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Japanese manga heroes join fight to save Arabic culture

By Barry Neild for CNN
A scene from "Gold Ring" shows the Sultan releasing his faithful falcon.
A scene from "Gold Ring" shows the Sultan releasing his faithful falcon.
  • "Gold Ring" is Middle East's first manga-style comic book
  • Book's creator Qais Sedki hopes it will encourage youngsters to read in Arabic
  • Celebrated Japanese animators worked on award-winning book

(CNN) -- A gunshot echoes across the stadium as a robot bird, carrying a gold ring in its talons, swoops through the air, hotly pursued by a cast of falcons.

From his hiding place, 15-year-old Sultan watches, little suspecting he is about to be propelled into the heart of this spectacle on a journey that will test him to the limit.

These are the opening scenes of "Gold Ring," a fast-paced coming-of-age tale graphically rendered in manga -- the hyper-dramatic style that has become one of Japan's most celebrated exports.

But though the comic takes its cues from manga culture, "Gold Ring's" author hopes its wide-eyed characters will promote an entirely different culture, half a world away in the United Arab Emirates.

"I think it's a very dangerous signal that we're sending to children if we don't present our own forms of entertainment," says Qais Sedki, the former IT consultant who created "Gold Ring."

We have our own content; we have our own things that can be considered cool
--Qais Sedki

Using manga to promote Arabic traditions maybe something of a paradox, but for Sedki the artwork is essential to getting youngsters hooked on home-grown stories told in classical Arabic.

"Unless we produce things like this, it's almost like saying 'if you want anything cool, you have to look elsewhere,'" he told CNN.

"I don't want children growing up in that kind of culture. We have our own content; we have our own things that can be considered cool."

Though slow on the uptake, the Middle Eastern region is no stranger to creating its own comic books, most notably the Islam-inspired "The 99," developed by a Kuwaiti psychologist.

But while "The 99" uses the contemporary American superhero style of Marvel or DC Comics, Sedki employs traditional Arabic characters and storytelling, catapulting them into a manga format he says makes them more accessible.

"I've always had a fascination with Japanese culture, not just the pop culture part, but the way they are -- the work ethic, their arts, their theology, their history.

"Manga and animation are also in the mix. In the UAE, my generation grew up with the stuff, so we're very accustomed not just to the aesthetic, but to the quirks in manga that are very Japanese."

To authentically capture the Japanese style, Sedki approached two of Japan's best-known manga artists; a female duo known by their collective pen name Akira Himekawa who have worked on classics such as "Astro Boy" and "The Legend of Zelda."

"They are such an important part of this project," says Sedki. "In Japan, the artists are also the writers, and they have their own following."

Meanwhile Sedki, whose creation scooped the 2010 Sheikh Zayed Book Award for children's literature, is generating his own following.

"The reception has been amazing. I see it in the emails I get regularly, saying 'I've never seen my child pick willingly pick up any book other than the stuff that they have to deal with. This is the first time, and they're really excited about it'.

"I've had children take the initiative to get through to me via Facebook or email. It's very heart warming."

Classical Arabic hasn't had much of a chance to connect with children and I want to change that.

Sedki says he expects the second book in what he hopes will be a lengthy series will be published in early 2011, (hand-drawing falcon feathers is "painstakingly slow") but he is reluctant to develop a TV or film version.

"I'm not too keen on getting to that format real soon, because another very important thing for me is I want to get children closer to reading in Arabic.

"I use classical Arabic in the book and I'm trying to fight this misconception that classical Arabic is boring not fun -- no good for anything other than making our minds numb with schoolwork.

"If you think about where children are exposed to classical Arabic: schoolwork, which they hate, or the news, which they find boring. Classical Arabic hasn't had much of a chance to connect with children and I want to change that."

Not a bad idea according to Arabic language expert Dr. Aleya Rouchdy, who says using the classical form in comic books makes sense in terms of promoting its use among youngsters.

"There is a very strong movement now, there are many discussions about the teaching of Arabic in schools, especially in private schools where they mostly teach foreign language, so the children grow up and they have an attitude -- they treat the Arabic language disdainfully."

And while Sedki admits the hope of "Gold Ring" reaching its financial goal is "nowhere in sight," Rouchdy also points to the commercial sense of employing classical Arabic -- the only language that transcends frontiers across the Middle East.

"If you want to be circulated all over the Arab world this is one way to do it."