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Comics and revolution: A 100-year story started by Yaacoub Sannou
The connection between comics and revolution in the Arab world goes back to a Syrian journalist and playwright who used satire to fight British imperialism in Egypt more than 100 years ago
Ahram Online, Wednesday 4 Sep 2013
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Yaacoub Sannou
One of the covers of Sannou's satirical magazine 'Abou Naddara'

At first glance, it may seem that comic art has no history in the Arab world; that the rise of Egyptian comics in their modern form came only after comics had become a popular means of expression in the West — that young Egyptian artists resorted to them as way to protest increasing government oppression prior to 25 January 2011.

However, Egypt saw similar circumstances more than one hundred years ago, in the early 19th century, which — as elaborated in the British The Economist, in a feature about the art of comics in the Middle East — witnessed the birth of the first comics published in the Arab world.

The writer, Sarah Birke, did not delve into the connection between the current style of comics in the Middle East and the historical background in her piece about Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat. She did, however, mention the satirical publication “Abou Naddara Zara” (The Man with the Blue Eyeglasses) by Syrian Jewish journalist and playwright Yaacoub Sannou, who published its first issue in Egypt in 1877.

“Abou Naddara Zara,” where Sannou mocks fiscal corruption and British occupation during the reigns of Khedive Ismail and later Tawfiq, is arguably one of the most significant Arabic publications of all time. One of its rare issues was sold to the Heidelberg Research Architecture (HRA) in 2008 for £13,000 (LE130,000). The HRA later went on to launch a website containing a number of Sannou’s drawings and several of his magazine covers.

Sannou was a significant cultural face of the Egyptian revolution against British occupation and corrupt fiscal policies, which began with the Orabi movement, and later the "Enlightenment Revolution," led by figures like Jamal Ad-Din Al-Afghani and Sheikh Muhammad Abdo, and other artists, thinkers and intellectuals in the early 20th century. The efforts of such cultural icons culminated in the 1919 Revolution, which represented a clearer, more well-formed and more comprehensive structure of Egyptian resistance to imperialism. The 1919 Revolution, in turn, opened the door to the movement for women’s rights, headed by Hoda Shaarawi and Amina Said, as well as other leading feminists in the Arab world.

According to American researcher Elliott Colla, Sannou was an anti-imperialist crusader, who coined the popular slogan "Egypt for Egyptians" and “spoke out vehemently against the abuses and structural injustices of the international finance system that had created Egypt’s debt crisis.”  

Sannou’s outspokenness eventually resulted in Khedive Tawfiq sending him into exile in France in 1878.

However, during his time in exile, Sannou met some of the most prominent "Enlightenment" figures, including Jamal Ad-Din Al-Afghani, Sheikh Muhammad Abdo, Ibrahim Al-Mouelhy and Khalil Ghanem. He continued to publish his magazine under different names after it was prohibited more than once. Ten of those names have been counted, including "Abou Zomara" instead of "Abou Naddara." It is also said that he maintained a steady correspondence with patriotic leader Ahmed Orabi who was then in exile in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Sannou never gave up his fight against British occupation; he went on to issue several publications across Europe, both in Arabic and in French, and some of them were smuggled into Egypt, where his works were banned.

It is noteworthy that all archival Arabic copies of "Abou Naddara" present in Egypt were destroyed in the fire that spread to the Supreme Council of Journalism during the burning of the National Democratic Party headquarters in the 25 January Revolution.

There is another almost complete archive, however, in the historical library of Cairo University, but that archive is threatened, too, due to the university’s insistence to turn the library into a lecture hall for the Faculty of the Arts, entailing getting rid of the thousands of books and manuscripts the library is home to.

Another "Abou Naddara" cover


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