Cairo via Twitter (with some augmentation)


Friday, Oct. 8
Leaving for the airport in an hour. Using all of my packing/rolling techniques right now. No time to shave; I will shave in Cairo.

OK, Delta Airlines wins the worst-ever international check-in/baggage drop award. Buckle in for the 10-hour flight.

I’m here. Landed in Cairo, was driven to the hotel, met Mike, the Cultural Affairs rep from the Embassy, changed money, and showered. My hotel is the Semiramis InterContinental, a five-star establishment about six stars above my usual travel accommodations. There are many Spanish tourists here. And older ladies in tour groups flirting with the hotel waiters. Later, on Mike’s advice, I find some delicious Lebanese food and take a felluca ride on the Nile before turning in for the night.

Crossing the roads here is exactly like Frogger — dash into traffic, wait, jump forward again. The key is never go backwards or you go splat.

Saturday, Oct. 9
SaBAH el-KHEYer. Studying up on my Arabic phrases.

Baseball breaks your heart. (It’s designed that way.) I’m sitting here in Cairo about to see the Pyramids and I’m depressed because the Giants blew a 4-0 lead to lose to the Braves in 11 innings.

Heading toward the Pyramids from central Cairo, they shimmer into view through the haze like something left by visitors from another planet. My guide, Fareg, is terrific — 31 years as an Egyptologist and anthropologist. (He also takes some funny pictures of me in front of the various sights.) The pyramids are just as stunning up close, and I am really blown over by the Sphinx. Something about the grandeur and dignity of the monument really touches me. On the plateau above the Pyramids, I take a short came ride out into the Sahara. The poor beast stumbles on a Coke bottle and almost pitches me into the sands. Ootini!

After the Pyramids and before our visit to the stately Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan (featured on the Egyptian one-hundred pound note), I stop for a lunch of kushari and a mint tea with my driver and guide.

Many Muslim men here have ash-colored bruises on their foreheads. This comes from their five-times-a-day praying. These men press their foreheads to the floor so vociferously that a permanent bruise develops. This is seen as a sign of their particularly pious nature.

My A.D. presentation at the independent gallery/art library the Townhouse Gallery goes really well. Most of the crowd of 40 or so speak English fluently and are basically familiar with graphic novels. There are even some American ex-pats in the room. Given the audience’s political sympathies, they particularly appreciate my call-out of Joe Sacco as a major influence. Afterward, I do a 15-minute interview with Chitra Kalyani of Daily News Egypt. (She has really done her homework on me!) And then Mike takes me to a Cairo street food establishment and then a beer at the Stella Bar, a nearby watering-hole frequented by old Nasserites.

Sunday, Oct. 10
Take the Metro to Coptic Cairo. I walk in to a beautiful singing liturgy in the round Church of St. George. I take a photo of what appears to be the Holy Termite Mound. At the Metro station on the way back, I end up in the middle of the platform where the ladies-only cars are situated. Off-limits! By the time I run down the station to a suitable car the doors are closing, and I have to wait for the next train. Fortunately, they come along quite frequently.

Later, I find myself in the stunning, huge Egyptian Museum, where I marvel at the ghoulish opened-up mummies of Ramses II and other ancient Egyptian rulers. Then I see the fabled relics of King Tutankhamen. And now I see what the big deal about King Tut’s tomb is. Un-be-lieve-able. Somewhere along the way, I realize I’ve been wearing my Tintin Cigars of the Pharaoh shoulder bag all around Cairo. Respectful homage or inappropriate?

After lunch, I am driven over to Cairo University for another presentation, this time for Mass Communication students. Cairo U. has an astonishingly large student-body of 250,000 kids, which must be one of the largest in the world. After sharing a tea with the Mass Comm dean, I am shuffled upstairs to the class, which has about 50 kids, most of them hijab-wearing girls. This crowd is much less knowledgeable about comics, but their English is surprisingly good and they ask some good questions at the end. As with the crowd the night before, everyone wants to know how I like Egypt and when they can expect to see an Egypt-themed graphic novel from me. When I explain that it took two-and-a-half years to do A.D., and a whopping ten years to do A Few Perfect Hours, they revise their expectations a bit.

