Interview
Reinhard Kleist: Protest, Love, Everyday Life: Traveling through the Arabic Comic Book Scene

Reinhard Kleist Traum von Olympia
Reinhard Kleist © anjazwei.de / Traum von Olympia © Calrsen Verlag

Reinhard Kleist is one of Germany’s finest graphic-novel illustrators and has traveled the Arab world extensively, discovering a fascinating local comics scene. In 2017, his volume "The Dream of Olympia" appeared in Arabic translation with Sefsafa Publishing House in Cairo.

In which Arab countries did you have the opportunity to meet and talk to people in the comics scene?

Mostly in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Sudan. I conducted workshops there, and talked a lot with local illustrators about the hurdles they face in getting published. Actually very few of them can make a living off illustrating. Many work in advertising or in game and web design. I was very pleased to see that there are many similarities in terms of what people want and what they think is good. Everywhere around the world. In Algeria there’s an annual comics festival. They even have cosplay competitions there, and I saw young Algerians in Naruto running around in costumes, just like they do here. In Sudan there’s a group of young artists publishing a comics magazine in spite of very difficult circumstances. It’s called Kanton (link: https://www.facebook.com/ArtKanoon.Sudan/) and is a real publishing feat, considering that there's basically no culture of books in Sudan and no decent printing presses. But they don’t give up. I admire that tremendously.

What differences and similarities do you see between the European and Arab comics scene?

There’s a strong engagement with political topics but often very obliquely. I think there’s a tendency to censor themselves due to the very real threat of censorship. But just as often I see the desire to flee from daily life, escapist stories that are there to make you forget the harsh reality around you. A girl in Sudan showed me her manga-style comics with love stories between people who looked Asian and even had Asian names. I asked her where she herself figured into these stories and she didn’t understand.

It’s very hard to reach your audience, of course. There are not many stores, and young people in many cases don’t have the money to buy comics. It’s really a very young audience. In Europe the readers of comics have become much older than they used to be, which has to do with the growing popularity of the graphic novel. In the Arab countries I’ve been to, comics tend to be part of youth culture and are very oriented towards the Asian market.

Did you have any encounters that left a particularly strong impression on you?

In a workshop in Amman, I assigned the topic "incidents from daily life" and had a female student who illustrated a short story. It was about the Friday street protests that were taking place there at the time. On the sidelines you saw a protester and a policeman, standing across from each other at a demonstration. Then you followed them home, and it turned out they both lived in the same building, entered the very same room and went to sleep there – one of them next to his protest sign, the other next to his truncheon. They were brothers. This story said a lot about the rift in society, but also about how young people can’t afford their own apartments.

How did you stumble upon the story of Samia Yusuf Omar ("The Dream of Olympia")? How did you develop the aesthetics of this book?

I discovered the story while researching the situation of refugees from Africa during a one-month artist-in-residence program in Palermo, sponsored by Goethe-Institut. I was immediately captivated by its emotional power. Only after my stay in Palermo was I able to begin working on it. I spoke a lot with refugees from Africa who told me their stories. I also spoke with Samia’s sister, who lives in Helsinki. She told me a lot about their family life and Samia as an individual.

As far as the drawing technique goes, I decided on a very clear and simple style, enough to convey the plot but kind of restrained artistically. I wanted to focus completely on the story and its protagonists.


How were the reactions to this book?

I did some great events with the book after it was published, especially with school children. I was afraid that, as a forty-something white European male, I wouldn’t find the right tone for the story of a girl from Somalia. But my fears turned out to be unfounded. In Sudan I had a very special evening at the Goethe-Institut in Khartoum, and reactions to the book were wonderful. There was a book presentation on the rooftop terrace and a live drawing concert with Sudanese musicians. One of the singers had written a song for Samia specially for that occasion. Everyone in the audience was moved to tears. The happiest thing for me, though, is that Samia’s sister loves the book. She was very pleased when I told her about the Arabic edition, to know that Samia’s story is still being told.

Translated by David Burnett