A recent outpouring of indignant critiques of the film Wonder Woman—as well as its outright ban in Lebanon (and a suspension of its theatrical release in Tunisia)—are based on lead actress and former Israeli soldier Gal Gadot's nationality, as well as her tweeted support for the Israeli military's 2014 assault on Gaza.
While there is perhaps a point to be made about the irony of a former Israeli soldier cheering on the slaughter of innocents and then portraying a super-heroine "fighting for peace," we are talking about a production of Hollywood, not of Israel.
And while Gadot's tweets are damning, so are Clint Eastwood's Republican moments, and Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rants. Admittedly though, that doesn't stop me from enjoying their performances in say, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or The Year of Living Dangerously.
But I fear that such critiques—however well intentioned—may be missing the larger point. While Holllywood has an atrocious record for its depiction of Arabs and Muslims in general—see Introduction to the End of an Argumentby Elia Suleiman—there is actually some hope from the world of comics.
One could well argue that the` graphic novel tradition—from the humble comic book to the likes of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2000) to Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza (2009)—is a far more progressive medium than film when it comes to accurate portrayals of Middle Eastern realities.
While the original Wonder Woman as conceived by her creator William Moulton Marston—an eccentric psychologist and comic book writer who invented a forerunner to the polygraph test, lived with two women and advocated bondage as a means to world peace—was co-opted for the war effort as one of a gang of the Justice Society of America, she was also arguably a feminist icon.
The Middle East, like other parts of the globe, has of course been influenced by Western super-heroes for decades. I'll always remember a 10-year-old boy I interviewed in Beirut, orphaned during the Shatila massacre, who told me he dreamed one night of being Superman, with a keffiyeh as his cape, and flying to Jerusalem to take back his grandfather's house with the old keys he'd inherited.
And while DC, Marvel and Valiant comics have a wide range of Middle Eastern super-heroes to choose from, DC (home to Wonder Woman) leads the way with super heroines.
Consider Isis (Adrianna Tomaz), gifted with the power of the Egyptian goddess. When introduced in print media in 52 in 2006, a pre-Islamic State group era, when the name evoked the patroness of nature and magic—rather than, say, drugged child soldiers—she was heavily influenced by the Secret of Isis live action TV character that we children of the 1970s know and love.
Above: Isis. (DC Comics)
Then there's Janissary (aka Selma Tolon), a Turkish sorceress and heroine who possesses the mystical scimitar of Suleiman the Magnificent.
And of course Iron Butterfly (alter ego of Kahina Eskandari), a Palestinian super-heroine with the power of ferrokinesis—control over any and all metallic substances. She is a member of the Shadow Cabinet and apparently motivated to fight evil to avenge the murder of her family.
And, in 2014, Marvel Comics helped revive their flagging fortunes by transforming Ms Marvel into a hugely popular Pakistani-American Muslim teenager, the shape shifting Kamala Khan from Jersey City. She became such a powerful icon of female Muslim strength that her image was plastered over a series of Islamophobic San Francisco city bus ads paid for by the "American Freedom Defense Initiative" that equated Islam with Nazism, accompanied by slogans like Calling All Bigotry Busters and Stamp Out Racism.
Of course, some female Middle Eastern comics creators are doing it for themselves.
Consider Deena Mohamed's Qahera, a hijabed Egyptian super-heroine who fights the dual evils of sexism and Islamophobia, or Lebanese artist Joumana Medlej's Malaak: Angel of Peace who battles djinn amid the background of endless war—not so dis-similar from the plot of Warner Brother's latest Wonder Woman incarnation).
But why stop there? There is, of course, no shortage of real-life heroines in the Arab and Muslim world—like Afghanistan's Malalai Joya who risks her life daily fighting corrupt warlords—or Yusra Mardini who used her special swimming abilities to save 20 fellow Syrian refugees in a sinking boat.
In fact, after screening Wonder Woman last week, I was inspired to imagine a whole new range of regional super-heroines.
The scene with Wonder Woman examining artifacts at the Louvre conjured up visions of an Iraqi SuperInnana—(or maybe Ishtar the Avenger?) foiling IS thugs blowing up ancient sites with a single bound.
The scene with the British intelligence officers sacrificing lives in the name of realpolitik sparked the idea for a mid-1980s-era Supergirl from the Iran/Iraq border who, using her laser vision and employing some supernatural forensic accounting skills reveals that—just like today in Syria—the US is arming several sides.
Cinematic trailers for Dunkirk and Payback, as well as moving scenes from the Wonder Woman film of the displaced in war-ravaged landscapes, made me imagine other possibilities: like a super-heroine refugee mother from the infamous Dunkirk camp, where women wore adult nappies to avoid sexual assault in the few functioning WCs.
"Super War Widow" and her sisters would tirelessly fight human traffickers along with the people who made them refugees in the first place, as well as the Home Office heavies who refused their children entry to the UK.
Although it was nice to see some empathy at the end of Wonder Woman for the German villains—transformed from one dimensional Nazi thugs to Kaiser-era baddies—and even a shot at Hollywood typecasting when the lone Arab character, Sameer, played by Said Taghmaoui, star of Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 hit La Haine, reveals his dream of being an actor was foiled by his skin colour, it would be even better if actress Gal Gadot could feel the same empathy for women and children in Gaza.
That may be wishful thinking.
Before Hollywood gets there, perhaps a Gazan super-heroine will emerge? "Tunnelgirl"—who smuggles much-needed food and medicine to besieged residents and magically restores the power grid? "Aqualady"—who roams the Mediterranean foiling the Israeli naval blockade? Or how about "Falconwoman"—who transforms into a giant, bullet-dodging bird of prey and swoops down to ferry pregnant women in labour held up at Israeli checkpoints to hospital?
Or in some alternate matrix, a joint Israeli and Palestinian female dynamic duo who show up on El Al flights whenever Orthodox men refuse to sit next to women, or, say, a Palestinian school girl is harassed by soldiers on her way to class.
They could join forces with Palestinian rappers DAM to fight evil and generally help smash the regional patriarchy.
Meanwhile, as always, truth is stranger than fiction.
With news that a Muslim woman professor and expert boxer dodged an angry old white man who assaulted her at the Toronto Symphony while onlookers did nothing, I sense a new live action Islamophobe fighting heroine may emerge. Hail Miss Elephant in the Room who can destroy national mythologies with a single tweet.
Bullets and bracelets. There is nothing to lose but our chains...and lots of tired old narratives.
Edited by Al Bawaba
The Arab Wonder Women