For my last night in Cairo, I head over to Khan el-Khalili to check out the famous back-alleys bazaar. It is wonderful to trek down the tiny streets, packed with vendors; it is annoying and depressing to fight off the sales pitches from the guys hawking their cheesy tourist-targeted wares. I find respite — and some good kofta — in the Naguib Mahfouz Cafe, and stop by the Al Fishawy Cafe to check out one of the world’s oldest coffee houses.

A bizarre thing happens in the bazaar. An American family from one of the many tourist buses causes a commotion when the dad — a stocky 50-something — begins bellowing at his son. "Jeff! Jeff, goddammit! Hurry up or they’ll leave without us!" Predictably, this causes a huge crowd (mostly of vendors) to gather around to see the fun. Jeff, a 20-ish spitting image of his dad, is understandably humiliated at his father’s tirade, and refuses to hurry. This only gets the dad angrier, and he goes crazy, running up to his son and pushing him along the cobblestone alley. The son pushes back, and before anyone knows it, they are practically wrestling in the street. "I’ll fucking break you in half," the father yells. The crowd is hopping with glee. It’s nuts. A member of the white-uniformed Egyptian tourist police is standing by, but he is conflicted. His job is to prevent tourists from being harassed or assaulted by Egyptians; he has no precedent for interrupting internecine battles. Finally, the dad and his wife run off, leaving Jeff alone. He trudges slowly by in the same direction. I feel bad for the kid to have such an asshole for a father.

Monday, Oct. 11
Farewell, Egypt. I hope to return for a longer visit. On to the next leg of my trip. Algeria!

Middle East Joshicles


Tomorrow I embark on a three-week trip to the Middle East (and North Africa), another "mission" on behalf of the State Department’s Speaker/Specialist Program. This time I’ll be visiting four countries: Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, and a country to be named later. As with my trip to Burma, it seems that — because of A.D. — I am being invited to showcase the cultural freedoms of American society, especially in comparison to the more authoritarian-style policies of the countries Ill be visiting.

I’m starting to realize that part of this "job" of being an international cartoonist is to wear many different hats. Sometimes I’m expected to do a presentation on my work, process, and background. Other times I’m counted on to dialogue with cartoonists from the local country. Still other times I should be prepared to lead comics-making workshops, with students ranging from children all to way to professionals with decades more experience than me. And sometimes I’m just supposed to act as a sort of visiting American dignitary, there to learn and observe. What I am discovering is that although "alternative comics" like what I do are still considered quite unusual in many parts of the world, political cartoonists are often held in high esteem. So even though I don’t do syndicated single-panel editorial cartoons, my work on A.D. allows me to be an honorary member of the club.

My first stop will be a three-night stay in Cairo, Egypt. While there, I’ll be giving a couple of presentations on nonfiction comics to local cartoonists and journalists. Back in the day, shortly before we met, Sari backpacked through Egypt, and she had some really amazing experiences in Cairo. Thanks to her, I’ve always dreamed of visiting the place, and I really look forward to meeting some of the country’s cartoonists, as well as doing some sight-seeing and of course checking out the pyramids of Giza.

My next destination is Algiers, Algeria, where I’ll be taking part in the week-long 3rd Annual International Comics Festival. (At least one other American, comics writer Brandon Jerwa, will join me for the Algeria portion of the trip as well.) Last year, two American cartoonists, Daryl Cagle and Jan Eliot, visited as part of the same program, and from their blogs they seemed to have really valued their experiences. In addition to leading panel discussions and seminars at the festival, they painted a mural at a center for children who have been victims of abuse in an inner-city neighborhood in Algiers; published a cartoon together with an Algerian artist in the nation’s most widely-read newspaper; met with the editors of several local papers; visited a women’s center; and led a drawing workshop at a local orphanage. They also held several press events with the Algerian media, including a TV appearance on a popular morning talk show. So I guess I can expect much of the same treatment. And since this really is an international festival, I expect to meet other cartoonists from all over the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Should be incredible.

