The Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known by his penname Hergé, was not a great traveler. He preferred to leave the task of exploring the rest of the world to the boy-detective Tintin, his best-known creation, while he remained little more than a few miles from where he was born in Brussels in Belgium.
But Tintin more than made up for his creator’s preference for the domestic, and over the course of 24 comic-strip adventures, from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets in 1930 to Tintin and Alph-Art in 1986, he visited almost every part of the globe. He even twice made it to the moon in Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon and all without ever growing a day older.
Four of the Tintin cartoon adventures are set in or near the Arab world, with one of them, Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh, featuring a period in Egypt. While his creator was reluctant to leave his native Belgium even when the Tintin industry took off in the 1950s and there were many invitations to do so, Tintin and his colleagues – his dog Snowy, his friend Captain Haddock, the Belgian police twins Thomson and Thompson, the egghead professor Cuthbert Calculus, even the international opera star Bianca Castafiore –had no such inhibitions.
In addition to Tintin’s discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb (in the company of famous Egyptologist Sophocles Sarcophagus) in the Cigars of the Pharaoh, there are also periods spent in what seems to be Morocco in Tintin and the Crab with the Golden Claws and in an unidentified Arab Gulf country called Khemed in Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks and Tintin and the Land of Black Gold.
Georges Remi, or Hergé, may never have made it to Egypt, but his progeny certainly did, and not only to Egypt, but also to neighbouring parts of the Arab world. This alone could justify his inclusion in a series on books by visitors to Egypt.
However, like the productions of other 20th-century European writers about the Arab world, Hergé’s version of it has been criticised for propagating various stereotypes. The Tintin books, notes Hergé biographer Benoit Peeters in his Hergé, Son of Tintin, reflect the European “political imagination” of their time.
Hergé, by his own admission a conservative-minded product of the circumstances of his time, featured images of aggressive Bolsheviks (in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets) and Congolese grateful for the supposed benefits of Belgian colonialism (in Tintin in the Congo) in his books. These “reflected the spirit and mentality of the times,” according to another Hergé biographer Pierre Assouline in The Man Who Invented Tintin, being not so much “racist [as] paternalistic.”
Later Tintin books include comic Latin American generals, corrupt Greek shipowners, Red Sea gunrunners, and other characters who provide a flattened-out and prejudiced view of the world. According to an article that appeared in the Paris magazine Jeune Afrique in 1962, Hergé’s dubious division of the world into the “exploits of Tintin, less a reporter than a righter of wrongs, a detective, a ‘superman’,” and a collection of non-European villains in exotic settings was evidence of the author’s “basic tendencies.”
Peeters, who quotes this article in his biography, describes it as “unfair” and implies that Hergé’s responsibility, as a comic-book artist writing mainly for younger audiences, was not necessarily to challenge the prevailing European ideologies of his time. On the other hand, it was not only Hergé’s stereotypical presentation of much of the extra-European world that caused discomfort, since his association with the collaborationist Belgian newspaper Le Soir throughout the German occupation of Belgium in the Second World War also raised many eyebrows.
After the War had ended, Hergé, like other journalists, photographers, and graphic artists associated with this and other titles, was banned from working in Belgium, though as the fame of Tintin spread the prohibition was eventually lifted.
Forty years later, Hergé was still telling the story “as if he were a victim with no personal responsibility,” as Peeters puts it, explaining late in his career to visiting journalists that “I never did anything other than draw my comic strips during the war. I did no German propaganda.”
Tintin and the Arabs: Hergé only once visited the Arab world, and this was late in his career when he had already produced the four main Tintin titles set in Arab countries.
His actual visit, confined to Mediterranean port cities, thus did not affect the presentation of the Arab world found in the Tintin albums, with the latter apparently being drawn from a miscellaneous collection of European writings and imagery of the Arabs going back to 19th-century orientalist figures like French authors Victor Hugo and Gérard de Nerval and including contemporary news magazines and reportage.
In the Cigars of the Pharaoh, for example, Tintin, having crossed the Red Sea from Egypt, runs into a local Bedouin leader, Patrash Pasha, who turns out to be a fan of Hergé’s albums. From there he is transported to a nearby oasis where he finds a western film crew making a film loosely based on Rudolf Valentino’s celebrated 1921 film The Sheikh that featured a mysterious Arab sheikh seducing a European woman.
Valentino as the sheikh seems to stand behind the “Superscope-Magnavista feature of the ‘Arabian Nights’” that the western film crew is making in the desert in Cigars of the Pharaoh. But it was not only the films and other broadly fictional materials of the time that Hergé drew on for his iconography. The story of “Lawrence of Arabia” (British archaeologist T.E. Lawrence), involved in British activities against the former Ottoman Empire in the First World War, may also have influenced Hergé’s decision to present the Arab countries as a backdrop for western exploits.
There is also the iconography that Hergé seems to have clipped out of 1930s society magazines. The figure of the young prince Abdullah, for example, who figures in the Land of Black Gold and the Red Sea Sharks, and then subsequently makes appearances as a member of Hergé’s cast in Destination Moon and even (by reputation) in Tintin in Tibet, was based on images of the young king Faisal II of Iraq, photographed aged six by the English celebrity photographer Cecil Beaton.
What all this goes to show is that though Hergé was omnivorous in his borrowings, whether from the tradition of European orientalist thinking or from contemporary news accounts and images, he mostly simply recycled stereotypical material in his comic books. His actual knowledge of the Arab world bordered on the non-existent, and perhaps this goes some way to explaining the discomfort of the writer in Jeune Afrique in the 1960s, exasperated to find, at a time when the Arab countries, like other parts of the non-European world, were emerging from decades or even centuries of European colonial exploitation, that the images of them to be found in European children’s books were still based on ways of seeing formed in the colonial period.
Sometimes Hergé, later in life, was aware of such shortcomings. The French Arabist Louis Blin, author of what is possibly the only full-length study of Tintin and the Arab world, writes in his Le monde arabe dans les albums de Tintin that Hergé rewrote some of the dialogue in the 1967 re-edition of Red Sea Sharks, “believing that the accusations of racism made against him were a simple matter of appearance.”
He also made changes in response to other pressures. When a new edition of the Land of Black Gold appeared in 1971, for example, Hergé changed the setting to accommodate the political circumstances of the time. Blin explains that Hergé had begun the book in 1939 “shortly after the publication of the British White Book on Palestine… which was followed by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by the Irgun [Jewish paramilitaries] particularly in the port of Haifa where Tintin disembarks to begin his adventures.”
The conflict between Jews and Arabs in the British mandate territory of Palestine, the backdrop to the original version of the Land of Black Gold, is removed in the 1971 version, as part, Blin says, of a process of “historical revisionism aiming to remove the Palestinians from the history of their country” and “transforming an album that was originally highly political to one that was now disconnected from reality.”
Blin also outlines the fortunes of Tintin in Arabic. The adventures of the Belgian boy-detective are now available in several dozen languages, including some with comparatively few native speakers such as Welsh and Hungarian. However, Tintin in Arabic has been less lucky, since while Tintin was first translated into Arabic in 1942, the Cairo publisher Dar al-Maaraf, which had earlier produced Arabic versions of the series, stopped doing so in 2006, leaving Tintin without an Arab publisher.
Moreover, Crab with the Golden Claws was the only one of the four albums set in the Arab world that was translated into Arabic for the Dar al-Maaraf series, possibly because it was the least “oriental” of the four, Blin says, being set somewhere in the Maghreb. The others were probably not translated because of their obvious prejudices, the product of their time, and their general tendency to reduce the Arab world to a stereotypical backdrop for European adventures.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly