My trip to Jordan turned out to be was the most fulfilling possible conclusion to HABIBI book tour. It was hosted by the US Embassy in Amman
; worth noting as a reminder that our government cares about the arts (and graphic novels!) and sees them as a vehicle for cultural exchange. This turned out, however, to be a difficult & chaotic time for US Embassies in the Middle East, beginning with the attacks in Libya. It was an unsettling surprise, two days after my arrival, to learn that HABIBI was on the banned books list. And it was surreal to be ferried around in an armored vehicle, past security checkpoints, to roomfuls of adorable children brimming with creative energy, while elsewhere in the region, violence was breaking out over an internet video.
During a two week stay, I conducted graphic novel workshops to three entirely different groups, each with their own inspiring dynamics. The first were deaf children (ages 5 – 20) at The Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in Salt, Jordan. These kids were a bit baffled by the concept of comics (perhaps even drawing) on the first day of classes, but by the third day, they were churning out comics with wild abandon. The institute is a boarding school, and the theme of missing one’s family was a common one in many of their stories, but the concurrent theme was that of gratitude towards finding an extended family they could actually communicate with.
Through comics, these kids proved quite eloquent with word balloons, sound effects and visual music. My favorite exercise was a pairing up of students – boy/girl, young/old – in which one student signed a story and the other translated it into comics form on a board in front of the class.
The second batch of workshops was with inner city youth – teens and university students – at the Princess Basma Youth Resource Center Computer Clubhouse. They channeled passions for music, graffiti, writing, architecture, and even computers into comics pages, collaborating on an anthology conceived and drawn in only three days — a pretty impressive display of constructive teamwork. If only I’d been so focused at that age! The girls (above left) are refugees from Syria and amazingly prolific cartoonists. They talked of creating a graphic novel to document their experience fleeing their war-torn homeland. The world needs this book to exist!
In the final workshops (below) held at Mlabbas – a hipster t-shirt shop on Rainbow Street in Amman – we gathered professional artists with specific interest in graphic novels. It was refreshing to be around like-minded, similar-aged peers without a language barrier, and also to witness the outset of a burgeoning comics scene. Every single meal we shared was an AMAZING FEAST! The media paints a bleak outlook for the region, but there is a visceral optimism around the arts and self-expression and the medium of comics.
Finally, despite the banning, we were able to organize a bookstore signing where I met HABIBI fans from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. These two fans (below right) had only recently left their homes in Iraq. Readers found the book’s ban quite arbitrary, and felt it corresponded with a time of public frustration towards increasing government censorship in Jordan. Many Muslim readers thanked me specifically for the reverent depiction of their faith in HABIBI.
At the Holy Land Institute in Salt, there were children who were not only deaf, but blind. They and their teachers labored so intently, against all odds, towards dialogue and understanding. Humans need communication. Art is a privilege, a great responsibility, and a necessity.
Thank you to the US Embassy and to their program that has represented music, theater, and dance for specifically requesting a graphic novelist this time around. And thank you to all my amazing new friends in Jordan for their generosity and inspiration. Keep making comics!
In other news, thank you, Blog-readers for the birthday wishes. And thank you to those I met at the National Book Festival in Washington DC, the official end-cap to touring. Special congratulations to Mike who proposed and Becky who accepted while waiting in line for the signing. The engagement ring was embedded in a carved out copy of BLANKETS!