A Western Twist on Middle East Literary Traditions

Two comic writers are breaking tensions with their unique interpretations of the Middle East. In American Bill Willingham's new graphic novel, 1001 Nights of Snowfall, he creates an American version of the Middle Eastern classic Book of 1001 Nights — starring Snow White. Meanwhile, Kuwaiti writer Naif al-Mutawa has a new comic series about the attributes of Allah. But his main characters are western-style superheroes. Steve Inskeep reports.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

At a time when many Americans think of the Middle East with anxiety, two writers have made their known exploration of the region's literary traditions. In both cases, they've updated those traditions. A Persian Gulf writer wrote a comic series inspired both by Islam and by American superheroes. An American writer created his own version of the Middle Eastern classic “Book of 1001 Nights.”

(Soundbite of Arabic music)

Unidentified Woman: Once upon a time, as all stories of this type must begin, a lovely woman traveled to a far-off, demon-haunted land of magnificent jeweled cities, cast adrift in a sea of wind-tossed desert.

INSKEEP: That's the beginning of American writer Bill Willingham's new graphic novel “1001 Nights of Snowfall.” It explores the same ground as Sinbad movies or Disney's “Aladdin,” offering a Western take on a Middle Eastern tale.

In his story, Willingham puts a character of European fables, Snow White, in the middle of the 1001 Nights. She fills the role of Scheherazade, the woman who spends the night with a brutal king. The king marries a new wife every night and then has her beheaded. And his new bride has to tell him a new story night after night appealing enough that he wants to keep her alive another night.

Mr. BILL WILLINGHAM (Author, “1001 Nights of Snowfall”): In the original he's pretty much forgiven. I mean, Scheherazade wins him over, they get married, make babies, live happily ever after. And the fact that, you know, he killed about 1,000 brides before her is kind of never brought up again - which I found kind of wonderfully unsettling.

(Soundbite of Music)

Mr. NAIF al-MUTAWA (Writer, “The 99”): You know, it's unfortunate, a lot of stories like 1001 Nights that are - you couldn't find some of those here, at least not the versions you find in the West.

INSKEEP: That's a Kuwaiti writer who was making his own effort to tell stories through comics. Naif al-Mutawa's new comic series is called “The 99.” It is also based in Arabian tradition, although of the Islamic variety. “The 99” refers to the 99 attributes of Allah. But al-Mutawa's main characters are clearly Western-style superheroes, similar to the X-Men or Spiderman. He says he created those heroes to fill a void.

Mr. al-MUTAWA: My background is that of a clinical psychologist that focused on war trauma and survivors of torture. And I worked in Kuwait with former prisoners of war after the Iraq invasion and in New York City and the survivors of political torture program at Bellevue Hospital. And it kind of left me with a hollow feeling that our part of the world didn't have any modern-day heroes.

INSKEEP: Each of Naif al-Mutawa's heroes has a power that is said to be based on one of Allah's attributes - such as strength, truth or healing. His storylines won the approval of religious authorities, and “The 99” is now available throughout the Middle East. Al-Mutawa hopes he can bring it to the United States before long.

Mr. al-MUTAWA: I'm not in this for what separates us as human beings. Because in the end, the attributes of Allah - generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight, mercy - you name me one culture, irrespective of whether or not it's a monotheistic culture, that doesn't espouse those as cultural attributes that they would want to adhere to. Right? These are all - this is the stuff that good culture is made from and good societies are made from.

INSKEEP: That's a sentiment echoed by al-Mutawa's American counterpart, Bill Willingham. He says he'll continue to draw from the old tales of magic carpets and genies.

Mr. WILLINGHAM: It's magic. And we want magic in our lives and always will. We want to read stories about characters who get involved in the kind of things that we never can. I mean a lot of storytelling just has to be a release from our terrible mundane lives. I don't think that will ever go away.

INSKEEP: Writer Bill Willingham. His new graphic novel is “1001 Nights of Snowfall.” Writer Naif al-Mutawa is looking for an American distributor for his new comic series, “The 99.”

(Soundbite of music)

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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