Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Yafa and the Battle Against Cultural and Political Erasure

Yafa Against Cultural Erasure
Yafa. Source: Instagram/khateera

Dana Hourany

An Israeli superhero and Mossad agent first appeared in Marvel comics in 1981, donning a white and blue suit with a Star of David on her chest. In the forthcoming 2024 Marvel movie “Captain America: A New World Order,” the character “Sabra” will be revived some forty years later.

Marvel’s questionable decision was highlighted by examples from 1980s comic books that surfaced on social media after the announcement was made on September 10 at Disney’s D23 Expo.

One such example features the superhero kneeling next to the corpse of a young Palestinian boy with a caption that reads, “it has taken the Hulk to make her see this dead Arab boy as a human being. It has taken a monster to awaken her sense of humanity.”

Palestinians who have been subjected to years of inaccurate portrayals and racial stereotypes and other social observers took to the internet to express their dismay at the offensive undertones and the political bias that the 80s character perpetuates.

“This is a blatant glorification of violence and dehumanization of Palestinian and Arabs in general. Perhaps, in the 80s we could have pinned it on Marvel’s ignorance but in 2022 the excuse is no longer valid. It’s offensive, racist, and will incite further violence against Arabs,” Amanda Abou Abdallah, filmmaker, and co-founder of feminist platform, Khateera, told Fanack.

For this reason, Khateera‘s team created “Yafa,” a comic depicting a Palestinian superhero, meant to spearhead the battle against Marvel’s cultural offensive.

Where did it all go wrong?

Sabra’s name is derived from the nickname of a Jewish person born in Israel and refers to a prickly pear in Hebrew. However, “Sabra” is also reminiscent of a large-scale massacre committed by right-wing Lebanese Christian Militia in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, under the supervision and protection of Israeli forces during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

The massacre, which went on for three days and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3,000 people, is commemorated every year on September 16. This year’s commemoration however came only a few days after Marvel’s announcement, adding insult to injury.

Sabra, who is portrayed by Israeli actress Shira Haas, harbors a bitter hatred of Arabs after her son died in a Palestine Liberation Organization attack. She frequently appears in conflict with the “Arabian Knight,” a vengeful superhero with a turban and sword as his main weapon. He is represented as an angry, misogynistic and anti-Semitic figure, who transforms into a diplomatic and understanding character after meeting Sabra.

According to Waleed F. Mahdi, author of “Arab Americans in Film: From Hollywood and Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation,” the archetype of American and Israeli propaganda portraying the allied forces as the army of good countering the “evil” and “violence” typically committed by Arabs and Muslims dates back to the 1960s.

“American comics can carry a lot of propaganda that propagates nationalistic ideas at the expense of other nations. These could contribute to the development of stereotypes of non-US allied countries. So the news of ‘Sabra’, although disappointing, was not shocking,” Christina Atik, Art Director and Graphic Designer at Khateera told Fanack.

Naira Antoun, writer at the Educational Platform and news website focused on Palestine, The Electronic Intifada noted in a film review for the animated documentary movie “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) that the storyline shows an unbalanced portrayal of the Israeli and Palestinian experience. The movie highlights the Israeli director’s quest to retrieve the lost memories of the Sabra and Shatila massacre while effacing the stories of Palestinian victims, Antoun explained.

“We find ourselves grimacing and gasping at the trials and tribulations of the young Israeli soldiers and their older agonizing selves. We don’t see Palestinian facial expressions; only a lingering on dead, anonymous faces. So while Palestinians are never fully human, Israelis are, and indeed are humanized through the course of the film,” the author wrote.

“Israeli protagonists are allowed to reflect and develop, therefore emerging with a new character at the end. Palestinians, on the other hand, are dehumanized and othered,” Abou Abdallah said.