My third stop will be Manama, Bahrain. (Raise your hand if you knew the capital of Bahrain was Manama!) During my four days in Manama, I will give three two-hour workshops, the first to professional newspaper cartoonists, the second to amateur cartoonists and youth, and the third to university students. I’ll also be giving two presentations, one at the Bahrain Arts Society and the second to the students at the fine arts center at the University of Bahrain. I really know next to nothing about the small island kingdom of Bahrain — and never in a million years imagined I’d get a chance to visit there — so I’m really curious about this part of my trip. (Weirdly enough, the New York Institute of Technology has a campus in Bahrain. What’s that all about?…)

My fourth and final stop, to be revealed later, will also feature presentations and workshops. And then, on October 28, if all goes according to schedule, I will land back at JFK, home after my three-week tour of the Middle East.

Obviously, I’m really excited about the trip and all the things I’ll see and people I’ll meet. I’ve never been to any of these countries, and can’t wait to experience their surprises. But I can’t help feeling guilty for leaving Sari & Phoebe for this long of a stretch. My expectation this time, though, is that in contrast to Burma, where making contact was so difficult, I’ll at least be able to Skype with them while I’m gone.

Stay tuned for further updates.

Zoe Zolbrod's CURRENCY


My ol’ pal Zoe Zolbrod has a novel out, Currency, from OV Press, and she’ll be in NYC next week to read from it!

I was thrilled to be able to blurb the book, and this is what I wrote:

is a dance and duel, a literary thriller with a serpentine twist. With extraordinary imagination, Zolbrod evokes both partners of a star-crossed couple: Piv, a small-time Thai hustler, and, Robin, a questing American backpacker. Based in the seedy rooms of Bangkok’s Star Hotel, the action in Currency ranges from the tranquil mountains of Pai to the traveler haven of Khao San Road, from the heart of Singapore to the scrubby outskirts of the Philippines’ Cebu City. Along the way, the reader confronts walls of every sort — international and cross-cultural barriers, and obstacles to trust, and, ultimately, love."

Zoe will be at Piano’s (158 Ludlow Street, Manhattan, Upstairs Lounge) on Wednesday, May 19, starting at 7pm, where she’ll be one of four readers. A band will be part of the fun. And then on Sunday, May 23, starting at 5pm, Zoe will be reading at Word Brooklyn (126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn), also appearing with some other authors. Try to make it to one of the two events and support Zoe and her thrilling debut novel.

Zoe Zolbrod's Currency

Burmese massage


On Saturday, after the final day of workshops and the exhibition, we all — Émile, Badoux, Blake, Fanny, Fabrice (the French counsel), and I — have dinner. Then we follow Fanny to a massage parlor she knows, on the sixth floor of the Excel Building. (Massage is big in that part of the world. Real massage, not always that other kind.)

The six of us don pajamas and lie on beds. Our masseuses enter, mine a lovely long-haired girl who sits on the bed with me. She bends my limbs this way and that until they seem like they’re no longer part of me — I am watching them being manipulated from somewhere above. It’s strange, and yet strangely normal, to have this Burmese girl with three words of English sitting on my bed, touching me with her delicate, strong hands. I fall in love with her, but it’s the love a child feels for its mother. Later, she walks on my back and squeezes the breath out of me in strangled grunts. It’s marvelous.

As we all shyly put our clothes back on, we exchange notes on the experience. We all got the most of it, except, it turns out, poor Émile. “She walked on my willy,” he remorsefully explains.

Mob Comix, or “Of Mr. Bean and Buddhist Monks”


Exquisite corpse

Our last two activities as part of the “International Week of Graphic Novels” were group affairs. For the Friday “amateur” session at the Alliance Française, Émile, Badoux, and I arranged another “exquisite corpse” exercise, much as we did with the professionals earlier in the week. Once again, the three of us started up the narrative, and then the Burmese participants joined in. As the story developed, page by page, we taped the results up on the board. I had been worried that the activity would be boring for all those except the person who was drawing, but surprisingly the activity proved to be a real crowd-pleaser. Everyone gathered around the person at work, laughing as the picture took shape, and often throwing in words of advice or encouragement.

