Storytelling doesn't have to be digital to catalyze rapid social change. Consider the fastest-selling comic book in the Arab world, called The 99. Though just 11 months old, it's already banned in Saudi Arabia; its cast features 99 Islamic superheroes on a quest to find legendary, mystical Noor Stones needed to save the world.
Why 99? All characters are based on the concept of Allah's 99 attributes, including wisdom and generosity, as taught in the Koran. The current issue of The 99 follows some of the superheroes as they race to stop two planes from colliding at a New York airport.
During a recent stop in Oxford, I caught up with the creator of The 99, Naif Al-Mutawa, who says he's been a fan of America's Marvel comics and The Hardy Boys mysteries since he attended summer camp in New Hampshire as a child.
Al-Mutawa is now 37, a Columbia University Business School graduate and a clinical psychologist. After attending college in the States, he worked as a translator for torture survivors, and decided Muslims needed positive role models. In 2005, he founded Teshkeel Media Group in Kuwait City, where he was born and raised. In July 2007, less than a year ago, Teshkeel began publishing The 99 (as well as select, Arabic versions of Spiderman and other Marvel comics) in the United States and across the Middle East.
Al-Mutawa says he hopes the comic books will spread a moderate, modern image of Islam to the world and create new role models. "The Islamic world has had suicide bombers as heroes and needed new heroes," Al-Mutawa told Cause Global.
Characters in The 99 include Noora the Light, 18, (a former university student in Sharjah—the third-largest emirate in the UAE—who is now "a light to overcome the darkness"); Mumita the Destroyer, 17 (a street-smart runaway teen from the UAE who is being recruited by both the forces of good and evil to fight), and Dr. Ramzi Razem, 35 (a psychologist, historian, and UNESCO official who lives in Paris as a sort-of Arab version of Indiana Jones, hungry to learn more about the Noor stones and to mobilize the 99 for global peace).
There also is Jabbar the Powerful—a 19-year-old whose online profile says he was once "an average Saudi Arabian teen" until he stepped on a land mine and was transformed by hidden gem shards into a "man-mountain, a giant standing over two meters tall and weighing almost 200 kilograms." The good guys, led by Dr. Ramzi, seek to keep Jabbar out of the control of Muslim extremists. How powerful is Jabbar? If he sneezes, his profile adds, Jabbar "could level a house."
In recent weeks and months, Al-Mutawa has been busy launching The 99 in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, countries outside the Arab Middle East where Islamic culture and history are widespread. Teshkeel announced May 19 it would open a theme park this fall in Jahra, Kuwait, based on the action figures.
For a Frontline World piece on Al-Mutawa's trip to Indonesia to introduce The 99, see this:
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