Qahera Watches over Egypt
Superheroes and the Universal Language of Entertainment
Qahera is a superheroine, the protagonist of a webcomic written and drawn by the Egyptian writer and artist Deena Mohamed. One of Qahera’s most striking features, particularly to audiences unfamiliar with Egyptian culture, may be her ḥijāb, which sometimes, when it hides her face, resembles a ninja outfit. Qahera’s own name comes from the Arabic spelling of Cairo, al-Qāhirah, meaning “the victorious” or “the subduing.” It is a very uncommon name, and in one of the stories, she is gently teased for this by her non-veiled friend Layla Magdy, who asks: “Is your sister’s name Alexandria?”1 Even though the name goes unexplained in Mohamed’s stories, it carries connotations both of a powerful woman, in reference to the original meaning of the word qāhirah, and of local ties, due to its homonymy with Egypt’s capital.
Currently, there are eight Qahera stories, all published between June 30, 2013, and August 26, 2015. Mohamed also posted a single image on April 4, 2016, which shows the superheroine holding up a collapsing bridge. The comic is meant by its author to be a tool of social commentary, mainly addressing issues related to Islamophobia and feminism. Initially, Mohamed was writing primarily for English-educated Egyptians and foreigners, and her first two Qahera stories were published only in English. They were intended as responses to Western stereotypes about Muslim women. Mohamed eventually decided to translate her stories into Arabic for a local Egyptian readership. From that point on, she became much more specific in her stories, concentrating on women’s rights and political accountability in Egypt.
This webcomic started during a troubled period of Egyptian history, two years after the 2011 uprising, when power relations remained unsettled. Qahera’s stories partly reflect the uncertainties of the situation during these years. The military take-over in July 2013, and the following election of Marshal ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Sīsī as President, proved to be a severe backlash for all revolutionary forces of 2011, including those that initially supported the ousting of the Muslim Brothers by the army. Most of all, the popular support for violent repression of dissent was distressing for the political activists whose slogans during demonstrations claimed they were representing “the people.”2 This distress is also expressed in Qahera’s adventures.
Two stories appear particularly relevant to illustrate the ambivalent relationship of members of the educated middle class to “the people” in the wake of the Egyptian uprising and its later repression. Mohamed dedicated the fourth Qahera strip to the topic of sexual harassment during mass demonstrations. In the story, Qahera is observing a demonstration. On the ground, some men stare lustfully at demonstrating women. Their faces are framed in subpanels, giving prominence to their glances and setting them apart from the women and from the rest of the demonstration. A panel shows money passing from an arm in a suit to a bare arm with a bracelet. In the following panel, the arm with the bracelet grasps the arm of a woman. Then, the woman is carried away by the group of harassers previously shown. For this sequence, the comments to the pictures, which reflect Qahera’s thoughts, are scattered between three panels and read: “I do my best to protect women. From harassment, as they like to call it. A light word, all things considered. It is not harassment. It is a crime.”3
Qahera later intervenes and saves the women. Her comments continue:
They threaten women in every way. Because women are half of society. Remove their voice, and society is vulnerable. Sometimes, I don’t make it in time… and sometimes, I’m not needed. But no matter what they keep on going. I am a superhero because I have superpowers. They are superheroes because they do not.
In Mohamed’s eighth, and, at the time of this writing, last Qahera story, Qahera expresses a sense of alienation, which results in a certain helplessness. In this episode, the superhero saves a woman from robbers. However, instead of being grateful, the victim rebukes Qahera because of her privilege – her ability to fly – while the woman’s own brother has to go through a difficult journey to emigrate. It is difficult not to read in this story the estrangement of the supporters of the 2011 uprising evoked above, seen especially in the fourth strip, where Qahera crowns the women demonstrators as the real superheroes. At the end of the story, to solve her dilemma, Qahera offers a plane ticket to the woman. The last panel shows a plane bringing this woman out of the country.
When I interviewed Mohamed, she asked me what it means for a superhero to solve problems by offering a plane ticket to a woman, to help her leave. If everybody could fly, Egypt would be emptied of its people, she said, adding that everybody wants to leave.4
After the eighth strip, Mohamed published no new Qahera stories for approximately nine months. Only then did she publish the new image of Qahera holding up the collapsing bridge. Apparently, Mohamed seems to think that the country still needs its superheroes to keep it from falling apart.