During my stay in the country, I had come to feel that one of the most discouraging things about the state of comics in Myanmar was how isolated the comics practitioners seemed to be from each other. I’ve always been aware how fortunate I have been during my comics career to have ready access to a large group of fellow cartoonists, as well as generous, older mentors. And that was something that, other than a few exceptions evidenced among the morning session professionals, seemed to be missing from Burmese comics culture. But I was happy to see during our Friday afternoon exercise that the older, professional artists in the group were encouraging some of the more tentative or less skilled participants, and that some form of mentoring really was happening. My hope is that some of that cross-generational energy continued past our visit to their country.

Saturday, our last day of “official” business, was a bit less intensive than the preceding four days. Émile, Badoux, and I each presented our work at the Alliance Francaise — Badoux and I using slideshows — for an audience of workshop participants and the public (including the German ambassador and his family, who seemed really into comics). Much of the Alliance’s outdoor area had been transformed into an exhibition space of the various exercises we had done — both professional and amateur — during the previous week. It was really nice to see everything displayed in such a loving and celebratory way. I really have to hand it to Fanny, the Alliance employee who did much of the hard work putting the “International Week of Graphic Novels” together.

That was followed by a live drawing demonstration, the idea for which Émile again came up with. Similar in spirit to the exquisite corpse exercise, the idea was to do a group drawing on a long roll of paper. As the crowd gathered in the outdoor café, an artist drew something in an approximately two-foot-wide area. Then the drawing was covered up — except for a two-inch sliver on the edge. The next artist, sight unseen, continued the picture by connecting their drawing to that sliver, guessing at what it depicted. The audience, seeing it all take place in front of their eyes, had a good time laughing at the strange results. The game went on for about an hour, with about twenty artists (including Émile, Badoux, and myself) taking part; the final picture was unveiled to much surprise and amusement for whole gang at the very end.

As the crowds dispersed, many kind words were exchanged and pictures were taken — my favorite one is us three “international” artists and the Buddhist monk.

Alliance Francaise café

The week's work on display

Badoux at work on the exquisite corpse exercise as Émile Bravo looks on

The exquisite corpse is unveiled


Let us pray

A little postscript about the monk: He was a pleasant, quiet sort of guy, so I quickly got over my nervousness about having such a spiritual person in my class. And the other students didn’t seem intimidated by him either, so everything went fine in the amateur workshop he attended. He wasn’t the most accomplished or imaginative artist, but he could hold his own with the other amateurs. And I liked that he eagerly took part in the last two group sessions. But Badoux told me a hilarious story about the monk, from his workshop earlier in the week. According to Badoux, the monk carried around a little sketchbook, much as artists do in the West. So Badoux asked to see it, and was mildly taken aback to see it was mostly filled with sketches of buxom and “sexy” women. A little odd for a chaste Buddhist, but whatever. But what really threw Badoux for a loop was when he turned the page to find a loving depiction of the British comic character Mr. Bean… with breasts! (Man, I wish I had a picture of that page from the sketchbook.) Obviously, after hearing that story, I never looked at that little monk in quite the same way again.

Iron Cross


On Friday, after our last full day of workshops, we planned a late night, knowing we’d be able to sleep in the next morning. We’d heard of a live outdoor concert by the Burmese all-star band Iron Cross, and we didn’t want to miss it.

Getting into the stadium for the concert was like passing through a cattle gate. We were squeezed into three entrances, felt up by the security people, and herded through at a trample-like pace.

Iron Cross features a rockin’ guitarist and five solo singers, each taking turns in front of the mic. Some of the singers were pretty "hard-core", some were more "top 40", but the whole thing had the air of a 1980s hair-metal concert, pretty cheesy in feel. The crowd loved them all, singing all the lyrics to all the songs, but clearly favored the heavier songs, which allowed them to "rock out" to greater ecstasy.

The relatively expensive $5.50 ticket prices made the concert all but unaffordable to any but the most wealthy — e.g. connected to the military or their political cronies, but you’d never have known it from the crowd. The concert was packed with thousands of adoring, exuberant fans, crushed together doing the Burmese version of slam dancing. The crowd was 90% sweaty young men, all in their teens or early twenties. Even thought there was a lot of testosterone-fueled energy, and empty water bottles were being tossed in all directions, I never felt threatened by their enthusiasm.

