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Naif Al-Mutawa brings multicultural superheroes to life

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"Sometimes giving the right information at the right time can create change," says Andrew Zolli. "Our next presenter is engaged in a 'meta-cultural hack.'" Naif Al-Mutawa (Pop!Tech bio; here's his standard bio) is the creator of THE 99 -- the first group of superheroes born of an Islamic archetype. (You can download a pdf of The 99: Origins for free here if you're interested.) Al-Mutawa is speaking as part of the Meaningful Engagements session this afternoon.

Here's an animated trailer for "The 99: Origins." This is not the trailer for the forthcoming animated series, which has much higher production values, but that latter trailer doesn't seem to be online, alas.

"I'm from Kuwait; I'm disappointed, I'm not getting the love for oil in this room," Al-Mutawa quips, and everyone laughs. He's father and step-father of seven children, all born in New York. Al-Mutawa's five boys (and his step-children from his wife's previous marriage) attend Camp Robin Hood, which is not far from here. His own parents sent him there in 1979. "Back then the best we could do for television in Kuwait was...maybe catching a glimpse of something from Baghdad." He had no idea what Fantasy Island was; other pop cultural references likewise went over his head. When he got home, he told his parents about his friends: Steinberg, Greenberg, Goldberg. His parents asked, where are they from? Kids at the camp had joked that these were nice Italian names, so that's what Al-Mutawa told his father!

The next year his parents sent him to a camp in Switzerland -- but within a year he was back at Camp Robin Hood. He went there for 10 years, and his sons go there now. "It was there that I started to navigate self and other, how I'm seen, how others see me." (You can read more of this story in Al-Mutawa's essay Concentration Camps and Comic Books.)

He graduated from Tufts in 1994 and returned to Kuwait as a writer. A ma theren had just gotten fired from his job because of his religion; the man who fired him was handing out leaflets saying that had he known the man's religion he would never have hired him to begin with. "My reaction was, what planet had I landed on?!" He wrote a book intended for adults which won an award for children's literature. A few books did well; but his fourth book was banned. Al-Mutawa found it frustrating dealing with censors. The Soviet Union banned Animal Farm, he said, because they read it and knew what it meant. "In my neck of the desert it was banned because there was a pig on the cover! It's a different level of censorship."

He returned to New York, trained in pyschology, and "heard one too many stories of people who'd grown up idolizing their leader as a hero only to grow up and be tortured by him. Imagine that it's the hero who's torturing you -- the person you've been aspiring to become." Some of his patients there, he said, "were part of the army that invaded my country in 1990."

After he got his MBA, his sister started bugging him to write for kids again. "For me to go back now, it would have to have the potential of Pokemon," he said, "or it's not worth it." But then it occurred to him that Pokemon was considered non-Islamic in some markets. "Who were these people making these decisions for my children? How disappointed Allah must be." And then he realized, Allah has 99 attributes, and he could work with that idea in interesting ways. So he ran an idea by his sister, she loved it, he wrote the business plan, and next thing he knew he had investors in 15 countries. Investors in the United States, Mexico, even Beirut -- "I think I'm the only Kuwaiti who went into Beirut and came out with money!" This idea is what became The 99.

Superhero stories tend to either come out of the United States or out of Japan, and American superheroes often arise out of a Judeo-Christian mold. Superman's message comes from another planet, much like Moses in the basket on the Nile. The Bible is the greatest story ever told, and comics repackage those stories in ways that resonate with people. "I told my investors I was going to repackage the Qur'an" -- to repurpose it to tell positive, multicultural stories.

"This was going to be [as big as] Superman, or not worth my time and money," Al-Mutawa says: no shoddy fifth world production for him. He returned to New York to make it happen. "Imagine going to NYC after 9/11 and telling them you wanted to make comics based on Islam."

From the beginning, the people involved were people who knew Batman and Superman, who were aware of the tradition of great comic books and graphic novels. The premise is, there are 99 characters from 99 countries -- this had to be pitched not just to the Middle East, because every year people get censored and he didn't want to fall prey to that. There's an American hero, a British hero, a Saudi hero; they work in teams of three because in Islam you don't leave a boy and a girl alone together. There's a scholar online, Al-Mutawa tells us, who argues this reflects his secret Trinitarianism -- "you believe who you want!"

The cast includes Hadya from Pakistan, Janek from Hungary, Jabbar from Saudi who uses his muscles, Noora from the UAE who "sees the true light" in people (nur means light.) It's about intercultural dialogue and intercountry connectedness. Mumita is from Portugal, Fattah from Indonesia, Sami from France, Mujiba from Malaysia -- she's the first character who wears hijab. Half the characters are girls but only a handful wear hijab; the idea is, there's many ways to be the person you want to be. (You can read more about the characters in the series here.)

"Sometimes you work hard but it's luck getting you where you want to be." The series was supposed to be covered in the New York Times, and it didn't happen, and it didn't happen -- and then the Danish cartoon controversy erupted and the Times suddenly gave The 99 huge coverage, and Al-Mutawa was terrified! But Islamic newspapers covered the story positively, and it was a huge break for them. They launched their first theme park in Kuwait in March: The 99 Village Theme Park. (Here's an article about it.)

The idea isn't to write something which will only be read by Jewish kids or Christian kids or Muslim kids. "On a values level, we are all the same."

"How do you know that you've achieved what's not a fifth-world production?" Al-Mutawa asks, and then offers an answer: when Obama reached out to the Muslim world, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman reached out to The 99.

He shows a clip from the upcoming animation series, made with Endemol. (Read more about that.) It's gorgeous and sleek, and I want to watch more of it. The series clearly plays on some of the same themes as stories like The X-Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Harry Potter -- kids coming together to save the world -- except that it begins in 13th century Baghdad, with all of the iconography one might expect. The origin myth is that during the fall of Baghdad at the hands of the Mongols 500 years ago, 99 magical stones were dipped in the waters of the Tigris as the books of Baghdad were destroyed, and they were infused with the powers of all of that knowledge. Those stones are now being discovered, and transmitting their power to 99 young people, though some are falling into the hands of people whose intentions are evil rather than good. These are classic superhero tropes, recast in a multicultural frame. (I'm pretty sure that's the same story you'd find in the free pdf download of The 99: Origins -- I've downloaded that but haven't had time to read it yet.)

Al-Mutawa leaves us with a question: whose fault is it that deranged lunatics cited JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye when they shot John Lennon and tried to shoot Ronald Reagan? Is it the fault of the book, or of the people who read it? He tells a story about how when he was in college, someone was handing out free food under a big sign that read "Free Falafel," and "everything was neutral, nothing political," until a woman came running across the campus and yelled "Falafel? Who's that?" She'd just come from an Amnesty International meeting and saw the sign through those eyes (she thought Falafel was a political prisoner somewhere)! So next time someone says they're doing something in the name of their religion, think of what they're saying, and remember how to read the sign.