Smash Pages Q&A: Marguerite Dabaie

The creator of ‘The Hookah Girl and Other Two Stories’ discusses her latest project, ‘A Voyage to Panjikant.’

Marguerite Dabaie is a cartoonist perhaps best known for The Hookah Girl and Other Two Stories, which was first self-published in two volumes before collected last year in a new edition by Rosarium Publishing. With Tom Hart, Dabaie made the sadly short-lived comic strip Ali’s House, which is available now on gocomics.com. She’s been a contributor to The Nib, The Believer, Electronic Intifada and many other publications, but her current project is the graphic novel A Voyage to Panjikant.

She is also the co-host and co-founder of Pete’s Mini Zine Fest, which will be held again in July in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I’ve long been an admirer of Dabaie’s work, and we recently spoke about her work, research and how she thinks about comics.

I always start by asking people, how did you come to comics? 

I started looking at Arabic comics when I was very young—a lot of Arabic comics at the time were single-panel illustrations very heavy on iconography, though this has since changed—which dovetailed into daily strips and eventually a lot of manga. Thinking about it now, I was really pulled into that iconography, the stylization of the comics, and the humanizing stories, even if the subjects weren’t human per se or supernatural elements were thrown in. I remember very, very clearly the day I decided that I could do this myself (I was 12!). I started working on a super melodramatic fantasy comic with anthropomorphic characters. I kept that thing going for maybe 120 pages and I think maybe three people read it total.

I have old copies of The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories that you self-published which was reprinted last year. Could you say a little about the book?

The Hookah Girl has been through a lot. I originally self-published it in 2008-9 and it was picked up by a publisher last year. I expanded this edition and added some new material to it, so the very first chapter in the book is now a more detailed story of The Hookah Girl’s publishing journey.

Really the main focus of the book is that Palestinians are human in both the good and bad ways that entails. The book is compiled of short chapters and covers topics from bizzer (snacks like nuts and seeds) to bad Arab representation in cinema.

I wanted to make the book because I felt that the comics addressing Palestinians at the time were not actually made by them. Unfortunately, I think this very thing is what made it a hard sale to publishers. The landscape feels like it’s changed for those who have issues with representation, which I’m very happy about.

I always think about your work in terms of design and decoration. Your pages are often very elaborately designed and constructed. You’re working in black and white often and using that interplay between presence and vacuity in different ways. How did you start thinking about comics in this way?

My breakthrough with this was a little-known self-published comic I created while I was still in college called Unsichtbares/Sichtbares. It was historical-fictional, set in the Weimar Republic in Germany, and followed the story of two sisters—one was a struggling actress trying to create “real” art in the theater, the other was trans and struggling for legitimacy at a time when Nazis were gaining a major foothold. I drew it well before the Trump administration, but I have to say that it really saddens me how relevant this comic still is, even though it’s set in the past.

The whole comic looks like fashion catalogues of the time and the story is told in text blocks and in the third person, I guess more like a storybook than a comic. But I really liked how it turned out. I frankly love doing comics like this, which is why The Hookah Girl has some similar design elements. I toned it down quite a bit with A Voyage to Panjikant but I think I want to go back to this in my next project, whatever it may be.

I enjoyed Ali’s House, the comic strip that you made with Tom Hart. How did you end up writing a comic strip in the first place and what was that experience like?

Tom knew about my Hookah Girl work and approached me about co-creating the strip. Tom was particularly experienced in comic strips, while I had none whatsoever, but he was interested in creating a strip related to the Hookah Girl material (essentially, a strip about my childhood and experiences as an Arab-American). We developed this very hybrid style of working on the strips: We both brainstormed and wrote them, I penciled, Tom would ink, we would both color. I can say that the strips look like neither of our styles exactly for that reason, which is pretty neat.

This is a project that unfortunately did not get very far off the ground, but I’m still glad it happened, and the comic lives on gocomics.com for anyone who’d like to see.

Is there a chance we’ll see a collection of Ali’s House one of these years?

I always leave the possibility open in my head, but realistically I think the chance is low—Tom and I have since moved on to other projects and I think we’re mentally in a different place than we were when we started on Ali’s House.

You’re also in the new comic, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Freshman Force: New Party Who Dis?. Do you want to say a little about your piece?

