Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

“Dayem” and the Rise of Comic Storytelling in Lebanon

The comic series "Dayem," created by Chady Rizk amidst Lebanon's economic crisis, symbolizes resilience and optimism.

Photo courtesy of Chady Rizk

Dana Hourany

Early in the spring of this year, a new comic series, whose protagonist is named “Dayem,” made its social media debut. Sporting a figure-hugging singlet, coral hair, green eyes, a tanned complexion, and a muscular physique, Dayem tells the story of a 17-year-old Lebanese teenager struggling to contain his still-developing superpowers.

Dayem is characterized by a sense of humor and the ability to inject optimism and playfulness into serious problems faced by people in Lebanon on a daily basis. The character is also known for his courage and will to tackle more sensitive topics concerning young people in future chapters.

The creator of the comic, Chady Rizk, has been crafting the storyline since 2019, coinciding with the start of Lebanon‘s economic crisis that year. As the lira drastically lost its value against the US dollar and local banks restricted access to foreign currency deposits, Rizk found himself struggling under the weight of the growing crisis.

“Other priorities emerged, and we were all preoccupied with finding jobs as the crisis snowballed,” Rizk told Fanack. “Though the idea for the comic was there, challenges stood in the way for a while.”

Despite hurdles, Rizk gradually regained motivation, particularly in 2023.

“As a society, we evolved and developed, and as an artist, I was able to refine my abilities and talents,” he said.

Lebanon’s private sector experienced a 10-year temporary high in June 2023. Despite the enduring economic challenges, soaring inflation, and a political impasse holding back billions from the IMF and international donors, many small businesses and on-hold projects returned amid the moment of respite.

With the support of friends, especially close friend Fatima Berro, who provided moral and artistic support, along with serving as editor, Rizk began illustrating and crafting the narrative for the first chapter of his comic “Dayem,” recently released in Lebanon’s bookshops, including Halabi Bookshop and Virgin Megastore.

However, this year, the country has hit a new pitfall as Israel waged a war on Gaza and south Lebanon resulting in around 400 martyrs in Lebanon and more than 34,000 in Gaza.

Despite the ongoing political, social, and economic instabilities, the upcoming generation of artists, particularly in the realm of comics, persist in pursuing their passions. They strive to carve a path for their dreams, ensuring that their voices are heard amid a myriad obstacles.

The Story of “Dayem”

Dayem’s story revolves around a 17-year-old Lebanese teenager endowed with superpowers, grappling with the excitement of his still-developing abilities and the moral complexities that come with their use.

“Dayem,” which means “ever-lasting” in Arabic, seeks to surpass mere superhero status, embodying a belief or life attitude—an eternal symbol, Rizk explains.

“The goal is to inspire resilience, unshaken by Lebanon’s perpetual crises, motivating readers to confront challenges head-on. The goal is to reject defeatism and tackle difficulties with determination and optimism,” he said.

He adds, “Dayem is also a fan of martial arts and often finds himself in accidental fights,” highlighting the character’s relatability as a teenager navigating the challenges of self-discovery and adolescence.

Like any Lebanese, Dayem observes the everyday struggles of life but confronts them differently. The first chapter delves into the issue of inadequate public transportation, exploring the potential impact of improved transportation infrastructure on society—a glimpse into the collection of dreams and possibilities that people in the country entertain on a daily basis.

“This makes you think of how Lebanon could be transformed by such improvements, potentially bringing about numerous positive changes in our lives,” Rizk said.

“Imagine how much of our stress is caused by the poor transportation system… now imagine it gone,” he added.

Illustrated in the Japanese manga style with black and white coloring, the comic allows readers to immerse themselves in the narrative, with little distractions as they utilize their imagination to visualize the scenes and sensory details.

The manga style is typically characterized by expressive eyes and slender silhouettes, which effectively highlight characters’ emotions. The purpose is to place these unrealistic-looking characters within realistic settings.

In Lebanon, Japanese-style arts such as manga and anime enjoy a large fan base, shaping the lives and values of many youngsters since the 1970s. For many Middle Eastern youths, anime serves as a source of inspiration and guidance, offering valuable lessons that can be applied in real-life situations.

Before the emergence of social media and streaming platforms, Arabic-dubbed Japanese cartoons served as sources of entertainment and escapism for younger generations amidst the chaos of instability and conflict. These televised series offered more than just amusement; they became a conduit for invaluable life lessons, applicable to real-world scenarios.

Addressing themes rarely discussed elsewhere, such as mental health, these cartoons broke societal taboos and provided a sense of belonging for young fans. Moreover, they championed universal ideals like friendship, unity, and spirituality, leaving a lasting impact on viewers, even throughout adulthood.

“In these comics, you see characters growing stronger and developing faith in themselves and their readers alike,” Rizk said. “Manga characters never fail to rise above challenges.”

Rizk recently attended the “Haru Matsuri” Japanese spring festival in April, where young people from the region were able to get firsthand experience of Japanese culture, from cosplay to culinary delights and various art forms.

According to Rizk, the festival helped him refine his approach and marketing through trial and error. He found young adults intrigued by Lebanese manga and adults feeling nostalgic for anime or mangas from their childhood.

“There is certainly a niche audience that I’m striving to reach, and I’m in the process of developing my skills for that purpose,” Rizk noted.

Making it Despite the Challenges

Rizk opted to self-fund his project rather than sign with a publisher to maintain his creative freedom and retain a larger share of the returns, even if they are not much. He personally designed the comic, gadgets, gift bags, tote bags, and action figures.

