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Comic Con Tunisia: Where cosplay and conscience collide

Comic book writers and artists who previously faced repression can now reach an audience again
A Yoda head made by a 3D printer at Comic Con Tunisia (McCormick-Cavanagh/MEE)

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Tunisian comic artists had three options: keep quiet, draw cartoons praising the country’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, or risk their freedom and publish what they believed in.

While George Lucas was free to use southern Tunisia as sets for his Star Wars movies, local graphic novelists were unable to do what they wanted.

All of that changed in January 2011, when the revolution liberated expression of art and writing and gave comic book writers and artists a higher profile. With this came increasing agency to host large-scale events – such as Comic Con Tunisia, which celebrated its second edition on 7-9 July.

A young Star Wars fan (and droid) pose at Comic Con Tunisia (McCormick-Cavanagh/MEE)

Garbed in Jedi robes and anime costumes, teens and young adults poured into the Kram Exhibition Centre in Tunis. Attendees stood in line for up to two hours under the hot sun just to enter the venue for the event, whose sponsors included the Tunisian National Tourist Office and the US Embassy in Tunis.

Stands ranged from anime memorabilia to 3D printer set-ups, comic-books to videogames. Among the name guests was artist and writer David Mack, known for his work on Kabuki and Daredevil among many others.

"I first heard about Tunisia from Star Wars," he told MEE.

Aside from signings and QA sessions, he had also been out in the community, teaching.

A league of their own

Lucas chose the deserts for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine, even borrowing traditional Tunisian apparel to clothe some of the characters. But Tunisia has yet to capitalise on the films’ popularity.

The sets are scattered across the south of Tunisia, including Nefta, a town near the oasis city of Tozeur; the dried salt lake of Chott El Djerid, and the troglodyte homes in Matmata.

For decades, the previous governments neglected the Star Wars sites, leading to the desertification of at least one. Serious geeks have made the trips but the locations are a good five hours drive south of Tunis.

Gamers enjoy playing on old school Nintendo consoles (McCormick-Cavanagh/MEE)

Abdou Ameur, the president of the Star Wars Fan Club of Tunisia, dreamed about organising the country’s first Comic Con for many years.

The first was in September 2016, followed by this summer edition. Talking to Middle East Eye, Ameur said he hoped it had gone well. "It was great. I'm very happy. We had 9,000 attendees."

Some visitors who had attended both events complained that the exhibition centre was more congested than last year, with noise spreading from one event to another.

Zouhair Ben Larbi, 39, a host at Express FM, said: "I would have liked to have seen more activities. I felt as though it was a bit basic."

Ameur said: "I really felt that it was much better than last year. We had more comic and cultural elements. Of course we can make improvements in the following year. We hope to have even more guests, specifically focusing on gaming and comics."

Some of the cosplay contestants at Comic Con Tunisia (McCormick-Cavanagh/MEE)

But student Sana Arbi, 23, told Middle East Eye that highlights included some impressive fantasy and sci-fi character costumes. "It was well-organised and definitely worth waiting in the sun. I loved the cosplay and dancing games."

Even Ben Larbi offered his praise, saying: "There was good spirit and many sparkling eyes throughout the venue."

Sabrine Ben Saada, 24, hosted a stand showcasing her exhaustive collection of retro video game handhelds and consoles, which she began collecting at seven.

It proved a hit, with young boys and girls crowding the table and its collection of old-school handheld devices from the start until the end of the day.

Hundreds of fans huddle to watch the League of Legends gaming final (McCormick-Cavanagh/MEE)

Want to play Space Invaders on a mini arcade setup? Pick this one up and move the joystick until your fingers get tired.

Such a collection in Tunisia is rare, but not unheard of. What makes Ben Saada’s of note is that she bought all hers from Tunisian flea markets or fripes.

"This handheld console would normally go for $40 or $50 on eBay," she told Middle East Eye. "I got it for three Tunisian dinar," which is the equivalent of $1.24. Now she wants to encourage fellow Tunisians by advising them where they can find their retro products.

In the cosplay area, the jury panel, which included Vivian Wijaya – aka Dr Vee of Manga Big Bang - chose the three winners: Optimus Prime, Reinhardt from Overwatch, and a Blood Elf from World of Warcraft.

Fans of serious gaming watched League of Legends teams compete in the Tunisian championship, with the winner heading for Morocco and the African championship.

The freedom to draw

But these activities are more than entertainment.

Nidhal Ghariani, 43, an IT engineer who has always been passionate about comic book culture, told Middle East Eye: "Before the revolution, comics were an endless source of entertainment.

"However, the Ben Ali dictatorship completely censored any comic images, except for ones praising him."

Ghariani explained that during the 1990s especially, censorship prevented any free expression through comic books.

The creators of Lab 619 say they have more freedom to publish comic-books (McCormick-Cavanagh/MEE)

"There are mainstream cartoonists, which are different from comic artists, who suck up to the ruling Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha parties."

In 2013 Ghariani co-founded Lab 619. It's been called the first comic laboratory in Tunisia, a place where Tunisian artists can showcase their work. Fusing a mix of Arabic, French, Japanese, American and British influences, it publishes in Arabic and French.

Ghariani is especially happy to see Comic Con in Tunisia. "We are celebrating the ninth art [comic strips] and the future of the industry in Tunisia can only get better."