Meeting Comic Book Makers in Jordan

Editor's Note: This is the fourth and final part of TTLA's archival conversation with RAND's Dalia Dassa Kaye. Here's the link to last Friday's part one, Monday's part two and Tuesday's part three.*

TTLA: Switching subjects now, could you share a few stories about you and your colleagues working in Jordan or Morocco?

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DALIA DASSA KAYE: Interesting things happen when you do field work. I did at one point interview the head of the Islamic opposition in Jordan. That was an interesting discussion, but there's no particular anecdote that comes from it. Some of my more interesting meetings in the field were when I would be doing an interview for one issue and then by chance, something else can come up and lead in a totally other direction.

For example, this last spring I was in Jordan, doing an interview with a former Prime Minister of the country. And I was doing this interview on the question of the regional effects of the Iraq War. And, and he was kind of giving me this strategic picture from the Jordanian perspective. We'd really try to get their perspective, that's what we're there to do. And so we're having this very kind of heavy kind of conversation. And then at the end, he asked if his son could join us? And we thought nothing of it, sure, if a former prime minister wants his son, why not? And we're driving up to this villa and we're really far out of the city. And so, we're like, how are we going to get a cab back, we weren't sure. So at the end of the interview, our interviewee says, if you want, my son can take you back because I know we're kind of far. So his son [Suleiman Bakhit] ends up driving us back and he's pretty much our age, a little younger. And so he's like, yeah, that's really hefty strategic stuff you're talking about. He said, "I used to do that stuff, but now I'm in a totally other area." I'm like, "Really, what kind of area are you in now?" And he's like, "Well, I actually have created a comic strip. I'm trying to kind of counter extremism."

He had studied in the U.S. His father at one point served as an ambassador to Israel so he's had a very interesting life. But at one point he was studying in, I think it was, Minnesota. And he was here during the 9/11 attacks. And he faced a personal attack, a racist attack, in the days following.

He was severely wounded, he still has a scar on his neck. So the way this guy dealt with it was he started to give talks in high schools and other places about trying to improve, intercultural understanding and relations. Like, "I'm an Arab but you know, here I am. "

This is all because we're doing an interview and a guy happens to be there. And one of the questions someone asked him was, "So who are your heroes? We have Superman, who are your superheroes?" And he's like, "You know what? We don't really have any of our own. Everything we get is from the West. We don't really have our own role models." So he's like, "I'm going to create a cartoon series. I'm going to start my own graphic design company and do this."

And out of the blue he started doing it. Well, the reason this became really important for us is because as it turned out, I work on a lot of different projects here at RAND. As it turned out, I was working on a different project. And what this project was doing was exactly this issue "? we were trying to find positive themed works in arts and literature coming out of the Arab world.

So the next day I said, "I can't believe you're telling me this. I'm working on a project very unrelated to what I just talked about with your father. We'd love to see your stuff, it sounds great." He agreed and said, "I'll pick you up tomorrow at noon and we'll go to my studio."

So my friend and I, we go to his studio, we meet this other Jordanian filmmaker. We have shwarma, it's like, we've become friends. Things like that only happen when you go out to a country. So that's probably one of my anecdotes. My other, I had a more dicey experience. A different trip to Jordan where I visited the Jordan Police Academy.

This was when Jordan used to train Iraqi police. The facility is still there, but now it's been transferred to train Palestinian police. It's out in the desert, to the east, a huge facility. I visited for this other project I was doing a couple years ago. Right when I'm about to leave the "? we're done with all my meetings there "? our guide tells the driver and me, "Okay, we just got a threat, a terrorist threat, there's a sniper on the road, we think it's happening today. So we'll use an alternative route and just make sure you sit low." And I'm thinking, "Alternative route? We're in the middle of the desert, there is one long road for, I don't know, 20, 30 miles. There's no alternative route!"

I haven't been to Iraq so I haven't faced really difficult situation. But that was one.