While he received gestures of support and assistance from family and friends who helped in the brainstorming process as well as in editing the text, Rizk acknowledges the delicate nature of navigating controversial topics in Lebanon, especially those that challenge societal norms.

“In the next chapters, I will undoubtedly tackle taboo subjects, but I want to do it in a way that doesn’t do harm,” Rizk said.

The artist plans to delve into sensitive topics and taboos such as sexuality and gender, particularly relevant to concerned teenagers in Lebanon’s generally conservative society, where these topics are often neglected by mainstream media at best, or given superficial treatment at worst.

In Lebanon, freedom of speech is slowly being eroded, with laws citing defamation and slander increasingly being used to intimidate dissenters and restrict independent reporting. Discussing matters related to religion, LGBTQ+ rights, and sexuality in general can put individuals at risk of legal action or real-life attacks.

On August 23, 2023, men associated with a group known as Soldiers of God attacked attendees at a bar in Beirut hosting a drag event, creating a lasting threat of violence against the LGBTQ+ community.

“Individuals who seek to address topics critical of the norms in Lebanese society may need to tread carefully,” Rizk said.

Nevertheless, creative collectives such as Samandal continued to collaborate with European publishers to push boundaries and publish works like “Cutes,” which explores Arab LGBTQ+ experiences.

Samandal’s Joseph Kai published a graphic novel in 2022 named “L’intranquille,” allowing readers to explore Beirut’s queer underground art scene through events that unfolded in Lebanon since 2018. The comic addresses themes of love, sexuality, and marginalization within a city shaped by years of uncertainty.

According to Lebanese comic artist Mohamad Kraytem, certain topics, such as politics and religion, are off-limits due to the potential threats posed by powerful parties or religious groups.

“In the event that any of these persons take offense, there is a genuine danger of physical harm,” Kraytem told Fanack. “Discussing contentious themes in comics – or any other medium – can be incredibly risky, and one worries how long we’ll be confined in this manner.”

Kraytem noted that domestic and regional politics are popular topics in Lebanese comics, but artists must navigate them carefully to avoid triggering anger from highly charged audiences.

In 2010, Samandal’s editors, Omar Khouri, Hatem Imam, and Fadi Baki, found themselves charged with offenses such as “inciting sectarian strife,” “denigrating religion,” “publishing false news,” and “defamation and slander.” This legal ordeal spanned five years, ending with a surprising guilty verdict and a swift rejection of their appeal within two weeks.

The controversial comics in question depicted a Roman centurion expressing regret over a homosexual encounter, shifting blame onto a new Christian convert with the phrase “C’est toi qui est PD” (“You’re the one who’s gay”). Another comic by Samandal portrayed the colloquial expression “yahriq deenak” (“May God burn your religion”) through the imagery of a priest and an imam being set on fire. Despite its literal meaning, the phrase is often used to convey frustration rather than sectarian hostility.

The editors were hit with fines and now have a criminal record in addition to warrants to their name. Through these warrants, General Security is able to obstruct them at any time. In order to stay in business, Samandal has had to turn to crowdsourcing.

A Journey of Healing and Breaking Taboos

Based on his experience, Kraytem has worked on several comics: one that tackles mental health and anxiety disorder, and another related to romance, both inspired by his personal history, and a third commissioned work illustrating the escape of Lebanese businessman Carlos Ghosn from Japan in 2019.

“The first two were therapeutic, and I felt like the topics were relatable to readers,” Kraytem said. “It is diaristic storytelling.”

Kraytem points out that because comics are so flexible and simple to make, especially for those with drawing skills, artists are able to express themselves with fewer restrictions.

“You can create a tiny comic about yourself, a recipe, or a fictional story with a minimal budget if you wish,” he explained. “This allows people a glimpse into your mind without the need for a large production team.”

Lebanon’s recent history is rife with comic book storytelling: “Where to, Marie?“, produced in 2021 focuses on the stories of five fictional female characters, tracing the history of the Lebanese feminist movement. In 2022, the UNICEF-developed “Qudwa” comic book series aimed to help younger generations understand perceptions of gender roles in Lebanese society norms.

In 2021, the first comic book festival took place in Beirut, where forty artists from fourteen nationalities showcased their work. According to Kraytem, who participated in the festival, Mathieu Diez, the festival’s organizer, decided to broaden its reach for a wider audience. Consequently, the comic book festival has now transformed into “Beyrouth Livres,” focusing on literature and books in general, with a special spotlight on French and Lebanese works, alongside international comic book artists.

Kraytem notes that there is a growing number of artists, especially with the establishment of institutions like the American University of Beirut’s Rada and Mutaz Sawaf Center for Arab Comics Studies. This means that younger generations are graduating with a full understanding of the art form.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by how passionate and proactive the younger generation is,” Kraytem remarked. “Despite limited artistic job opportunities, they are pursuing artistic side-jobs such as lino printing and other printing styles.”

He advises anyone wanting to enter the comic industry to have a side-gig, as success and immediate profits, as well as finding a publisher is not always guaranteed.

The youths in Lebanon are also faced with the dilemma of emigration to find better job opportunities outside the country. Kraytem agrees, acknowledging that while some want to stay, becoming a comic book artist or an artist in general requires time, effort, patience, and the right approach. This is especially the case for artists in Lebanon.

With increasing sales in the Middle East, comic books have clearly grown in popularity. They’re now easier to find thanks to digital versions, as storytelling platforms continue to diversify their content. With the rise of a more daring generation in the region, it remains to be seen how this medium will be utilized, or if restrictions on freedom of speech, as well as economic challenges, will hinder its full potential.

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