Technicolored Kiosks and Wishes in a Bottle: The Magical Realism of Deena Mohamed (Interview)

Our lives pivot around our dreams, which often tantalize just out of reach. What would you do if you knew your deepest desires hung in the dregs of a vial sold at your local kiosk? The author of the Shubeik Lubeik trilogy spun this premise into a fantastical, highly nuanced tale. The rhythmic aphorism Shubeik Lubeik (“Your wish is my command” in Arabic) weaves together three stories in a fictionalized version of Egypt where wishes are for sale: the higher the cost, the more potent their capacity to grant your desires. The books chronicle the stories of Aziza, Nour, and Shokry respectively– three people with highly different aspirations, anxieties, and possessions who manage to pull at Egyptian readers’ heartstrings.

Deena Mohamed, 27, is an Egyptian comic artist, graphic designer, and illustrator. In 2016, she graduated from the American University in Cairo with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, having already published the feminist Qahera webcomic and the first installment of the Shubeik Lubeik trilogy. The most notable thing about Deena’s art is that she doesn’t tell Egyptian stories from ivory towers; her comic strips are inspired by actual day-to-day Cairene scenes. 

Deena Mohamed interview 1
A translated spread from the first Shubeik Lubeik. (COURTESY: Deena Mohamed)

This Deena Mohamed interview has been lightly edited.

When did you start drawing and when did it stop being just a hobby?

I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pen. It stopped being a hobby at some point in high school when I started taking commissions for small illustration jobs. At that point, I was making money off of it, but it stopped feeling like a hobby and more like work probably during college.

What inspired your first comic, Qahera?

In 2013, I came across this misogynistic online article, titled “Ten Things to Look For in a Muslim Wife,” and I was filled with the urge to mock it. The webcomic was my way of letting off steam. It was about an Egyptian hijabi superheroine named Qahera, referring to the Arabic word for Cairo, which also means “victorious.” It began as a fun project, and it went viral. The comic followed Qahera through normal superhero missions with the main focus being social issues like cultural norms, sexism, islamophobia, and harassment.

How was it like going viral during the peak years of Tumblr? How would you say it affected the rest of your career?

I was lucky to go viral on Tumblr. Back then, Tumblr attracted a lot of critical thinking and analysis, and the community that kept up with Qahera consisted of a lot of scholars and academics from different backgrounds who were very supportive. A lot of them were smarter than me, so I ended up learning a lot, including how to accept constructive criticism. 

On a professional level, Qahera managed to gain traction outside of Tumblr, and my work started receiving exposure from outlets like the BBC and Foreign Policy. That helped me make a name for myself and then, later on, be able to network and freelance.

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An excerpt from Qahera. (COURTESY: Deena Mohamed)

What would you say is the biggest difference between making webcomics and making physical comic books?

Webcomics used to be more conversational; once you post them, the feedback is instant.  Nowadays some webcomics function like an industry, where there’s an intermediate website between the artists and the audience, and artists prepare their work many weeks in advance. But for me, I was just drawing something at 4 am and posting it. Meanwhile, with physical books, the time between my drawing it, people getting to read it, and then telling me what they think, is much longer. 

However, I would say the biggest difference is the format in which your work is going to be viewed. With webcomics, you can take full advantage of digital aspects like sound and animation. With print, you need to think about your pages, your double-page spread, and whether you can afford to print in color or not. These are technical questions that affect how your work will be perceived.

Would you say that webcomics are more independent?

Some people might say webcomics are more independent, but truthfully, I’ve found traditional publishing can be just as independent. In both webcomics and self-publishing physical books, I’m doing 100% of the work myself. If you have a traditional publisher, then you can have someone else handle the printing and distribution. But if you work with a webcomics publisher, you can have the same experience now too. So it depends on how you work. With both webcomics and print, you can choose to be independent or you can choose to work within a network.

What’s the biggest difference between the Egyptian comic industry when you started in 2013 vs. now?

I think it’s a lot bigger now! When I started, there were no local events like Cairocomix, and hardly any people worked mainly as comic artists (because honestly, no one’s sole gig is comic book artistry, not even me). We don’t have anything big enough to qualify for an industry yet, there are more fun comics floating around now to read and draw inspiration from. It’s getting easier to enjoy comics with the rise of fan communities, but none of that affects the ability to make them, which still requires time and money and we don’t have that yet for Egyptian artists.

