It’s common knowledge among Tarek Shahin’s friends that Omar, the protagonist of Al Khan, the daily comic strip Shahin authors, is his alter-ego.
Omar has left a banking career in London to become the publisher of the fictional Al Khan magazine in Cairo. Meanwhile, Shahin continues to lead a career as an investment analyst living between Cairo and London.
Omar’s character – although in different backgrounds and settings – can be traced back to previous comic strips by Shahin, especially in the AUCanity strip that ran in the American University in Cairo’s student paper, the Caravan, from 2000 to 2003. Omar also starred in an animated short Shahin wrote and produced for “The Listening Post on Al Jazeera English television in April 2007, in which fellow Al Khan protagonist Nada also appeared.
“We all know that you are Omar, many of his friends told him last Tuesday during the book-signing held at Downtown’s Kunst Gallery Café to celebrate the release of “Al Khan. The book is a compilation of the first series of the comic strip which ran exclusively in Daily News Egypt from May to December 2008.
Usually, Shahin casually dismisses such claims with a smile not that different from Omar’s, whose capitalist views always clash with Nada’s, the socialist editor of the fictional magazine. But during the book-signing last Tuesday and in a later interview with Daily News Egypt, Shahin was firm in rebuffing these claims.
He does acknowledge the resemblance, but stresses that it’s only superficial.
“Yes, I am not a Nasserist like Nada, or a know-it all beggar like Big Falafel or a wannabe polygamist like Dr Anwar or a 40-plus-year-old still living with my parents like Yunan, but do I catch myself asking myself the same questions that these characters ask themselves when faced with strenuous situations [and ethical dilemmas]? Absolutely.
There s a thin line between expressing his own views and those of his characters’, some of which are partly inspired by people he met in real life.
But as Shahin found out, readers sometimes confuse tiptoeing around this line and crossing it.
In a strongly-worded online commentary on a comic strip featuring the fictional socialist MP Yasser Yousry, a reader criticized Shahin for crossing the line between showcasing the views of the strip’s characters and Shahin’s own political ideas.
“I did not feel at the time that I did, but I did respect that comment very much, Shahin said.
It is these strong reactions towards the characters’ actions – whether positive or negative – that Shahin relishes, but he stresses that his ultimate taboo is “to wake up one morning and decide to write something that is provocative only for the sake of being provocative.
Noting past controversial strips, Shahin says “they all had context. What I will not do is write something merely for cheap shock value.
Yet, regardless of the intensity of past and future comments, Shahin stresses that they don’t and won’t affect the plot development of the strip and its characters.
“Al Khan deals with contemporary issues through fictional plots, fusing these plots with day-to-day events as they play out in the real world. This is a lot more difficult than it looks. . I feel that this is what makes Al Khan special and unique, Shahin explained.
“That is the reason I decided to publish series one in a book. Because it is not only an anthology of news headlines from 2008 but also – hopefully – a coherent fictional plot that takes our characters from one place in their lives and tests them during the course of the events, he added.
This interest in character development is characteristic of Doonesbury, the comic strip that Shahin specifically notes when asked about his major influences. He considers the satirical style – but not necessarily the political views – of Yousef Ouf, Salah Jahin and Matt Groening of “The Simpsons as major influences as well, but Gary Trudeau, the Doonesbury author, remains on top of the list.
“Doonesbury is virtually the only comic strip that sees its characters change and develop over time, which is more than I can say for ‘Garfield’ or even ‘The Simpsons’, which is designed around the premise of ageless, static characters in a constantly changing America.
“Al Khan cannot do the same because, quite simply, Egypt does not appear to change.
Thus, the changing characters are the focus of Al Khan, even though the offices of the news magazine of the same name are the recurrent and main setting.
“Al Khan was always going to be about how my characters interact with Cairo, Egypt and the wider Middle East and not some cheap lampooning of already existing stereotypes and generalizations about Egyptians or Arabs, Shahin explained. “I want to use Al Khan to dispel the notion that there is such a thing as an average Egyptian or an average Arab. The constant in Al Khan is the setting – not the characters.
It’s for this reason that Shahin decided to write his comic strip in English, to reach a global audience – with a strong emphasis that global doesn’t mean western.
“It is important for me that the rest of the world can relate more to the human side of the people on this side of the world and eventually shows compassion to issues that the rest of the world does not necessarily identify with, he added.
“I make sure with every strip that Al Khan does not become something Orientalist that the West can masturbate to, he added.
Thus, having a news room as a central setting is imperative to what Shahin tries to do through his strip – a place where characters of different backgrounds collide.
“I have always liked the idea of characters being faced with some ethical dilemma – and the professional requirements of journalism feeds right into that, he said. “How do you separate your personal views and your personal agenda from your work as a journalist?
By choosing the newsroom, Shahin also wanted to allude to freedom of expression and “the relationship – or lack thereof – between the media and the state, especially in a country like Egypt.
He also wanted to portray the “elitist manner in which the self-proclaimed intellectuals of Egyptian society – in this case, journalists – grant themselves the right to examine, judge and ultimately affect the lives of the so-called masses. This I think became very clear in the main story plot in series one, which is the privatization of the fictional company ENECO.
Finding difficulty picking a favorite character, Shahin finally settles on Hajja Folla, “the self-made illiterate koshary stand lady who created a business empire but stayed true to her roots. He says it’s unlikely for Folla to appear in future series although he “enjoyed writing her one-liners.