Yafa, the superhero of Palestine

Atik notes that Arab women‘s role in Western productions has been widely reduced to vulnerable and exotic sexualized beings in need of a male protagonist – often from a Western background – to rescue them from oppressive environments. Yafa was therefore created to protect and rescue, obliterating the stereotype of vulnerable Arab women in need of help, she added.

The Palestinian cause has long been distorted in Western news and entertainment. In an unprecedented move Netflix’s “Mo” series was successful in bringing the Palestinian diaspora experience to the small screen of Western audiences.

When it comes to comics though, Abou Abdallah notes that superheroes have always been imported from the West and never exported from the Middle East.

“This is why we came up with ‘Yafa.’ We didn’t want to be mere spectators in this cultural war where our histories and nations are erased from the mainstream narrative. We wanted to take an active role and be on the frontline of this battle,” Abou Abdallah told Fanack.

The team at Khateera is comprised of six women from various Middle Eastern backgrounds who produce material to combat pervasive sexism and alter perceptions of gender equality and social norms. Yafa is so greatly influenced by Middle Eastern women’s struggle against oppression and cultural erasure, Abou Abdallah notes.

According to Atik, the superheroine was designed to demonstrate a strong resemblance to Palestine. The Instagram poster shows an olive-skinned Yafa donning the traditional Palestinian thobe with dark curly hair and brown eyes. She clutches an olive branch, which according to Abou Abdallah, endowed her with the powers to dig tunnels and evade Israeli checkpoints.

“We wanted her to resemble us,” Atik said. “We’re so accustomed to Western features and Western perspectives in storytelling that we can grow up to hate and be ashamed of our identities.”

The battle begins

According to Abou Abdallah, Yafa, who was named after the occupied city of Yafa, became an orphan when her mother was killed while giving birth at the hands of “Ghabra,” or dust in Arabic. Ghabra becomes her main adversary in the comics. The latter is an Israeli security agent, who, according to Abou Abdallah, was designed to reflect on the real-life aggressions of Israeli troops.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) stated in a report that “so far in 2022, IOF attacks killed 111 Palestinians, including 80 civilians: 24 children, 8 women, 2 Palestinians killed by Israeli settlers and the rest were activists; 15 of them were assassinated.”

As for Yafa’s tragic backstory, Abou Abdallah notes that “dramatic beginnings are common in comics as the archetype of superheroes involves old vengeance and an archnemesis that needs to be defeated.”

She adds that Yafa will remain on the defensive side; only carrying attacks when her land and people are threatened.

In recent years, Japanese comics or manga, as well as American superhero comic books, have dominated the comic book market in the MENA region. This has led to a significant lack of MENA storylines inside the medium, Atik, and Abou Abdallah observe.

“After we shared the announcement about Yafa, parents flooded our social media with videos of their children, particularly young girls who were thrilled to have a role model that upholds Middle Eastern values and symbols,” Abou Abdallah said.

Will not be silenced

Strong and rooted in her land, Yafa defies the norm imposed on Arab women by MENA governments that strip women of their rights and undermine their role in social change, Atik notes.

“Comics are a medium that all ages can be drawn to. We’ll show Marvel that we’re the masters of our stories,” Atik said. “People in the MENA will hopefully feel valued and heard as they realize that their stories go beyond the distorted lens of Aladdin and similar problematic productions.”

In a recent statement to Variety, Marvel said, “while our characters and stories are inspired by the comics they are always freshly imagined for the screen and today’s audience, the filmmakers are taking a new approach with the character Sabra who was first introduced in the comics over 40 years ago.”

It remains unclear how the story will unfold, yet Abou Abdallah worries that the Marvel storyline could still bolster a pro-Israeli narrative that dehumanizes Palestinians and neglects the display of their suffering.

“Resistance is not only through weapons, we can resist culturally and show them that they can’t take up all the digital space. We are still here and our stories deserve as much attention and recognition,” the co-founder said.

Khateera didn’t set a date for the comic’s release but they hope to make progress within a month. However, the team aims to turn the comics into a book and potentially, a cinematic production in the future.

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