David Lewis is a specialist in religion and graphic novels, two things that, at first glance, may appear to have very little to do with one another. Lewis’ oeuvre of work proves, however, that the ties between the two run deep. Lewis completed his PhD at Boston University in 2012. His dissertation became the book American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife, published by Palgrave Macmillan. Lewis has also penned a number of award-winning graphic novels including The Lone And Level Sands, a retelling of the Exodus story that draws on Biblical, Qu’ranic, and other historical sources. The book won a Howard E. Day prize from the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE) and was nominated for three Harvey Awards, a comic book industry honor. In recent years, Lewis’s academic and creative ventures have focused on Islam, Muslims, and graphic novels. His most recent projects are Haawiyat, a graphic novel created specifically for Syrian refugee children and Kismet, Man of Fate, a reboot of the first Muslim superhero. Muftah spoke to Lewis about both of these ground-breaking projects, in an interview that is being published in two-parts. In this first installment, Lewis discusses how Haawiyat was created, the reactions from children who read the novel, and his future plans for the project.
Muftah (M): What was the initial inspiration for Haawiyat?
A. David Lewis (ADL): Haawiyat came from a very frustrated and very guilty place. I was watching the horrors in Syria unfold, and my household was making what donations we could to various relief charities. But it wasn’t enough. I recognized that I come from a place of great privilege, and all I was doing was throwing money at the problem. Yet, I also didn’t feel as though I had skills that could contribute to alleviating the conflict. The images of children, in particular, cut me to the core. Having two young kids myself, the sight of Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach or Omran Daqneesh in the back of the ambulance pained me. These could be my children. I closely followed the Twitter account of 6-year-old Bana Alabed and her family trapped in Aleppo. Feeling rather hopeless, I darkly quipped that “I could make them comics!” There was a kind of self-deprecating humor in my saying it. My spouse, though, encouraged me to genuinely consider it: What kind of comics could I help produce? What purpose could comics serve? That started a bit of soul-searching and personal exploration, leading to Haawiyat.
M: You must have had a huge team working on this project. How did you find your team members?
ADL: The initial call was largely a social media longshot. I reached out to friends on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, asking, essentially, that if they knew any artists or comics creators interested in creating a book for Syria, to please put them in touch with me. The tricky part, really, was explaining that the goal wasn’t to create a book to raise funds for refugees but actually to produce a book for the child refugees themselves. Word spread through various networks, and I was able to assemble my “phase one” team of just under a dozen talented individuals.
M: Who were the primary collaborators on this project, and what are their ties to graphic novels and/or Syria?
ADL: Administratively, Nadia Alawa from NuDay Syria and Lys Galanti from Sphinx PR were the most integral to providing early guidance in building this project. The original artists — Ursula Murray Husted, Joseba Morales, and Rob Croonenborghs — along with translator Farrah Hamza made the project itself viable and encouraged others to come aboard. Farrah is a native Libyan attending school in the U.K., while Rob is a Belgian and Joseba is a Spaniard. Encouragement from advocate and comics fan Hussein Rashid, comics writer Joshua Dysart, and Krystina and Nuri Friedlander (not to mention my wife as well!) provided me with the gumption to put this all into effect.
M: How did you choose the stories featured in Haawiyat?
ADL: I had to remember, again, that I’m a privileged Caucasian CIS-male American in a Blue State. I could not assume my experience was at all universal or that I “understood” whatever trauma these refugees, children and adults alike, were suffering. That, combined with a Hippocratic-like ethos of “first, do no harm,” led me to a wealth of Syrian folklore and oral traditions. I read From Syria with Love, a publication by the U.K.-based charity of the same name that stages exhibitions of refugee children’s works of art. I also read Timeless Tales, an anthology of 21 folk tales recorded by the Cultural Heritage without Borders foundation. Cultural Heritage without Borders went to various refugee camps and solicited stories, particularly from the other generation, that were then translated and edited by Zulaikha Abu Risha, Serene Huleileh, and Jack Lynch. I felt that both of these projects were very much on the right track. Together with input from both mental health professionals and amazing individuals working at refugee camps — I was concerned what themes or images might be more “triggering” than soothing — I found a way to adapt these native stories into comics and, in a sense, redeploy them to the children. I dug in, did research, and came away with several viable narratives, the first three of which made it into our initial “proof of concept” version of Haawiyat.
M: Art is relatively well-known as a method for psychological therapy, but usually it is the practice of art (drawing, writing, dancing, etc.) that is therapeutic, not necessarily the art itself. Can you explain the theory for how these books will therapeutically benefit Syrian children?
