It was very confusing. The man looked like Clark Kent but was called Nabil Fawzi, Batman was barking instructions to a kid named Zakkour and the man vaulting over Metropolis looked like Superman but seemed to be speaking Arabic.
"I suppose it looks strange to you to see Superman speaking Arabic," said the lady with the comic books on her desk, "but to about 270,000 Arab children it looks perfectly natural. Otherwise we wouldn't be in business."
The lady, Leila Shaheen da Cruz, ought to know. She is the editor-in-chief of Illustrated Publications, an enterprising Beirut firm that has built a profitable and still growing comic book business on the Arabs' fierce pride in their own rich language.
"Until about 1964 most comic books in the Middle East were in either English or French," said Mrs. da Cruz. "Then a forward-looking editor began to wonder why comic books could not be translated into Arabic. This editor expected it to be profitable, of course, but was equally interested in encouraging children to read more in their own language."
On both counts that editor was right. The project was profitable—Illustrated Publications currently publishes an estimated 2,600,000 copies annually—and it did promote the reading of Arabic. "Kids from Saudi Arabia to Morocco were so enthusiastic that we had to stop answering their letters," said Mrs. da Cruz. "It was taking too much time."
The first comic strip to be issued in Arabic by IP was Superman. In the guise of Nabil Fawzi, a reporter for "Al-Kawkab Al Yawmi" he swooped into the Middle East from distant Krypton on February 4, 1964, to the instantaneous delight of thousands of young Arab children. A year later Nabil was joined by a man called "Sobhi" and a young boy called "Zakkour," who at night became Batman and Robin. The Lone Ranger, (known in these parts as the "Masked Rider,"), along with Tonto and Silver, rode in on July 17, 1967, followed not long after by Ben Cartwright, complete with "Hoss," "Little Joe" and the endless problems of the Ponderosa. Next came "Little Lulu," "Tarzan," and most recently, "The Flash."
At first, transiting comics was not as easy as it sounds. Illustrated Publications had to first persuade western companies to license Arabic editions. Since some publishers in the Middle East had a history of pirating material, it took a while to convince the copyright owners that a licensed company would be more likely to not only pay its fees, but eliminate the pirates.
They also had to soothe tradition-minded parents who were not entirely convinced that their children's Arabic was going to be improved by translations of Tarzanic victory howls, the banging of Colt 44's, or the less-than-Shakespearean flavor of the dialogue between Clark and—sorry, between Nabil and Randa. Parents also pointed out that even though those masked, caped, hooded, cowled, gun-belted and loin-clothed champions were obviously very adept at the bashing and smashing of the ungodly, it still didn't tend to develop the best of manners in their children. To meet such objections, IP added eight pages of educational games, stories and contests which, they correctly guessed, would not only soften parental hostility but improve the children's language and grammar.
There was also the matter of competition. In addition to several well-drawn French comic strips that were translated and published off and on in a number of short-lived publications, the Arab world had also been exposed to the famous works of Walt Disney. Even the lovable Mickey Mouse, however, was no match for a lineup that led off with Superman, Tarzan and the Lone Ranger, and IP soon pulled ahead.
Another problem had to do with the distressing fact that Arabic reads from right to left instead of left to right and that kids in the Middle East open the comic book at what in western countries would be the back. That meant that the filmed reproductions of the original art work had to be reversed before printing plates could be made, a process that immediately produced a basket of letters from curious kids who wanted to know why the "S" on Superman's costume was backwards.
Because Arabic is a language that tends to run on at sometimes extravagant length, IP also had difficulties with translation. Until translators and calligraphers (who inscribe the translated text right onto the filmed copies of the original artwork) got the hang of it, the crisp English, neatly fitted into the "balloons", often expanded into enough text to fill a pamphlet.
It was no surprise either when nationalistic readers objected to the importation of western material and IP was the first to agree that Arab history and traditions ought to generate enough ideas for at least one locally-written and drawn comic or adventure strip. Unfortunately, it proved impractical.
"That kind of art work, story continuity and long-range planning," said Mrs. da Cruz, "is still unfamiliar to most local artists or is too expensive. The adventures of Sinbad, the Sailor, for example, would be a natural out here, and we know that there would be a rich market for an adventure strip based on the exploits of Arab commandos. But so far we haven't found a local cartoonist who is not either inexperienced or overpriced."
By now, however, most of the problems, have been overcome, and while solving them IP has built up a circulation estimated at 2,600,000 copies annually which are distributed in 17 countries to an estimated 270,000 avid kids who not only can't wait to read them but, as Mrs. da Cruz related ruefully, remember what they read.
"This year we published a Superman adventure that we thought was new," she said. "But it turned out that it was one we ran five years ago under another title. And do you know how we found out? Kids from five countries wrote in to tell us."