Deena Mohamed is an Egyptian comics artist and illustrator. Deena’s career took a step further when her first webcomic “Qahera” went viral. Qahera is a bilingual English/Arabic webcomic that started in 2013. It features a Muslim Egyptian Superheroine called Qahera through her journey against Islamophobia and misogyny. Her work is proof that stories have no boundaries. Deena Mohamed represents people and characters that are genuine, that tell stories between the streets and buildings we see and wonder about every day. Deena’s work is in a way, documentation, so light and detailed in its execution, that it echoes through everyone that sees it.
Tell us about Qahera, what sparked the idea and how was it perceived?
Qahera originally started as a joke I was posting online to share with my friends on Tumblr. It addressed social problems like sexism, harassment, and classism. It became very popular because I think a lot of people shared the same opinions Qahera did and weren’t used to seeing them in a comic. I was (and am still surprised) by how popular it is.
Cairo, as a city, a heritage, or a heart, is always represented in your work. what was your process to reach that accuracy in the illustrations?
It’s kind of funny because when I originally started reading Egyptian comics, I also noticed that they all revolve around Cairo streets – even from their titles! TokTok, Metro, Garage, Autostrad – they seemed obsessed with the Cairo street and public transport. When I started making comics, I also couldn’t not include Cairo streets and traffic. It must be a comics curse. I drew three graphic novels set in Cairo. All I drew were buildings and cars. My phone is full of random pictures of the street. Every time I go out, I’ll take a couple of pictures in case I need them for reference later.
You started your career at a relatively young age, in what ways did that shape you, whether on a career or a personal level?
I think starting with something like Qahera, was a little bit controversial and politically charged. It taught me a lot in a very short time. I think it made me more thoughtful. It also made me feel very secure in comics because I always had so many opportunities in it when not a lot of people in Egypt do, and it made comics feel like a safe space for me.
I don’t think “drawing a lot of pages” is an achievement, but I guess since I started so young, I didn’t notice that I’ve actually been drawing comics for exactly ten years. I have produced over 600 pages of work. I’ve been thinking of myself as a beginner for so long that somehow, I’m actually pretty experienced?
You represent important causes through your work. In your opinion, is it important for artists to use their platform and work in that way?
I don’t think artists have a responsibility to use their platform for a cause. I think artists have a responsibility to make good art.
A writer I admire, Ursula K Le Guin has said “As a fiction writer, I don’t speak message. I speak story. Sure, my story means something, but if you want to know what it means, you have to ask the question in terms appropriate to storytelling. Terms such as message are appropriate to expository writing, didactic writing, and sermons — different languages from fiction.”
Comics are very useful for “messaging” as well as “storytelling.” I think I’ve done both in my career. Qahera is very direct and has messages. I’ve also worked on informational campaigns that use comics to explain issues. On the other hand, Shubeik Lubeik is a story.
So, I can’t say that someone has a responsibility to use their art in a certain way. I don’t think artists need to be activists.
Tell us about Cairocomix and how it affected you as an artist
Cairocomix is genuinely my favorite comics event of all time. I’ve been to the biggest comics festival in the world, and none of them are as good as Cairocomix. It’s very special to me because it’s where the first part of Shubeik Lubeik won the Grand Prize, but it’s also special to me because it’s where the best and most interesting people in Egypt who love comics gather. It’s a wonderful event and a wonderful atmosphere. Absolutely, Shubeik Lubeik would not exist without it.
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What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start their career in comics art?
Don’t fuss over your work too long. The pacing is more important than the illustration. Post your comics online for feedback. Understand that you will probably draw the same page at least 4 times. It’s not a career for perfectionists.
What do you hope for yourself and your work in the future?
I hope I can continue making work that people will engage with and respond to. I’d love to be part of comics culture in Egypt, and reading culture in general.
I hope when I get back into making comic books, there will be a comics shelf for Egyptian and Arabic comics in every bookstore.