It turns out there was a terrorist threat, but it was an older threat that had just surfaced or been publicly released that day, so there was kinds of frenzy and confusion. There had been a few plotters who were trying to target Americans leaving this sector. And they knew what cars the Americans were in and they had surveillance. So there was an actual plot, and it was fortunately foiled by the Jordanian government. So these guys were put away. So things like that happen, but more often than not, it's more the shwarma and meeting people and having a lot of tea and coffee.

And unlike here where we're so impolite that I didn't even offer you tea or coffee, it's much more civilized in the Middle East because you go to a meeting and you get just the best service. It would be unheard of to go to someone's office in the Arab world [and not be hospitably received], whether it's an NGO or a government official, it doesn't matter. Even this Muslim Brotherhood guy's office that was in this pretty dingy building. It was the coldest meeting I've ever sat through in my life because it there was no heating "? it was in the winter and the heating oil is so expensive in Jordan because they lost the subsidized oil from Iraq. It's been this huge crisis in Jordan, I think there are going to be a lot of problems there in the future. So, anyway, nobody heats anything. So you go to these meetings and you're freezing and it's not a very nice place.

But the first thing they'll do right when you get there is ask, "What are you drinking?" They're going to serve you, they're going to be nice. And we just don't even "? it's not even something that crosses our minds. So there are a lot of differences, and it's fun when you travel. And I have colleagues who travel even way more than I do. And go to all kinds of places, my colleague Fred Wehrey for this project and actually for this other project, he was in Lebanon "? I think he went skiing at one point in Lebanon! So we take a little bit of advantage, but most of the time we're really just doing our work.

TTLA: So anyone reading this who imagines a think tank employee just sitting around and thinking, well, you're out in the field, meeting and encountering people.

DALIA DASSA KAYE: I have to say, I did think a lot for this project, and read. Those two piles over there are all books and articles about democracy. In the first chapter I deal with all the theoretical literature, all the debates written on this issue. We really cover our bases, we want to show that we are not just entering this debate in a vacuum, we've done our homework, we know who's said what, who's written what, what the studies are arguing.

Not all projects have the funding for fieldwork, it's expensive. But we try to generate projects that allow for that kind of [interaction] because interviews with people in the region are I think one of the best ways to get information. And it leads to these unexpected opportunities like this Jordanian cartoon guy, who's fascinating. What's his company called? Aranim. He's online at http://aranim.com/.

Another guy I talked to who happened to be coming to town was a Kuwaiti guy who's also created a cartoon "? cartoons are starting to become big in the region, it's a new thing.

TTLA: Are we talking animated cartoons? Comic books? Comic strips?

DALIA DASSA KAYE: Comics. Well, actually, the Aranim guy, he's going to do animated too, and he's trying to make a movie about this Jordanian boxer, a Jordanian refugee boxer, to give a positive role model to youth. He's trying to give young people something they can relate to. So you can look at www.aranim.com. He's a really interesting guy, I recommend meeting him.

The other interesting guy is named Naif al-Mutawa, he's the CEO, he's a psychologist by training, he's got incredible credentials. PhD from [Long Island University and an MBA from Columbia.] I mean, he's really the most incredible guy. He lives in Kuwait now, but, he created this series called the "99 Series." And it's so sophisticated, they actually used Marvel Comics so you can see the graphics are really high tech.

He created 99 superheroes, Muslim superheroes for the 99 attributes of Allah "? you know, strength, generosity? Here you can see some of the superheroes, some are very modern looking women, some have head coverings. Well these ones don't, but some of them do. Just to show that Islam is diverse, Islam isn't just one thing. The market here is for the youth in the region, to have positive role models so they don't just have the Osama Bin Ladens.

This gets to this question of extremism. This is another route. This study is about the more political dimensions, and this is about the cultural dimensions, and they're both important. It's all part of this, you know, and a lot of the work we're focused on is getting at the environment in which extremism flourishes. And there are different ways to get at it, and so this book we get at it from the political, and the other project I'm working on is the cultural. They're all really important.

End of series.

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