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An excerpt from Shubeik Lubeik. (COURTESY: Deena Mohamed)

What’s a misconception you held about the medium or industry before publishing that changed after your success?

I used to think only big artists could approach the medium. It felt like there was some kind of barrier between self-taught artists who worked from their bedrooms like I did, and artists who had received a formal education. However, it’s important to note that nobody is actually making real money from making comic books in Egypt. A lot of people might see Shubeik Lubeik and think it’s a big deal, but actually, it’s still considered kind of underground. I was surprised by how friendly my role models in the comics industry were when I approached them years and years ago as a beginner. Now that other beginners are coming to me, I realize that it’s a really small industry where everyone is excited for people to read and make comics.

You mentioned the issue of performative activism in previous interviews before. Do you feel like you have to censor yourself sometimes so the audience doesn’t celebrate your work in a performative way?

I think this is a problem I have as a creator as opposed to a strength. I’m always thinking of my audience. Sometimes I tend to think more like a graphic designer given a brief for a target audience, as opposed to someone who is expressing something or has a story to tell. This can get very limiting to me, because the truth is I can’t dictate my audience, and every time I’m surprised by how many more people read and enjoy my work than I expected. So it’s true that I used to discard certain ideas, but now I think you can’t prevent someone from approaching your work in a way you dislike, whether it’s performative or not. You have your context, and they have theirs.

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An unpublished draft comic about translation. (COURTESY: Deena Mohamed)
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An unpublished draft comic about translation. (COURTESY: Deena Mohamed)

You first published Qahera in English and then you translated it; meanwhile, you published Shubeik Lubeik in Arabic and then translated it to English. What are the different nuances of writing in English vs Arabic in regards to the Egyptian experience?

With comics, the art is a visual language, and there is always an inherent feeling of translation, which I love. Mangas, for instance, carry a distinctly Japanese style and aesthetic. It’s the same with subtitled media, the same with reading captions for a celebrity tweet in another country that a fan has badly translated so that you, the reader, need to do a little work to understand what they’re trying to convey. Personally, I enjoy this feeling.

However, when things are translated into English, sometimes the content gets localized, and instead of just translating, you’ll be re-interpreting it for them so that they can understand it as if it were made for them. Like when you change an anime character eating ramen to eating hot dogs. This, to me, often creates a feeling of entitlement but also a feeling of patronization, as though we are making work for children who cannot understand the difference in culture.

I wanted to avoid this entirely, because sometimes I work bilingually to make the work for a global audience, like Qahera. With Shubeik Lubeik, I was working for an Egyptian audience, so I wanted to make sure the translation was like a translation, and readers can adjust their expectations accordingly. Maybe this is my graphic designer audience-dictation habit coming back, but I think things can be evaluated on their own merit, just in terms of the content itself, but also on the basis of how they were originally intended to be consumed because creators put that in mind as they create too, and it affects the story and the content.

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Illustration of an Egyptian street (COURTESY: Deena Mohamed)

It’s beautiful that you’ve refurbished kiosks into a mystical symbol. You’ve recently discussed how Egyptians regard certain tropes as corny, whereas other cultures embrace them. Can you elaborate on that?

I was hesitant to translate Qahera because I think Egyptian superheroes are a corny concept. Egyptian superheroes feel adapted because they’re based on one of the biggest symbols of Western pop culture, American superheroes (it’s almost American mythology at this point), and we’ve always either done it either comedically or insincerely. But Qahera is satirical too; it’s a social commentary webcomic, so it’s not a sincere superhero story set in Egypt.

But I think people agreed with the topics addressed in Qahera so much, that they got excited about her as a “superhero” character. But she isn’t! What are her powers? What’s her origin story? Does she have any supervillains? No! Qahera just talks about issues they care about, too. So I think that’s what makes her appealing enough despite being a corny concept.

Egyptian literature, folklore, and cinema have always dabbled in magical realism. So with Shubeik Lubeik, since “wishes” are most famous in orientalist or folklore traditions, I wanted to make sure the story felt like an authentic Egyptian story of magical realism and not like some kind of alienating Aladdin remake. It’s mainly in the execution as opposed to the concept. Everything is execution.

Lastly, can you give us the date for the Shubeik Lubeik English collected volume release?
January 10th of 2023! You can preorder your copy from Pantheon Books!

Until then, we can luxuriate in the beautiful Arabic editions. For ordering info, check out Deena’s website.

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English cover of Shubeik Lubeik
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The Shubeik Lubeik trilogy

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