You’re absolutely correct. The therapeutic power of art therapy and narrative therapy is immense. And, ultimately, that’s where I would like to take our non-profit group CYRIC (Comics for Youth Refugees Incorporated Collective) – to produce works by refugee children. These kinds of projects are already being undertaken beautifully by the FSWL (From Syria with Love) team and through exhibitions like Germany’s Goethe Institute. But, I felt there were two steps that had to precede publishing work from refugee children themselves. First, these children should know we were not only watching and thinking about them, but were also interested in them and saw their value as people. I wanted Haawiyat to demonstrate that we were more than global spectators or disinterested bystanders, that we saw value in them and their culture. With that link at least partly established, I wanted to engage the children in the language of comics. CYRIC is meant to establish a channel with displaced populations, eventually inviting their response in kind. But before I asked anything of them, I felt we had to give.
M: Can you give examples of some of the stories in the book, and how they were developed and crafted to help Syrian children?
ADL: One story, “The Miller and the Two Djinns,” is largely based on a footnote from a painfully Orientalist journal that conducted early ethnography on new Syrian immigrants to the United States. at the beginning of the twentieth century. The author was trying to capture all the ways in which djinns were perceived by this population, how they could seem malicious and petty in one story, then convivial and mischievous in another. That struck a chord with me, in terms of how some of the aid-workers and mental health professionals with whom I spoke characterized the refugees’ sense of justice and order. How could the world be so mercurial, at best, and cruel, at worst? So, I took the notes on the djinn — and on the treatment of one miller, in particular — and scripted it as a comic that touched upon those themes. If nothing else, I hope it’s escapist, engrossing entertainment for the kids. But, on another level, it’s meant to equip them with some language and images they can use to express their own feelings. Though the refugee experience is not at all monolithic, the story is meant to provide a touchstone back to the history of their homeland as well as a sort of narrative vocabulary they can utilize if it connects with them.
M: Was there a prior culture/history of graphic novels in Syria before the war?
ADL: I’m not personally aware of one. In my associated research, I’ve come across a lot of material on Egypt’s comics market and a bit on Lebanon and Kuwait’s too, but the only comics in Syria before the war, which I know about, were international reprints. Of course, it’d be great to discover that I’m wrong and tap into a pool of Syrian comics creators. So much of this is a learning experience for me, so clearing away preconceived notions is always welcome.
M: How and where are the comics being distributed?
ADL: The first wave of comics, approximately 400 copies, were distributed to children at camps in Istanbul and Gaziantep in April. The amazing people at NuDay Syria, especially its founder Nadia Alawa, have been helping us since the beginning, coordinating distribution among camps along the Turkish border. NuDay Syria already collects food, clothes, medical supplies, toys, and all manner of goods to be sent overseas to those affected by the conflict. I opted to call the book Haawiyat partially due to the massive containers NuDay Syria packs up and ships with impressive frequency. (Haawiyat literally means container. In context, it can be applied to the cargo containers bringing supplies by ship to the refugees. Or it can be the book containing folklore).
M: Since their initial distribution, gave you gotten any feedback from the recipients of the comics?
ADL: We’ve gotten some of the most heartwarming pictures from the NuDay Syria teams, shots of kids — looking healthy, active, and protected — poring over the comics, reading them to each other, even summarizing the stories for their parents. I aim to get some additional feedback (i.e. what stories they enjoyed, what themes were of value to them, what they’d like to see next) sometime soon, but their faces show us so much of what we were hoping to see.
M: Are you planning on creating more editions, increasing the distribution range, or expanding the project in other ways?
ADL: Wonderfully enough, yes, we’re taking Haawiyat even further. We’ve been fortunate enough to receive some funding that will allow the book to be expanded into a 64-page full-color edition. Currently, I’m speaking with additional artists, along with my original team, to make phase two happen. I’m continuing to do research on the folklore and talk to professionals about the most therapeutically useful materials. It’s coming together wonderfully!
M: How can people who want to help or contribute get involved?
ADL: Our funding at the moment only covers the cost of the expanded content — the pencilers, inkers, colorists, translators, and letterers. At worst, we could release the final product digitally and hope that the camps have access to computer tablets or printer supplies, so it can be shared with the children. But, our real aim is to raise enough in additional funding to print an edition of the full Haawiyat and to ship physical copies overseas. Donations would, therefore, be hugely welcome. We’ve created a secure Razoo.com page to accept funds from those who want to help. The whole idea is to physically give something to each of these kids. After so much has been taken from them, creating a comic book that honors their country’s rich traditions while demonstrating our continuing commitment to their struggle is the goal. Donations, in addition to being tax-deductible, help us accomplish CYRIC’s overarching goal: Giving Syrian children back their stories.