A lot of the men wanted to say hello to us and ask us where we’re from, and some particularly wanted to talk to our little blond French companion Fanny, but there was no ill-will in evidence. For her part, Fanny pulled us deep into the crowd, as close to the stage as possible, and within moments we were all completely drenched with sweat. Pushed in on all sides, it was an intense introduction to Burmese pop culture.

Iron Cross on stage
Iron Cross on stage

The adoring crowd

The adoring crowd
The adoring crowd

Émile and Badoux enjoying the experience
Émile and Badoux enjoying the experience


Comics, Travel

Friday, our last day with the Burmese professionals, was taken up with an exercise dreamt up by my French compatriot Émile Bravo (currently the recipient of three Eisner Award nominations for his recent book My Mommy Is In America And She Met Buffalo Bill!). The assignment was to take a “tragic” event from your life and depict it in a humorous way.

I loved the idea of the exercise, and think it’s a wonderful way to get beginning cartoonists to flex their creativity, but for some reason I had a terrible time with it. It’s not that I’ve lived a charmed life and have no sad stories to tell — far from it — but I just found it incredibly difficult to boil one of those stories down — to a one- or two-page comics story no less! As the other artists set to work right away, I sat there sweating, running different ideas through my mind — and rejecting all of them. I even left the room and stalked around the grounds of the American Center, attempting to clear my mind and find the right story. By the time a half hour had passed and I still had nothing, it became a joke, as Émile and Badoux saw me agonizing over the assignment. It got so extreme I was even thinking my story should be my anguish at trying to find the right story!

Finally, however, I settled on an incident from my deep past, when I was but a babe. I had to scramble to plot out the piece, and pencil and ink it, all within the three-hour time allotted. The end result isn’t quite the masterpiece I had hoped, but it’s not awful…

Soccer Mom

For an example of how a master works, here’s Émile’s simple solution — just one of at least three different stories he came up with on the spot for this assignment. Sheesh — what a show-off!

Boby III

Professional Workshops


For the remaining three days of professional workshops — the morning sessions — Émile, Badoux, and I decided to keep it simple and just work collaboratively with our Burmese counterparts. We pooled ideas and came up with three we thought would work.

On Wednesday we introduced an “exquisite corpse” jam where each of the artists — including us — drew one panel of a continuing narrative. As a group, we came up with a character and a situation — a man sitting at an outdoor restaurant — and then let our individual (and collective) imaginations take over. As everyone gathered around, I started things off, drawing a guy sitting at a Chinese barbecue, with no overt clues as to what should happen next. Badoux came next, and he added conflict — and humor — by showing a close-up of the guy’s leg, with a hungry rat approaching it. Then the Burmese artists took over, and it was really fun to see the story take off, as the rat was revealed to be remote-controlled, and the protagonist morphed into a true Burmese, with a longyi and everything. The final results, which we tacked up on the board, weren’t exactly publication material, but the exercise was a great ice-breaker. We had seen each other at work, realized we shared a sense of playfulness and humor, and were looking forward to our next get-together.

Working on the exquisite corpse

Exquisite Corpse display

On Thursday I proposed a new idea, which Émile and Badoux embraced enthusiastically. Taking a pre-ruled sheet of paper, each of us drew the opening panel of a six-panel page. I drew a wooden hut, situated in a rural area at the end of a dirt road. Behind it were some simple mountains, a sign was in the extreme foreground, and a round shape — sun, moon, or… something else — hung in the sky. Badoux drew a jet plane flying overhead in a cloudless sky. And Émile drew a bedraggled, stinky dog, sitting by the side of the road. From each of these jumping-off points, the idea was for the artists to continue the story, bringing it to a satisfying conclusion by panel 6.

Mine, Badoux, and Émile’s opening salvos

Once again, the group embraced the idea and set to work. We three visitors took the challenge too, finishing the stories of our two counterparts (and continuing on to their own page, if they finished the other two in time). It was really fun to share the space as the twelve of us worked, taking occasional breaks to peek over at our neighbor’s progress. For my own part, I used Émile’s panel to reference the then-imminent Thingyan Water Festival, depicted so charmingly in Guy Delisle’s The Burma Chronicles.

