Drawn to a fair future

The epoch of the Arab superhero

As a female Arab nuclear scientist, Jalila is unique, but it's the flying and crime-fighting that really make her stand out from the crowd.

Since an invasion of Iraq was first proposed, western politicians and analysts have been prescribing how a future Middle East should look. Some say the region needs more freedom, others that its unruly people need controlling. What's been missing is an Arab vision for the future.

Europe and North America have a history of futur. Arab literature, on the other hand, has tended not to concern itself with distant possibilities. Until, that is, Egyptian-based AK Comics introduced a new world order guarded by Arab superheroes.

Three out of AK's four superhero comic characters live in the near future. Zein, a philosophy professor, is the last in an ancient line of pharaohs and lives in Origin City, which is much like Cairo. Jalila lives in the City of All Faiths, which resembles Jerusalem, and protects it from the radicals of the Zios Army and the United Liberation Force. Aya fights crime in Algeria, prowling her city in a catsuit and head-covering cape. All live in a Middle East recovering from a 55-year war between two unnamed powers.

Ayman Kandeel, who created the characters, says his aim is to depict a futuristic but realistic world. Muslims, Christians and Jews live together, facing the same threats from organised criminal gangs, evil robots and aliens. Black-clad soldiers massacring civilians do not discriminate between women in headscarves and those in T-shirts.

"In one year, ten or a hundred, it is inevitable - we will have peace and some form of harmony," he has said. "It will come from the emergence of a new threat from outside."

Kandeel says that as a child he drew inspiration from western writers, particularly Jules Verne, because he had little to turn to in Arabic. But it is not surprising that writers in the Arab, or larger Islamic, world were harried into introspection. While Verne was imagining trips to the moon, Arab thinkers were trying to understand why their civilisation was losing ground to European powers in almost every field.

In Europe and North America, the age of discovery was built on societies sufficiently stable to turn their energies towards exploration. The Arab and Muslim worlds ended up on the receiving end of much of that zeal and their failure to meet the challenge undermined deeply held ideas of power, religion and identity. To the present day, the most pressing cultural issues relate to attempting to overcome that challenge.

So, instead of the future, the past is a more common theme in Arabic popular fiction and television dramas. But it was not always so. In the confident, ambitious and progressive Arab world that existed between the 8th and 14th centuries, Abu Nasr al-Farabi wrote about the perfect government in a society that had eradicated evil and Zakariya al-Qazwini wondered what an alien would make of his world.

Perhaps Kandeel's superheroes have something in common with their optimistic spirit.