’s release), that “The Arab world – 22 countries, the locus of several world religions, a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups, and hundreds of years of history – is reduced to a few simplistic images” which are overwhelmingly negative and heavily reliant on skewed generalizations.

Wilson sought to change the pervasive stereotypes with Cairo.  In an NPR interview conducted November 20, 2007, Wilson discussed, “A lot of the characteristics of the people who are in the book are drawn from experiences that either I have had or people close to me have had in the Middle East.  Emotionally, and also in some sense of – politically, I am drawing on the lives and the positions and the feelings of people that I know, you know, who have lived in the Middle East or who have a background that kind of draws them to these places.”  Although Wilson uses a stereotypical villain and henchmen, for her main group of protagonists, she plays off opposing traits as a method of exploring each character’s motivations and their journey of growth in the story.  There are three pivotal relationship moments that showcase each character’s uniqueness and growth in their respective situations.

Jibreel and Kate
Kate meets Jibreel as she seeks assistance in finding her hotel.  He states she is brave but should not be wandering alone.  Jibreel states he will help her by walking her to the hotel, and Kate catches herself as she begins to compare Jibreel’s generosity to the societal disconnect she is used to back home (Orange County, CA).  They are kidnapped and find themselves in the Under-Nile.  Feeling the stress of the situation and wondering if they will find their way back to Cairo, Kate and Jibreel find they are at odds with each other’s philosophical beliefs, and they engage in a heated argument.  The all-seeing devil is aware of their weaknesses, and he seeks to pit the pair against each other by exploiting their intolerance for each other’s cultural and personal beliefs.  He tries to provoke Jibreel and Kate, two rational individuals, to violently attack each other.  Jibreel finds strength in his love for others while Kate draws on her beliefs, and by teaming together they find compassion and defeat the devil.  Through their characters, readers witness that compassion is stronger than violent means.

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Tova and Ashraf
Politics and culture dictate they should be enemies.  He is a drug smuggler, and she is a special forces soldier.  They could not be more different, but after an initially bumpy start – at gunpoint, Tova demands Ashraf take her to the border – they find common ground.  Not the usual masculine hero and weaker female sidekick scenario, they work together as team by drawing on each other’s strengths.  Ashraf’s machismo appears late in the story when he feels protective of Tova because of the romantic feelings he has for her.  In turn, Tova grapples with war, because she realizes it is a war that she and Ashraf have inherited.  While it is true that there were no housewives represented in this story, Tova represents a female perspective that is not typical.  Additionally, she has her own voice, which is well represented in Cairo.   

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Shams and Shaheed
Shams does not look like any of Shaheen’s three stereotypes, and through this character Wilson conveys a mystical journey of a djinn that draws the ensemble cast, but especially Shaheed.   As a djinn, Shams knows what Shaheed has been up to and exactly why he was headed to Beirut.  The djinn is the young man’s voice of reason and wisdom.  The djinn also represents the one person who believes that Shaheed is a good person and has potential to find his life’s path.  Shaheed is so willing to sacrifice his life, but Shams helps him find strength and, more importantly, the will to live.  As a result, the two form a special bond and represent the mystical aspects of Cairo.  

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While Wilson relies on established stereotypes for the villain and his henchmen (especially Waleed), she successfully challenges those tropes when it comes to the main protagonists.  She pairs up each character by partnering them with their opposite, be it philosophical, political, cultural, and – in two of the pairings – by gender.  In each pairing and in the larger narrative, readers experience a diverse group of characters living life in another part of the world that has so often been depicted as full of terrorists, an angry group of people quick to violence – essentially, no redeeming attributes; however, Wilson tells a compelling and new story that reflects a more realistic view of an ancient Middle East city and its people.  

Although this essay has focused specifically on the text, Perker’s art brings to life this wonderful city and the cast of characters whose stories readers follow.  His inks and shadows are well done, and it is easy to forget that the visuals are only in black-and-white tones.  Perker emphasizes the action through panel orientation, but not to the detriment of Wilson’s storytelling.  It was an excellent partnership.

Relevancy Today
A dozen years later, does Cairo have relevancy today? In a word, yes.  Wingfield and Karaman state, “Prejudice and discrimination against Arab Americans is often rooted in negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims.”  This extends to ethnic groups of other countries that are portrayed in American popular culture mediums.  In Shaheen’s closing remarks, he states that these simple stereotypes do an “injustice to a people who have made tremendous contributions to society.”  Stereotypes establish generalizations that influence our media, and breeds ignorance.  More damaging, though, is the impact of negative stereotypes on the group being generalized, especially for young viewers who are impressionable and seeking role models in which to emulate.

Strides are being made, but there is always more that can and should be done.  As an industry, it’s important to give fair representation to groups under-represented, because it gives voice to groups of people we do not usually hear and see.  It is an opportunity to expand storytelling with less familiar, but no less interesting, characters that bring experiences and their culture to life.  As readers, we should seek out resources that will balance our reading and present us with more accurate details that inform us.  Stories like Cairo break down stereotypes and reveal not only a rich culture, but also a modern culture of people with similar goals, likes, challenges.  

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Michele Brittany, Fanbase Press Contributor



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