New York City, USA - Even U.S. President Barack Obama took notice of them. Now, New Yorkers may do, too, as the Arab world’s first superheroes make their screen debut at the New York Film Festival.
Naif Al-Mutawa yesterday presented “THE 99,” his series starring supernatural characters. His creations have also appeared as comics, alongside Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. They are based on the 99 attributes of Allah mentioned in the Koran, such as wisdom, generosity and tolerance.
Batina, which stands for the Hidden, is a Burqa-wearing character from Yemen, while Hazel-eyed Widad, or the Loving, has long lustrous brown hair and originates from the Philippines. The giant Jabbar, or the Powerful, is a native of Saudi Arabia and resembles the Hulk. His sneeze can bring down a house and his touch can shatter a brick. These are some of Al-Mutawa’s heroes on a mission to conquer evil.
“It was about creating positive role models for my kids that are based on our culture but are universal in nature,” Al- Mutawa says in an interview. “It doesn’t matter what religion you are, it doesn’t matter if you have a religion -- they are basic human values.”
The 40-year-old clinical psychologist from Kuwait says he came up with the idea in 2003 while in a London cab. It’s all about “secularizing religious content”, he says. Western heroes such as Batman and Superman are based on biblical archetypes, and he wanted to create the same from the Muslims’ holy book, he says.
It was also an attempt to alter the global perception of Islam, following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York in 2001. The comics have made a “dent” in how the religion is perceived globally, he says.
“If you get bitten by a snake you become afraid of rope,” Al-Mutawa says. “Our message keeps getting tied to bombs and guns. My thinking was if I go back to the same place where the bad guys pulled their messages and in their place put tolerant multicultural messages, they just become bad guys with bad ideas and you delink them from the religion.”
In his April 2010 speech at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington, Obama praised “THE 99” and its creator for spreading tolerance, saying the comic books were “most innovative” and “captured the imagination of so many young people.”
Al-Mutawa, who has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Long Island University, worked with former prisoners of war in Kuwait and survivors of political torture at in Bellevue Hospital in New York. Helping people who have been prosecuted because of their religious and political beliefs led him to the project.
“I heard too many stories of people growing up to idealize their leaders as heroes only to be tortured by them,” Al-Mutawa says in an interview in Dubai before travelling to New York.
A total of 26 half-hour episodes was created out of Al- Mutawa’s comics with the help of entertainment company Endemol, a writer in Hollywood, and production by a U.K. company and India’s Sanraa Media. The sequence of four TV series, which are being translated into various languages, is showing in New York.
Discovery Channel bought the rights for the series in the U.S., Cartoon Network in Asia and MBC in the Middle East.
Like all superheroes, there’s a big market for merchandise. Al-Mutawa is looking for the right partners to create a feature film and games. The first theme park based on the characters was developed in Kuwait and talks are continuing on a second park in an Arab Gulf country, he says, declining to be more specific.
Promoting the series, let alone making a feature film, will not be the easiest task for Al-Mutawa, who said he was accused of radicalizing kids and trying to spread shari’ah law through “THE 99.”
Wearing jeans and a black jacket, he speaks at an art gallery showing his TV shows before the festival. With a documentary film on the making of “THE 99” planned for release on Oct. 13 in the U.S., Al-Mutawa says he hopes people will realize “we are not the bad guys.”