Several panels from JinnriseWith all the negativity directed toward the Middle East in the United States, it’s easy for those with no personal connection to the Middle East to develop ill-founded prejudices and lose sight of the similarities between North American and Middle Eastern culture. Certain similarities go unnoticed, such as a love of family, music, good food, or even a belief in a Presence greater than ourselves. One of the major cultural similarities that we tend to forget we share is a love of story telling – a cultural tradition that we should celebrate as something we can all relate to.

How do we bridge this cultural gap? Maybe we could start with something as simple as a comic book?

Someone is already taking that step.

Unveiled by Jabal Entertainment at the 2012 Middle East Film & Comic Con and later picked up by major comic-book publisher IDW, Jinnrise by Sohaib Awan attempts to bridge the gap between East and West. By carefully and respectfully integrating stories from the Middle East with the Western art of comics, Jinnrise is the start of something beautiful and a definite step in the right direction.

The fusion makes sense in part because comic books, arguably an art form that developed in the West, have also been blossoming for quite some time in places like Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and beyond. The Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai is a testament to the cross-cultural draw of icons like Batman. Awan says:

You’ll see people wearing burqas, wearing storm trooper costumes, and wearing t-shirts, all hanging out together at these conventions. So, we all can enjoy and “get our geek on” (so to speak) with respect to Star Wars or something like that with regard to wherever we’re from.

The story of Jinnrise centers around a boy named Andrew who, while visiting a Middle Eastern market, expresses many preconceived notions about the people and culture he’s encountering. He starts not only pointing out a number of stereotypical “shortcomings” regarding a culture and people he knows very little about, but ridiculing them for being “backwards.” Awan says some snarky critics have slammed his story by describing this initial negative portrayal of Andrew as “anti-Western” but says that really wasn’t his intention:

What I was thinking about is that anyone who goes to another part of the world … they tend to look at the world in a very limited fashion…. Andrew in the beginning of the first issue comes with a lot of baggage. He doesn’t represent a particular culture, he represents the egocentricity we all sort of have in us.

Jinnerise #4 CoverAndrew of course gets a rude awakening when the Earth is attacked by an alien species called the Kibrani and suddenly finds himself relying on the intelligence and kindness of the Middle Eastern people around him. The Kibrani come from a culture where the idea that “might makes right” is embodied in everything they do. What Awan ultimately wants to prove with this alien species is that the valuation of power over respect for others’ lives actually makes a society sick, with only some people mattering and others being crushed under a tyrannical heel. What’s needed is the heart and kindness required in order for a society to grow.

The emphasis on love rather than power continues later on when Yunus, a boy in the story, is able to partner and team up with Jabal, the powerful jinn, because he has a pure heart and soul and does not embrace the concept of wielding power using the fist.

The invasion of the Kibrani, whom Awan took care not to associate with any particular real-world culture, ultimately serves as a cautionary tale against the dangers of choosing war and power over compassion.

And this is certainly a tale about the purity of heart and the kindness of others.

Awan, a native of West Virginia born to an Indian father and a Czechoslovakian mother, had an interest in comic books from a young age. However, like many people, his pursuit of a career in law put that hobby on hold for a bit, though he never forgot his comic book roots.

In fact, his interest in the comic art form came rushing back after he started hosting a radio talk show in Philadelphia titled Fictional Frontiers, which tackles a number of genres: animation, film, prose, and (of course) comic books. Talking with some of the pioneers of the industry, Awan decided to try his own hand at creating a comic book centered on figures from the Arabian Nights stories with which he grew up. He says:

I actually thought that stories involving or centered on jinn or the myths from the Middle East might become something rather intriguing because nothing had been done like this in the states and you know, even if it had been done in the states, it had been done in a fashion where it wasn’t the center point of the story itself. So I thought I’d try my hand at it and I thought that there were enough zombies and vampires, so it was probably a good time to give it a shot now.

Jinnrise Cover #2Many Americans’ first conception of the jinn comes from the Disney film Aladdin and its Genie character. Awan says the Genie character has created a widespread misconception about what and who the jinn are:

In the Muslim world in particular, jinn are a very big part of the storytelling. And [many] Muslims … don’t believe that they are fantasy characters or superstitions or mythological characters. They believe that jinn are real, that they are just another race that exist in another plane, so I wanted to add those nuances to the story.

Ever respectful of the traditions surrounding the jinn, Awan has managed to create an engaging series that is grounded in real-world physics and ideas while also bringing in an element of the fantastical.

While Jinnrise continues to flourish, Awan and Jabal Entertainment have yet another project lined up. The story Drawn is currently in the works, with a multicultural team of artists and writers from around the world pulling together to make this particular series a reality. The story features as its main character a young girl from the United Arab Emirates who is imbued with powers from an ancient and beautiful art: the art of henna.

With Jinnrise and Jabal Entertainment, Awan is on to something, using the unifying medium of storytelling to bring two cultures together, focusing on our commonalities instead of our differences.

“If we focus on those commonalities, we can really start to achieve,” Awan says.

Sohaib Awan continues work with Jabal Entertainment and hosts Fictional Frontiers every Monday at 5:00 PM (EST) on WNJC-1360 AM Philadelphia.

Danielle Luaulu is a recent Bachelor of Arts graduate from San Francisco State University in Creative Writing. In addition to being a fiction writer and an avid reader, she also reviews comics at MajorSpoilers.com.


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