Water Festival doggy

Again, I was really impressed with the Burmese artists’ creative and humorous solutions to the “problems” we had posed — particularly in regard to Badoux’s drawing of the plane. For that one, many of them came up with some really rather dark and cynical interpretations, many having to do with terrorism and plane crashes. It was clear that they found the material rich for political commentary, obscured by a veil of humor.

For some reason, during this exercise a number of the Burmese cartoonists worked me into their comics! As you can see from these examples (again, artist’s names redacted), there’s no mistaking who the hapless lovestruck character in these stories is. What’s up with that?! And why didn’t Émile and Badoux suffer the same fate? *Sigh*

Josh's shack misadventure

Josh's airplane misadventure

Tomorrow: Friday’s exercise, courtesy of Émile Bravo…

Graphic Novel Institute @ Northwestern Univ. April 25


A short-notice heads-up that I will be in Evanston, Illinois, this coming weekend to take part in a comics and education conference called the Graphic Novel Institute, being held all day Sunday, April 25, at Northwestern University. Sari will also be there, presenting her thoughts on the topic. The G.N.I. will be taking place from 10am – 4pm, with a catered meet-and-greet from 4-6.
The G.N.I. was originally affiliated with the International Reading Association annual conference, but has since broken off on its own as a pre-IRA event. It is being co-sponsored by Northwestern, Diamond Book Distributors, Reading with Pictures, and Baker & Taylor.
I will be co-leading a breakout session with Alex Rodrik on the topic of creating graphic novels with a secondary reader focus; Sari will be on a panel with Michael Bitz, William Ayers, and David Rapp called Why and How to Teach with Graphic Novels. In the afternoon, she’ll be co-leading a breakout session with Josh Elder on Developing Graphic Novel Resources for the Classroom.

Graphic Novel Institute
"Teaching Reading with Graphic Novels”
Sunday, April 25, 2010 — 10 AM-4 PM
Northwestern University
Evanston Campus
Annenberg Hall
2120 Campus Drive
Evanston, Illinois

Admission is free, but seating is limited.  Please confirm your seat via RSVP to

Kyat Chat, or, "Is that 100 kyat in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”


As I mentioned earlier, the Myanmar unit of currency is the kyat (pronounced “chat”). It exchanges at about 1000 kyats to the dollar, and since the most common bill is the 1000-kyat bill (there are rumors a 5,000-kyat bill exists, but I never saw it), when you change money you inevitably end up with a huge wad of bills.

And, no, that’s not an optical illusion — the 1000-kyat bill actually comes in two sizes! (I think the smaller ones are newer vintage — they were trying to save paper…) So when I got a hundred of the larger ones, that was a super-wad in my pocket. Whenever I had to pull it out and peel off some bills to pay for something, I felt like some kind of clumsy Mafioso showing off for his goomah.

The other amusing thing about Myanmar money is that they’re really particular about only accepting pristine U.S. dollar bills for exchange. If it’s creased, wrinkled, or god forbid a little torn, forget it — they won’t take it! But when it comes to their money, especially the small denomination bills like the 50-kyat (worth about 5 cents U.S.), you’d see some of the dirtiest, bedraggled bills you could imagine changing hands.

Later in my trip, when I was visiting the Bagan historical site (more about that later), a salesgirl outside a temple approached me waving three U.S. $1 bills. She wanted to exchange them for kyats. I was confused: why would I want U.S. money back? But our guide explained that individual U.S. dollars were useless for locals, hard to spend and not worth near their value when exchanged in small quantities. So by changing them for her I would be doing a great favor.

Good Samaritan that I am, I agreed to the exchange and was suddenly swarmed by girls with bills. In the end I changed at least $10 worth. The irony of the Jewish guy — outside a temple, no less — changing money for folks was not lost on me. Blake, however, pointed out that I wasn’t a very good money changer since I didn’t charge a fee or interest. I guess usury just ain’t in my blood, even if it is part of my heritage. (That’s a joke, folks!)

Postscript: a few temples later, a new girl approached me with some American bills to exchange. I can only imagine that word was spreading of the pale guy in the orange ball cap who traded U.S. bills for kyats.