This ambivalent relation could cast doubts on the legitimacy of speaking for the Egyptian people through the adventures of a superheroine. However, I would like to argue here that even if this question reflects a real concern for many actors of the Egyptian cultural field, it is inaccurately formulated. As processes of circulation, adaptation, and reappropriation of superhero figures are at the core of this series of posts about Muslim superheroes on Mizan, the specific issues facing Qahera’s acclimation in Egypt appear to me to be particularly relevant. As French anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle puts it: “It’s by operating a transmutation of englobing schemes that a culture can make its voice heard.”5 A core feature of cultural exchanges is the appropriation of languages deemed as universal to express one’s own particularity, because such languages have the capacity to convey this specificity to others in a comprehensible way.6
Superheroes have belonged to the transnational media landscape for decades. They travel from the US around the world through media such as films, cartoons, video games, merchandising, and comics. Such figures, even when they convey political messages, are mostly apprehended as entertainment. They are both foreign and familiar, from here and from everywhere. This ubiquity makes them part of the universal language of contemporary entertainment.
Further, according to another French scholar, political scientist Jean-François Bayart, the “creative diversion” of transnational referents characterizes cultural innovation in a context of foreign hegemony.7 Hence, criticism of superheroes as inauthentic for the Egyptian context miss the point, even if claims of cultural exclusiveness can be politically rewarding in a context in which nationalism is strong, as is the case in Egypt. Yet Egyptian music, literature, and cinema all reinterpreted foreign artistic codes to create something of their own. Singer and composer Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Wahhāb is a famous example. 8 In her own manner, Deena Mohamed did the same when she conceived of Qahera as an Egyptian superheroine.
Mohamed’s description of the demonstrators on Tahrir Square as superheroes brings her attempt to Egyptianize these figures to a kind of apotheosis. Nevertheless, cultural innovation obviously also bears risks of marginalization. Mohamed’s own doubts and feeling of alienation, which she relates in Qahera’s eighth story, give a sufficient account of it. However, instead of considering it as the result of some inherent flaw due to the cultural inadequacy of superheroes, an explanation for this feeling should be sought in the realm of culture politics. Apparently, innovators who derive their inspiration from American pop culture to formulate social criticism are not in the best position for success in today’s public art production inside of Egypt.
AYMON KREIL is an anthropologist. He conducted most of his research in Egypt. In 2012, he defended his Ph.D. thesis on the registers of talk on love and sex in Cairo at the EHESS (Paris). Among his most recent publications are “Dire le harcèlement sexuel en Égypte: Les aléas de traduction d’une catégorie juridique,” Critique internationale 70 (2016): 101-114; “Territories of Desire: A Geography of Competing Intimacies in Cairo,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 12 (2016) : 166-180 ; and “Science de la psyché et connaissance de Dieu au Caire: Quelles conciliations ?”, Archives de Sciences sociales des religions 170 (2015). Kreil has taught at the University of Cairo, the University of Neuchatel, the Geneva University for Art and Design, and the University of Fribourg. Currently, he is researcher at the Asia-Orient-Institute of the University of Zurich. Beside his academic work, he occasionally writes scenarios for the Egyptian comics magazine Tok Tok.
 In the Arabic version, Alexandria is replaced by Madīnat Naṣr, a neighborhood of Cairo.
 Samuli Schielke, “There Will Be Blood: Expecting Violence in Egypt, 2011-2014,” ZMO Working Papers 11 (2014); Asef Bayat, “Revolution and Despair,” Mada Masr, January 25, 2015.
 Emphasis in original.
 Interview, April 5, 2016.
 Jean-Loup Amselle, Branchements: Anthropologie de l’universalité des cultures (Paris : Flammarion, 2001), 59. My translation.
 Which language can claim universality changes with persons, times and places. Hence, claims to universality should always be historically and socially situated.
 Jean-François Bayart, “L’Afrique dans le monde: Une histoire d’extraversion,” Critique internationale 5 (1999): 97-120, 109.