AOC had hinted on Twitter that she plays video games, so I made a very heavy-handed gaming reference. I’m hoping it looks like fun bleepy-bloops either way, but I based it on Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance. The title is based on a question Stephen Colbert had asked her on his show: “On a scale of zero to some, how many fucks do you give?” Her response: “I think it’s, uhhh, zero.”

I know that you’re working on a big long-form project, A Voyage to Panjikant. I know you’ve been working on this project for a while.

I sure have!

This is also historical-fiction and takes place on the seventh century Silk Road. The protagonists are a people who used to be called Sogdians and are from what is now Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The unfolding of the story about this teenage girl who wants to do a lot more than what society wants to offer her is the primary story with the historical elements taking a “passive” role. I had done in a great deal of research before I started drawing because, while the story is the vehicle for the piece, I want to also shed light on the Sogdians, who were an extremely interesting people who aren’t often talked about.

What is it about the Sogdians that you found so interesting? Because I know that they lived in Central Asia, I know that Samarkand was one of their major cities, which was one of the great cities of the Silk Road. And I think that’s it.

In their golden age (which is the time that Panjikant takes place) they were known primarily as the merchants of the Silk Roads. The Sogdian empire was situated between both China and Persia, which was advantageous to them in this regard. They were so good at being the merchants and were so well traveled that Sogdian became the lingua franca of the Silk Roads.

This also caused them to be relatively open socially and religiously, since they were generally exposed to so many different types of people. Sogdians practiced Zoroastrianism but it was an offshoot from the orthodox version practiced by the Sasanians, and they were known to incorporate deities outside of Zoroastrianism who they thought were neat. Women were also comparatively well treated under the law—Sogdians practiced polygamy, and, by law, the husband could not favorite one wife over the others. If a wife was dissatisfied with a marriage and wanted to leave it, she could do so and would have a right to a portion of property. Women could also own property on their own, without men. Sogdians did, however, enslave people (based on a slave’s economic condition, not their race). This is something I will address in the comic.

So much of your work to date has been black and white, and I’m curious what it’s been like working in color. Has that changed your process?

I wanted Panjikant specifically to be in color to get rid of the idea that the past equals “staid and moldy and old.” I also wanted to evoke Tang Dynasty sculpture, which is very brightly colored with glazes that tend to run. This lent itself in my head to a watercolor feel, both in texture and in the “runny” colors—which suits me fine because I love watercolors.

I’ve naturally gravitated toward color and always worked on making my black-and-white drawings stronger. Besides just wanting to get better, a lot of my work has been self-published and it was more economical for me to get my work out there if it was more cheaply reproduced. I’m excited that I have a little more color freedom in Panjikant.

You may have toned down some of your decorative touches and approaches for Panjikant,but I have the first comic of it that you put out and I was struck by how you used color in a way which gives the linework a certain texture. You’re still finding ways to be decorative and you clearly think about the page in terms of designing a page and not simply making a series of panels.

Yes, I had come out with a small “issue” (I guess more like a sampler) of Panjikant; I thought at first that I was going to put the comic out in installments, but I was able to run a successful Kickstarter campaign for it and subsequently signed up with a publisher, so I changed the model from single issues to graphic novel.

And thank you, that’s exactly what I want to do with the comic! I think I should clarify in that I feel like my storytelling elements are more linear than in Hookah Girl or Unsichtbares. I love comics, panels serve a great purpose, but I also have fun turning my comics into almost a diagram. Because I knew I wanted to really pump up the decorativeness and colors of this work and it was going to be a much longer form than what I work in, I stuck with more traditional comics storytelling elements.

Panjikant and a lot of your short comics involve researching and synthesizing a lot of information. What do you enjoy about that? Because based on your choice of projects, you clearly enjoy doing it.

I absolutely do!

I think I really like making material more accessible to a wider audience. Something I do besides the comic/illustration work is edit mostly academic papers and articles. Academia is, in my opinion, vital, but the material isn’t often the most conversational. I hope that my work is like a bridge and brings people into these things.

You are also the co-host and co-founder of Pete’s Mini Zine Fest, which is happening again this July. For people who have never been, what is it?

Pete’s Mini Zine Fest is a Fest-in-a-Bar, held at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We’re really proud that we’ve been doing this for 9 years. It’s a shmoozy kind of fest where people really get to know your work, you can drink a beer, and it’s just really chill. I’ve seen friendships sprout from people meeting at our fest and I just love it.

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