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Saturday, December 30, 2023

Book Review - Muslim Comics and Warscape Witnessing

Reviewed by Adrienne Resha

Esra Mirze Santesso. Muslim Comics and Warscape Witnessing. Ohio State University Press, 2023. 220 pp, $149.95 hardcover, $34.95 paperback.

     Words in the Arabic language often have three-consonant roots that convey meaning, such as sh-h-d (ش-ه-د): to witness. If you do not read or speak Arabic, then this may still look or sound familiar because shahada, the sincere declaration that one believes God is singular and accepts Muhammad as His prophet, is one of the five pillars of Islam. The root also appears in the noun shaheed (شهيد), which can be translated as witness or martyr. Whether translated, transliterated, or loaned to other languages, the word takes on different meanings in different contexts. Martyr, meaning one who sacrifices themself as a testament to their faith, overlaps with martyr, one who witnesses violence when murdered by a settler-colonial state. Esra Mirze Santesso’s Muslim Comics and Warscape Witnessing attends to different versions of witnessing and visions of witnesses in what she calls “Muslim Comics.”

Santesso’s Muslim Comics is a category that includes “any graphic narrative that features three-dimensional Muslim characters and foregrounds Muslim experiences in relation to various power structures inside and outside the Muslim homeland” (4-5). This definition is inclusive of comics produced by Muslim and non-Muslim creators, privileging character identity over those of cartoonists, writers, and artists. She employs warscape, “a civilian space in which different [political and military] factions are participating in asymmetrical struggles,” as a category that “underscores the prolonged effects of violence as opposed to the finality denoted by ‘war’” and includes the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, Iran, Kashmir, and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon (5). Through visualization and narration, witnessing in comics, Santesso argues, “offers a way to change vulnerability into resistance” and “reflects a desire to restore stability and certainty by creating permanent records of those who are erased from history and those whose voices are muted” (16). Following a history of Muslim characters in US American comics, she examines four kinds of warscape witnesses who appear in Muslim Comics: the reluctant witness, the false witness, the border witness, and the surrogate witness.

While the rest of the book focuses on “protagonists [who] are neither heroes nor villains… individuals with moral complexities who find themselves having to cope with warscape realities” (11), Chapter 1, “The Politics and Aesthetics of Muslim Comics,” is largely about Muslims in superhero comics. According to Santesso, Muslims in American comics in and outside of the superhero genre have historically fallen into three categories: the “Orientalized Other,” the “barbaric jihadi,” or the “hybrid token” like, she argues, Simon Baz (Green Lantern) and Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) (30). Santesso acknowledges Muslim Comics in the American tradition, namely graphic memoirs, and those coming out of Europe before turning her gaze to Muslim Comics set in warscapes in North America and Asia.

Chapter 2, “Reluctant Witnesses in Prison Camp Narratives,” contrasts the “barbaric jihadi” of American comics with the “abject Muslim prisoner” of Guantánamo Kid: The True Story of Mohammed El-Gharani, Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison, and Aaron & Ahmed. Santesso asserts that the “abject Muslim prisoner” is not derivative of the “barbaric jihadi” but rather of the Muselmann, a German term for Muslim used by Jewish prisoners “to describe the ‘living-dead’ inhabitants of the concentration camp” (68). This chapter’s Muslim Comics illustrate how torture turned Guantanamo Bay prisoners into the living dead. The living dead are also reluctant witnesses who bear witness “by refusing to bear witness” (86-87), closing their eyes or looking away as they tell their stories to/for creators who will interpret them in comics form. The reluctant witness does not testify to recover their own humanity but to protect that of readers.

In Chapter 3, “Vulnerability, Resistance, and False Witnesses,” Santesso introduces what she calls the “vulnerability-resistance dialectic,” a cycle between resistance against vulnerability and vulnerability as a consequence of resistance, which produces false witnesses. False witnesses, such as those in Zahra’s Paradise and An Iranian Metamorphosis, dishonestly testify in service to the state, in these Muslim Comics, Iran. Santesso argues that the introduction of false witnesses, who escape the cycle by lying, illustrates how witnessing is not always liberatory, that it “can sustain and perpetuate oppressive power structures rather than unsettle them” (110). These comics, which differentiate between the witness who speaks on behalf of the powerful and the witness who speaks on behalf of the vulnerable, complicate the resistance-vulnerability dialectic.

Chapter 4, “Shaheed and Border Witnesses,” directly addresses the figure of the martyr in the specific context of Kashmir. Muslim Comics set in that liminal border zone – Kashmir Pending and Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir – challenge “the idea of border subjectivity as an inherently intuitive and productive negotiation between two or more cultures” through border witnessing (117). Border witnesses reject the necropolitical conditions of the warscape that may encourage martyrdom and, instead, affirm the value of other kinds of resistance. In these comics, Santesso continues, “the border witness… by reaffirming the vision of Kashmiri unity known as Kashmiriyat, uses the act of witnessing as an antidote to radicalization rather than an accelerant for it” (118-119).

Focusing on Palestinian refugee camps, Chapter 5, “Surrogate Witnesses and Memory,” diverges from previous chapters by pairing a Muslim Comic, Baddawi, with a non-Muslim comic, Waltz with Bashir. These comics both feature surrogate witnesses, their creators, who rely on eyewitness testimony as they use various focalization techniques to “record, document, and recontextualize the past” (147). Surrogate witnesses have “the license to substitute, embellish, and reenact the past” and can, in doing so, create “counter-histories that attend to the absence, silence, and erasure of victims” (168-169). The surrogate witness can double as a storyteller and an activist, inserting themself as an interlocutor via the medium of comics to illustrate the past and inspire different futures.

            In Santesso’s conclusion “The Future of Muslim Comics,” she looks away from the witness and back at the superhero. Santesso writes, “Muslim Comics, like Black Comics, have perhaps reached a place where they can push back against the universalization and fetishization of American whiteness and redefine what heroism is or what heroes look like” (174-175). They may even, she argues, “have the potential to pave the wave for Muslim futurism,” specifically “a more positive and less limiting model” that is more like Afrofuturism (176). However, each of these categories – Muslim Comics, Black Comics, Muslim futurism, and Afrofuturism – are already overlapping. Twenty years ago, writer Christopher Priest and artist Joe Bennett introduced the Black and Muslim American superhero Josiah al-hajj Saddiq (aka Josiah X) in The Crew (Marvel, 2003). Although Josiah X’s post-9/11 origin story (The Crew #5) is by no means perfect, it is still arguably a Muslim Comic because it is a graphic narrative about a complex Muslim character that foregrounds his experience in relation to structural racism in the US. Santesso’s Muslim Comics and Warscape Witnessing is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on comics about and by Muslim people, but there is still more work – and work more reflective of the diversity of Muslim peoples across the globe – to be done.

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