Omar Khouri Discusses Think of a City and Middle Eastern Comics

Created and managed by Alison Sampson RIBA and Ian MacEwan, Think of a City is a project that’s part architectural investigation, part international art collaboration, it’s a mass storytelling project.

The idea is that every city has a story, and this project brings the background to the forefront delving into ideas of setting.

I got a chance to talk to Omar Khouri whose contribution “Aleppo” is a deeply layered image that challenges the viewer both artistically and a reminder of the real world horror occurring there.

Graphic Policy: Lets start with an easy question. How’d you come involved with the project?

Omar Khouri: In December 2015, Alison Sampson got in touch with me via email, introduced me to the project and asked if I would like to participate. I found it very interesting, like a slow-motion collaborative stream-of-consciousness vision of the world that I would like to be part of. A little over a year later, my turn arrived to submit a drawing and here we are.

GP: For “Think of a City” you chose Aleppo. Why did you decide to choose that city for your art?

OK: I usually tend to spend my time in the imaginary, in the possibilities of what the world might or could be, rather than is. But every now and then I take a well needed visit to the “real”, in order to remind myself that the goal of imagination should ultimately be to influence the external universe around us.

What has been going on in Aleppo, not just recently but for the past few years, is only one example of the many horrors that take place constantly around the world that i feel powerless to influence, much less stop. In frustration, I make images and stories with the hope that they might positively influence the mind of someone that will one day take part in choosing the next decision makers on our planet, or, even better, someone who will take part in creating a whole new system all together. Perhaps that way these horrors and injustice would be reduced in frequency, if it is impossible to eliminate them entirely.

Balfour's Promise II (Gaza by Night 2014)

Balfour’s Promise II (Gaza by Night 2014)

GP: The piece stands out to me as it feels like a patchwork mixing in destruction with complete buildings. How do you see that reflecting what’s going on there?

OK: First, having been born into, and grown up during, a 15 year long civil war in Lebanon, I learned that what at first seems to belong to the realm of special exceptional cases, such a state of destruction, fear, and tension, has to soon shift to the realm of the norm, because life has to find some way of continuing even in terrible conditions and situations. This shift brings one’s reality to a fractured and precarious state of being that teeters on the edge between normal and exceptional, not unlike a house of cards, where one has to keep moving forward with building their life but with the constant and real external threat that it might all crumble at any moment.

Second, this mix of destruction and complete buildings, combined with some of the more futuristic and scifi inspired forms (particularly in the upper third of the image), are an attempt at an extra-temporal look at the city where one can at once observe memories of its past, life in its present, and possibilities of its future.

GP: I noticed you use stars in many locations. What’s the significance of that?

OK: I’m glad you noticed that. In truth, there is an underlying geometrical structure that I used to stitch together a number of images that create this “patchwork” drawing (see the figure 1 below). It is a device that is inspired directly from the relationship between the comic book page and the panels that divide it.

Figure 1

Figure 1

In a basic comics page, the use of panels allows you to describe a period of time that progresses from the the top left panel (past) and ends with the bottom right one (future), and you can “read” this passage of time almost as if you are watching a scene in a movie (see figure 2 below). However, and this is the magical and unique thing about comics in my opinion, it also allows you to see all the panels, i.e.  all the moments in this period of time at once, as if you are an observer outside the flow of time, and the past, present and future are happening together.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Now if we use a pattern such as Figure 1 to divide a page, there is no imposed temporal hierarchy to the resulting panels created and you can no longer “read” the passage of time from panel to panel, from past to future, as you could in figure 2 or any other narrative comics page. As a result, you are left with an image that represents a place in the 4 dimensions of Space/Time without the imposition of the a story that limits it to a specific timeline. Instead I am implying that multiple readings of the past and multiple possibilities of the future are simultaneously required for a better understanding of a place in the present. I also often use this same technique in my paintings of people for similar effect (see figure 3, entitled “Alpha Betti”).

