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Tales from the gardens of the devil
by Roland Huguenin-Benjamin

The comic strip is both a complex art form and a powerful means of communication, whose outreach varies from one culture to the next. In the Middle East, an artist has undertaken an original project designed to raise young people's awareness of humanitarian issues.
Borji is a cartoonist and caricaturist. He started out in 1988 in Algeria when he and a group of friends created a satirical magazine. In it he found an opportunity to give free rein to his love of drawing, after following a somewhat circuitous academic career via medicine, biology and French literature.

His real name is Jamal Si Larbi, and he was born 40 years ago in western Algeria. Even as a child, he immersed himself in books and comics. He discovered Africa through the drawings of Hugo Pratt, and by reading the works of Jack London he indulged his dreams of travelling the world, while listening to Bob Marley. Today he lives and works in Cairo. On arriving in Egypt, Jamal was determined to track down the Egyptian artists and authors whose names had figured so prominently in his youthful forays into Arabic literature. No need to ask him whether he believes in the formative role of literature: from a young age he was already devouring books in French and Arabic from library shelves.

While in Egypt, Jamal came across El Katkout, a magazine created in the 1930s, and met artists such as Higazi, Bahgat and Hussein Bikar, creator of the famous Sinbad who brightened the lives of so many children in the 1930s. Thanks to Muhy edDin el Labbad, graphic art's true innovator in the Middle East, Jamal got to know all the leading lights of art and letters in the region.

Barely a few months later, he had launched a weekly three- or four-frame cartoon strip in an Egyptian French-language newspaper. Through the satirical character Biba, he revived the comic-strip genre for adults in Egypt, a genre that had only survived until then in Algeria. Although in the 1930s Egypt had seen the emergence of contemporaries of Tintin and Spirou, the tradition had unfortunately not taken root, and the rare few who carried it on in the 1960s and beyond were not able to ensure real continuity of the 'ninth art' in Egypt. According to Borji, who is incensed by the poor quality of the cultural offerings in this domain, the reason for this was the lack of rigour in the drafting of scripts and books for children in Egypt. He thinks children are not taken seriously as a target audience. Authors and scriptwriters over-simplify topics for children and do not devote the necessary time to research and drafting. It should be said in their defence that they are not encouraged to do so, since too often this kind of work does not reap the rewards it deserves.

A decisive encounter

However, Borji is not a man to be dissuaded when he gets an idea into his head. In 1995, he began to seek out talented authors and scriptwriters and persuaded them to write for his comic strips. At about the same time he met the representatives of the ICRC regional promotional office in Cairo, which was looking to produce comic strips to spread knowledge of the basics of international humanitarian law among young people. The two parties rapidly came to an agreement to produce high-quality story lines on the basis of in-depth research, while ensuring fair remuneration for both scriptwriter and artist. Thus was born the ICRC's first series of Arabic comic strips on the theme of anti-personnel mines. There was no need to look too far for the story setting: El Alamein, site of the famous Second World War battle between the Allies and Rommel, lies on Egypt's Mediterranean coast. More than 50 years after the end of the conflict, the area is still strewn with these death traps, and the Bedouin who live there have dubbed it the "gardens of the devil". The artist and scriptwriter travelled down there, made contact with the local people and talked to shepherds who had experience of the wounds caused by exploding landmines. The story unfolds against this backdrop and describes the adventures of a group of children in the sands of El Alamein.

Its realism is borne out by the photographs and eyewitness accounts gathered on the spot. Needless to say, the book is called The gardens of the devil.

For Borji, a picture is always worth 1,000 words


Testing the impact

But who can predict if children will be receptive to a comic strip that aims indirectly to heighten their awareness of a cause, however noble it may be? In an era of high-tech animated cartoons, films with mind-boggling special effects and video games based on fighting and violence, is there really a place for the humble comic strip? For Borji, "Any technological advance opens up new applications in the fields of art and media. The invention of photography did not rule out painting; rather it helped it to evolve. But you can never be sure in advance of the success of a book, for its creation is always something of a gamble." In The gardens of the devil, the young heroes are faced with the latent violence of anti-personnel mines, they are chased by arms traffickers, and the suspense mounts as they have to go into hiding and get organized in order to survive. The violence is very real, but its use is measured and calculated according to the desired effect. "After publishing the first few episodes of our comic strip in a weekly youth magazine, we met a group of readers and were able to see for ourselves the interest that it had awakened," recalls Borji.

The success of the comic strip enabled the venture to be extended, and other series of episodes were launched in the Egyptian children's weekly magazine, Alaa el Din. A number of different approaches have been tried - from realism to science fiction - which have made it possible to test reader reaction. For example, the comic strip Coucouyouter, based on the concept of a time machine, had children enthralled, even though it dealt with several periods of history in a realistic setting and conveyed a number of subliminal educational messages. Children like to be addressed on a level that does not insult their intelligence, that gives them the information and helps them to analyse it. Along these lines, older French readers will no doubt remember Les belles histoires de l'oncle Paul ("The adventures of Uncle Paul"), published at one time in the magazine Spirou. The story was based on actual events in the lives of explorers and adventurers, and its dramatic structure held children's attention from one episode to the next.

At the end of the day, does one have to be a confirmed optimist to believe in a new generation with respect for the fundamental values of human dignity, even though television news bulletins swamp us daily with images of disaster? True to himself, Jamal Si Larbi does not mince his words: "Current world events are ample proof of the failure of the political class. Citizens must assert their role and take up the baton!"

Roland Huguenin-Benjamin
Roland Huguenin-Benjamin is head of the ICRC promotional office in Cairo.

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