The Thursday Night Tea Research Group | Graphic Narratives with Racha Chatta 

By Anisha Joshi

Class of 2022

Translation is a familiar experience for much of the community at DKU- many juggle at least two (if not more) languages daily in a multitude of contexts as we navigate communicating with an international community. So what a gift that this semester the Thursday Night Tea Research Group is returning to DKU with the theme Translation!

Rasha Chatta kicked off the series this month as the first guest speaker leading a discussion on the topic of Graphic Narratives. Chatta’s research interests at the moment include Arab migrant literature and graphic narrative, and she holds two fellowships at the moment- at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin, and at the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb in Tunis.

While most of us usually think of translation in terms of languages, texts and the written word, the confluence of Chatta’s research interests in Arab migrant literature and graphic narratives has given her an unusual but very insightful perspective on translation. How do you translate your lived experiences to come to an understanding of your own life and its events? Focusing on the particularly interesting case of graphic narratives in the Arab world, Chatta gave us a peek into how we might go about answering these questions.

Displaying a timeline of the history of graphic narratives in the region, Chatta pointed out how excepting Lebanon, the genre took off around 2010 and 2011 in most of the region, and peaked around the last five or six years, when the region saw the highest number of publications and events, activities and festivals related to graphic narratives. Meanwhile, Lebanon saw a relatively earlier development of the genre in the region, commencing from the 1980s, and blossoming further around 2006 and 2007.

Chatta is interested in getting at why the genre has developed during these specific moments in the region. ‘What can this tell us about the specificities of the genre? What it does or translates in terms of social realities that perhaps other forms are not able to do or do not reflect in a similar manner?’

Contending that the periods she highlighted corresponded to key political moments in the region, Chatta illustrated that such simultaneity might be correlation rather than mere coincidences, which is an idea shared by many artists in the region. The moments in Lebanon, for example, correspond to the Lebanese civil war which ravaged the country from 1975 to 1991, and the Israeli-Lebanese war of 2006.

The first comic for adults in Lebanon, entitled ‘Carnival’, was published by George Khoury in 1987, who also formed a collective for graphic narrative artists. The timeline for the rest of the region similarly corresponds to periods of heightened political unrest, such as the 2011 Jasmine revolution in Tunisia. ‘Maybe comics are in dialogue with the language on the streets, and express this need for change,’ Chatta said, citing Khoury. It was during these critical times of unrest when an underground market for these comics grew, perhaps because they reflected the lived experiences of so many people who were coming together in their struggles for change.

Highlighting a more recent example, Chatta displayed an image that took over the internet earlier this year. When two children were able to rescue their goldfish following an airstrike by Israel that destroyed their home in May 15, graphic renditions of this image were shared all over the internet, and they became new symbolic figures of the Palestinian resistance. Chatta pointed out how the medium itself- the visual element is powerful in the way that it brought together people in a field that is wrought with contested narratives. ‘It was a breach in the blinkered perception of reality, held hostage by the machinations of power.’

‘You have to remember that this is a region where authoritarian regimes have held a monopoly on what circulates publicly in terms of narratives and whether they’re graphic or not, and where spaces of contestations are for the most part, under scrutiny,’ Chatta pointed out. In such a moment, graphic narrative as a genre, along with graffiti provides a new field of conversation, which at all times is nourished by a hope for political and social change.

‘The uniqueness of the genre is the impulse to engage in direct dialogue with the streets, which is not the case for political satires in the region (which has had a much longer history),’ Chatta said. She contends that there is a distinction between the imaginaries of intellectuals and what is happening on the streets.

Earlier graphic narratives in the region- during the 50s and 70s- that used to be published in state owned magazines and published in classical Arabic, often served mainly to propagate the social values of the time such as pan-Arabism and Islamic heritage, largely geared towards a male audience. Chatta pointed out that these new moments were a significant break with this earlier culture of graphic narratives- in many places for the first time, they began to be published in dialects, vernacular and the language being used in the streets, rather than the previously favored classical Arabic.

Collectives in the region have also been landmark moments, marking a shift in the way how authors and artists thought of the collective model. Chatta discussed how the example of JAD was picked up by passionate artists in Lebanon who established al Samandal, another collective, following the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister in 2005, and the war in 2006. ‘It is this generation of artists who have lived with the memories of the civil war, which still form the basis of their works in unrest,’ Chatta pointed out. She also illustrated the work of similar efforts elsewhere in the region, such as TokTok in Egypt, Lab 619 in Tunisia, and SkefSkef in Morocco.

‘They are a means for vibrant graphic narrative scene and solidarity and cooperation,’ Chatta said. These collectives facilitate a new way of communicating in art across borders since they provide bases around which artists can collaborate. They are often private or self-funded, which comes with its own challenges but also provides the crucial affordance of freedom to experiment in both content and form; these graphic artists often engage with a profusion of styles and techniques, from collage to caricature. ‘While the issues, languages and styles these works embody vary based on the artist and their local contexts, these works are unified in how they are born out of the everyday lives and realities- social and political,’ Chatta stated.

In contexts where for a variety of reasons life-shattering events may simply be glossed over and any opportunity for collective memorialization foreclosed, such graphic narratives have been important records of memories that might have never been recorded. In such times, Chatta emphasized, the necessity of translation may also be a question of self-translation in conveying the experiences one has lived. Thus, a project of translation might also mean translating a fragment of your life that can become a moment that resonates with many others, a history that would otherwise be denied.