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Witnessing the Muslim world in pencil and ink

Alan Flurry

Art speaks truth in a way that history cannot. Integrating images with text, the graphic novel can illustrate an extremely personal point-of-view. Not only can it convey the internal dialogue of the work’s characters, but it can also deliver a visceral gut-punch with an image or the absence of one.

Esra Mirze Santesso, associate professor of English in the Franklin College of Arts & Sciences, wasn’t always a critic and educator of graphic novels. But after a colleague introduced her to Persepolis, a coming-of-age story set in the Iranian Revolution, she realized just how poignant, rich—and popular—the medium is in majority Muslim countries.

This was surprising, given that some adherents to the faith view visual representations of humans as blasphemous. Yet a small but growing number of authors and artists are using the medium to tell intimate and compelling stories of life in the Muslim world. Santesso’s book, Muslim Comics and Warscape, is tentatively due out next year.

“In the last decade or two, there’s been an explosion of comics and graphic narratives from Egypt, Syria, Iran, Turkey and Palestine, with authors merging text with image to engage with human rights violations and the kinds of trauma that cannot be represented adequately using just language,” said Santesso. “They’re writing history from the margins.”

Authored mainly by expatriates living in the West, the graphic novels tackle dangerous themes that wouldn’t be possible if they resided in their home countries. In stories like Zahra’s Paradise, the creators, Amir and Khalil, narrate a tale about a teen protestor in Iran lost in a miasma of extralegal efforts to silence people like him who are critical of the regime.

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Image: English professor Esra Mirze Santesso. (Photo by Jason Thrasher)

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