Comics Being Used As Education in Beirut

A photograph of Rawand Issa’s graphic novel “Insubordinate” is displayed at the “In-Tansit” exhibition, Beirut, Lebanon, March 11, 2019.

The effectiveness of comics as medium for effective learning and development has been the subject of debate since the origin of modern comic books. The use of comics in education today would make Fredric Wertham cringe. It’s been established that the use of a narrative form such as a comic can foster pupils’ interest in science and help students remember what they have learned by providing a means of fostering discussion. While in the USA, the use of comics for education can be seen on Comics in the Classroom, which showcases content on how teachers can integrate comics into the classroom, many educators around the world still remain “ambivalent” about the use of comic books as an educational tool. 

That’s beginning to change in the Middle East, according to Sam Brennan writing for Al-Monitor 

The organizers of the “In-Transit” comics and graphic novel exhibition praise themselves on bringing a collection of less-known comics to Arabic readers.

“People aren’t always exposed to these comics. They are not readily available; a lot of the Arabic comics are niche and underground,” co-organizer Lina Ghaibeh told-Al-Monitor. “[We] are trying to display the work here so that interest might be triggered to maybe start reading other comics.”

Dozens of artists from the Middle East came to Beirut on March 11 to be part of the exhibition at the Beit Beirut cultural space, held in tandem with the Mahmoud Kahil Award ceremony. The winners will receive $36,000 in several categories such as editorial cartoons, graphic novels, comic strips, graphic illustrations and children’s book illustrations.[…]

Organized by the Mu’taz and Rada Sawwaf Arab Comics Initiative at the American University of Beirut, the exhibition explored the role of comics as documentation on issues of displacement, exile and homeland. 

Brennan discussed how comics have grown in popularity in the Middle East:

Comic books have been gaining popularity over the past decade in the Middle East, engaging audiences with issues in the region by combining nonfiction storytelling, reporting and artistic expression.

Ghaibeh, the director of the Arab Comic Initiative, stressed that comics may become an alternative way to interest and engage students. “[Some teachers] are using graphic novels for history classes. [They] found that students listen to statistics or news and consider it factual, but comics makes them understand the narrative.”

When discussing who is reading the comics and why the medium has gained popularity, one artist had this to say:

 “Comics are serious and can speak about serious issues,” explained Ghaibeh, a half-Syrian, half-Danish artist. “But in the region, they are still considered not only as being for kids, but as just entertainment.”

She said that the Arab world has a long history of comics that address controversial issues, especially during the “golden age” of the 1950-1980s. However, these artists emerged in “individual moments,” not through a cohesive movement, she added.

But leading up to and following the Arab Spring of 2011, Ghaibeh said, the medium “caught fire” for two reasons. Social media eased distribution and online work meant traditional institutions were unable to regulate or censor comics.

“The majority of children’s comics in the Arab world were run by the state, so it was heavily propagandized,” Ghaibeh said. But in Lebanon, “they were underground and challenged things like sexuality, religion and politics.” 

This freedom to explore complex topics, however, came at the price of commercial viability. Ghaibeh explained, “There was no funding and no support, but they could get away with murder.”

George Khoury, a veteran Lebanese graphic novelist who spoke at the symposium and was on the advisory board of the awards, told Al-Monitor, “During my time, although we lived in the civil war, we had more freedom, more freedom to express, more freedom to publish, because we had no governments, no censorship … but [the young generation now] has less money to publish and the industry is becoming more expensive.”

With over 500 submissions to the Mahmoud Kahil Award program and 37 artists on display at the exhibition, the lack of money does not seem to be deterring artists.

Khoury explained, “[Artists now] gather through collectives, and through these they have networks. This solidarity and helping each other makes the movement more interesting and makes me think it will last.”

A photograph of Mohamed and Haytham El-seht’s graphic novel “The Hoopoe” is displayed in Beirut, March 11, 2019. (Brennan/Al-Monitor)

One Lebanese illustrator and writer Rawand Issa had the following to say, “I think that in the time we are living, imagery is very important. People are not reading like they used to, so I think today is the time for comics … Even people who are not familiar with comics are getting into it.”

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Jamison Ashley

Jamison Ashley

Comic geek, movie nerd, father, and husband - but not necessarily in that order. Current captain of this ship o' fools who is rapidly training everyone's computers and snarkphone spell-checkers to misspell 'supposebly.'