A graphic novelist in Egypt: ‘I’m very open with sharing my journey’

Deena Mohamed, who came to prominence with a viral web comic featuring a hijab-wearing superhero, says there is a passion for comics in Arab-speaking countries

Egypt has some of the most talented comic artists in the world, according to Deena Mohamed, a 28-year-old Egyptian artist and graphic novelist who has found international success. In her home country, she sees “community, enthusiasm” and “talent in terms of the people producing work and the diversity of the work”.

Mohamed first came to prominence a decade ago with a viral web comic featuring a hijab-wearing superhero. She created the web comic Qahera when she was still a teenager, after reading a “very misogynistic article about Muslim women”. The web comic was a joke for her circle of friends, and a way to “let off steam ... I was opinionated when I was 18”.

She posted it on Tumblr in English. “Every time I felt like I had an issue that was annoying me I would make a comic,” she says. Readers’ reactions provided inspiration for more comics. “It was conversational.”

She tackled themes including sexual harassment, feminism and freedom of dress. “I was kind of designing [the superhero] based on people I know, these super, outspoken women.” It was a “good learning experience”, Mohamed says now.


‘Objectively speaking there are much better graphic novelists in Egypt’

Initially, she remained anonymous, but “once people started writing articles about it I did put my name on it because I wanted people to know that it was an Egyptian artist.” Qahera became popular. “The word is viral. That’s a kind of pretentious word to use.”

Eventually, sharing her work through social media became somewhat “poisonous”. Mohamed says she began thinking too much about who was reading it and what their response would be. But the web comic gave Mohamed a way to enter the Egyptian comic scene, and a chance to meet creators she hugely admired.

In Cairo, she grew up reading the Arabic-language version of Tintin, children’s magazine Mickey, Egyptian magazine Samir, and an Italian series called Witch. But the North African country’s 2011 revolution also led to “a bit of a renaissance in Egyptian comics”, with a big increase in independent publications, Mohamed says. One notable figure she named was Shennawy, the founder of the Cairo Comix festival, who goes by one name. He was also one of the founders of Egyptian comic magazine Tok Tok, which Mohamed calls one of her “big inspirations”.

Thousands of people attend the annual Cairo Comix festival, she says. It has been taking place since 2015 and usually happens in November. Organisers and attendees are very welcoming, Mohamed says. “There is a sense of wanting to increase the amount of comics readers in any way, so they’re all excited to be around.”

In 2017, Mohamed’s graphic novel, which was published as a trilogy in Arabic, won the festival’s grand prize. Shubeik Lubeik has since been republished with an English title, Your Wish Is My Command, in the UK and Ireland. It touches on issues including mental health, bereavement, and the impact of colonialism, capitalism, and poverty. The Washington Post described the 528-page book as “a historic accomplishment for Arab comic artists”.

Mohamed is keen to emphasise that she is not more talented than other Egyptian artists. “My luck was being able to speak English really well,” she says. Selling the translation rights for her graphic novel allowed her more time and space to create, in a way that selling books only in Arabic would not have. “Objectively speaking there are much better graphic novelists in Egypt, it’s just that they haven’t had this chance yet.”

She is now advising others, trying to run a series of tutorials on marketing and how to apply for art residencies and grants. “I’m very open with sharing my journey, my process, so everyone knows specifically how I got to where I got to.”

The small size of the community in Egypt might make it easier to get involved, she speculates. “In France, or America, which are big industries, I think it’s much harder to be a female comics artist there because there is so much more structure, and so much more gatekeeping.”

She estimates there are about 100 active Egyptian comic artists. There is a lot of interaction between them and those in other Arabic-speaking countries, particularly Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco. The community also includes Egyptians living outside the country. “The ones who have left are still posting online.”

She says the number of readers is also increasing. “The readership is actually the most important part ... It’s very difficult to convince people to buy comics, because, honestly, we just don’t have a lot of disposable income.” She say her book sells better in other Arabic-speaking countries. In Saudi Arabia, for example, “they love comics”, which surprised Mohamed. “My Arabic publishers are sort of going through this journey with me ... They’re realising there’s a passion for it.”

Comics in Egypt have a long history, dating back at least a century and arguably into the 1800s, Mohamed notes. But she would consider the “contemporary comic scene” to have begun around 2008. “That’s when Magdy El Shafee published Metro, the first Egyptian graphic novel.” That novel told the story of a computer engineer who becomes so annoyed by corruption that he decides to rob a bank. It was banned under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and Shafee was convicted of disturbing public morals.

Repression of critics and media censorship has continued to be an issue: Egypt was the third highest jailer of journalists in the world in 2021, according to the annual census by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Though other comics and artists have left, Mohamed remains based there. Her work shows a new perspective on Cairo: bringing the city to life through magical realism.

Your Wish Is My Command questions what people desire. Mohamed has spent years asking people what they would most like to wish for. In Egypt, she says, people usually say they want “contentment” or to go to heaven in the afterlife. Among Europeans, answers tend to be more varied. Mohamed says wishing for love or companionship is common in Europe. Others wanted skills, such as to be a better artist or to speak every language. “Some people [in Europe] just wish for more money or financial security. Surprisingly in Egypt no one really wished for financial security,” she says. And regarding love in Egypt: “Even I think single people I asked were confident that it would fall into place if God willed it. There’s this sense that it’s meant for me or it’s not meant for me.”

Mohamed continues to create work, along with trying to promote and mentor other artists.

“Obviously I think art is necessary for people to breathe really. It is the lifeblood of Egypt, especially because Egypt has always had huge art industries in terms of film, in terms of literature. Egyptians are writers, and artists, and creators, and it’s a shame to lose that ability to create. If there are no opportunities then yes, it is being lost. There’s not enough support, there’s not enough money for artists. Not just in Egypt but also worldwide.”

Globally, Mohamed feels that the arts are becoming corporate and profit-based. “When you do that you erase the purpose of art, and so I think you need more artists to remind people why art is necessary.”

The Egyptian artists and comics who have been the most involved in reinvigorating the industry over the last 15 years were “very progressive leftists”, who often started as political cartoonists, she says. “They always had a point of view. They were very humorous, very creative.” Those values may be “missing” elsewhere in the country, but they can still be found in “small niche communities” like the comics one, Mohamed says.

“There’s so much talent in Egypt and I hope it gets recognised. I really hope the industry will be able to sustain itself. But the problem is even literature in Egypt right now cannot really sustain itself. We don’t have money, as a people, to buy books. [But] my hope is that it keeps going forward.”