figure_03

Furthermore, the fact that these structures I use, whether in Aleppo (i.e. figure 1), Alpha Betti, or a number of other pieces, are traditional Arabic geometric patterns is a deliberate choice with conceptual implications as well. First, it externalizes one side of my cultural background, in the same way as the presence of an influence from Cubism and the reference to a style of cityscape drawing in Manga imply two more. Second, I use only the most basic unit of the pattern which can in theory be repeated in all directions infinitely, and all the information needed to derive this infinite pattern is already contained within the most basic unit, like a pearl of Indra’s net in Buddhist philosophy. This implies that every unit is both at the center of the universe, as well as just another normal unit exactly the same as all others. So, it is a way of looking at a specific instance while never losing sight of the fact that it is intrinsically connected to everything else, and that ultimately the goal of trying to understand one thing only has meaning if it serves to better understand everything. When we look at Aleppo, we are also trying to understand Beirut, Baghdad, Sana’a, Gaza, London, Lagos, Kyoto, Baltimore…

GP: How are comics addressing the shifting world of the Middle East? How have you seen the comic industry change over the years?

OK: The Middle East is not really shifting at all. It has been this way for decades, if not centuries. This place is, and always has been, a politically and economically significant strategic location that connects three major continents, while containing one of the most economically valuable resources on the planet. The shift is actually happening in the view and understanding of the rest of the world towards this troubled area because of the spread of the internet, media, and terrorism, which are reaching beyond our borders.

In order to discuss the role of comics in this, as well as how its role has changed over time, let us take my case as an example. When I founded Samandal Comics magazine in Beirut in 2006, Lebanon was going through a particularly tumultuous time of unrest after the start of political assassinations in 2005 and the Israeli war in 2006. Censorship had reached new heights because people feared that addressing any of the sensitive issues at hand would quickly plunge the country back into the civil war that devastated it for 15 years. At that time I was working on a dystopian story that focusses on many of these issues, and wanted a space were I can freely and continuously express my ideas and engage in dialogue with others like myself, both within and outside of the country, that have similar concerns that lie outside the allowable discourse. I decided to turn to comics for a number of reasons, one of which was that there was no comics industry at the time in Lebanon and the Arab world, which meant that the watchful eye of censorship could not yet consider it a threat to be scrutinized. In order to maintain this underground aspect of comics for as long as possible, the magazine had to also be self-published, because going through any publishing house would bring it back into the field of vision of the censor.

Cover of Samandal issue 6

Cover of Samandal issue 6

With that in mind, I gathered a small group of like-minded individuals, and together we began to not only publish a periodical called Samandal, but also created an association by the same name in order to reach out to others around the country and the Arab region – through workshops, comics jams, lecture, artist residencies and more – that wish to create, read and interact through the medium of comics and foster a continuing underground industry that can progress and evolve. Sure enough, we began finding such people all over that were interested in engaging and publishing their work with us, some of whom eventually established their own collectives and publications, such as Tok Tok in Egypt, or Skefkef in Morocco. Yet even today, with the current unprecedented boom in the industry here, we remain a pan-Arab community that is still founded on collaboration and interaction.

Unfortunately, with the spread and growth of the industry in this way, it can not remain “under the radar” for too long, and the powers that enforce the status quo begin to feel its threat. As a result, for example, Samandal was sued by the government for breach of censorship laws and the “intent to create unrest between the different religions and communities” in Lebanon. The court case lasted 5 years, until we finally lost in 2015 and had to pay an exorbitant fine or spend 3 years in prison. This and other incidents like it around the region have two particular consequences. On one hand, the mainstream both inside and outside the country begin to be aware of comics and their power, so more people take interest in the medium, prompting a boom in consumption, production and analysis of it. On the other hand, this leads to the institutionalization and regulation of this art form, through the establishment of university courses, centers for comics research and archiving, more specific censorship laws, etc… so that the freedom of expression once found in it becomes gradually more and more limited. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should in anyway self-censor in order to avoid trouble: the last anthology published  in November 2016 by Samandal (subtitled Behind Closed Doors) focuses on the theme of Sexuality, which is still one of the major taboos of discussion here, and quite a high priority for the censors.

Another major and obvious turning point in the comic book industry of the middle east is the series of events that are collectively dubbed “The Arab Spring”. One of the very few positive outcomes of that is the attention of the outside world that it attracts, not only to the horrors that are occurring, but also to the art scene and cultural production, thus injecting money and possibilities of wider exposure into these industries.

GP: Thank you so much for chatting. You definitely taught me a lot, it’s much appreciated.