‘Our Planet and Us’: The adventures of an Egyptian environmentalist

Tamara is not your typical 14-year-old Egyptian girl. Between making compost heaps and helping the local garbage man separate his trash into recyclable piles, the asthmatic teenager also holds routine conversations with a sinister yet informative cloud of smog, courtesy of her active imagination and growing environmental concerns. She’s successfully convinced her neighborhood grocer ‘Aam Ahmed to use cloth bags instead of non-biodegradable plastic ones, and has managed to determine the cause behind her 26-year-old brother’s alarming hair loss (contaminated water). Overall, it is safe to say Tamara is a role model for adults and children alike. Shame, then, that she’s a fictional character.

If Tamara were real though, she would undoubtedly be thrilled about this past Saturday’s World Environment Day celebration at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park.

On Saturday 5 June, nations across the planet celebrated World Environment Day, an annual event organized by the United Nations Environmental Program which, according to their website, aims to be “the biggest, most widely celebrated, global day for positive, environmental action.” To mark this year’s celebration, the Wadi Environmental Science Center (WESC), located on the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road, planned a series of environmentally themed activities and projects, most eye-catching of which is a little informational book published in collaboration with AmidEast.

Far from being your average un-engaging educational pamphlet, “Our Planet and Us” is a ridiculously entertaining and endlessly informative comic book depicting one young girl’s crusade against a nation of seemingly compulsive polluters. With subliminal assistance from her chameleon sidekick, and mentoring at the hands of a (almost) senile bus driver, Tamara is determined to do all that she can to save the planet while raising awareness about its critical condition–a state of decay vividly brought to life through the efforts of writer and illustrator Essam Abdallah, and colorist Adham Bakry.

“When I talked to WESC, they gave me a series of details and guidelines, mostly environmental and educational, which I wanted to use but with a different approach,” says Abdallah. “We decided on an educational comic book which would appeal to kids, but without being childish.”

And childish it most certainly is not. In fact, one of the strongest aspects of “Our Planet and Us” is its grim realism. The artwork accurately captures the spirit of downtown Cairo, with its depressing shades of browns and grays, familiar buildings and landmarks, and perpetually crowded streets and smoggy skies. Unlike its inspiration, though, the comic itself is strangely uplifting, mainly due to the optimism embodied by its main character, Tamara.

“While we were working on the project, some people asked us why we drew the skies so smoggy, or the streets so filthy,” says Bakry, who was also responsible for the layout of the illustrated panels. “We’d say ‘because that’s the way it is!’ It’s important to portray that.”

“And the planet itself [depicted as a character throughout the comic] looks sad because its deteriorating,” adds Abdallah. “But it’s important that we weren’t pessimistic. We don’t want to depress the kids, and we certainly don’t want them to lose hope. The point was to show that something can still be done.”

“Our Planet and Us” is clearly a labor of love for the two artists, both in their mid-twenties. The result of almost a year’s work, the project originally had more modest beginnings. “At first, I was limited to 12 pages,” says Abdallah. “I kept asking for more and eventually got 15 and then 20.” As the project grew, Abdallah recruited Bakry to help with the coloring. “My taste in colors isn’t that great,” Abdallah admits. After several false starts, the two began a period of intense work, racing to reach a three-week deadline. “We started off working 15 hours a day, at least.” Abdallah recalls, frowning and scratching his Rasputin-style beard. “But for the last two days we didn’t get a minute’s sleep. I think we started going a little crazy.”

Against all odds, Abdallah and Bakry managed to complete their work on schedule, only to find out the globally-celebrated World Environment Day had been “indefinitely postponed,” due to the death of President Mubarak’s grandson.

After overcoming their initial frustration, the two decided to make the most of the situation. “WESC told us they would publish the comic for the following year’s celebration, so we took advantage of the extra time to work things out and make a few adjustments to the story.” The added time even allowed for Abdallah and Bakry to test their work out with “focus groups” of schoolchildren from various backgrounds, to generally positive feedback.

During their forced one-year extension, the two were also able to go back and add several details to their panels, resulting in a work that begs for repeat readings and closer inspections. From alley cats to election posters, the visual gags and cultural references set the story’s events firmly in Cairo. “I’m pleased at the variety of elements that children, and other readers, can relate to,” says Bakry. “They can look at a character and say, ‘He looks like my weird uncle,’ or feel like they recognize the strange-looking guy on the election campaign posters, Abdo Dodd.”  In case you were wondering, Dodd’s campaign moniker is “the Mouse” and he doesn’t stand a chance at winning.

The visual creativity also extends to the representation of the information which, according to the nature of the project, was essential to the comic book’s plot. Carbon dioxide molecules are imagined as antelope-like creatures, while a headless chicken skeleton and a discarded plastic bottle have to duke it out after finding themselves in the same trash bin. This level of inventiveness that is sorely lacking from most attempts at awareness-raising can be found on each brightly-colored page of “Our Planet and Us”–something which both Abdallah and Bakry hope won’t go unnoticed.

“Most of the times, clients will look at this type of thing and they’ll think ‘this is risky,’ or they’ll dismiss it because they think people won’t get it, or that the target audience is too vague” says Bakry, who has dealt with similar, frustrating experiences in the past. Excited by the opportunity presented by WESC and his subsequent contribution to the comic, Bakry believes that the book will strike a chord with its audience, when it is distributed to thousands of readers–children as well as adults–during the World Environment Day celebration. “This is the abstraction of real life combined with something readers can associate with,” says the colorist.

His illustrator has similar hopes. “Unfortunately, here anything that targets 12 to 16 year olds is usually naïve and patronizing. But you can go beyond that, to a level that even adults can enjoy. You can talk to kids like they have a brain. They’re capable of understanding.”

“Our Planet and Us”, which has been printed in both Arabic and English, will be distributed at the WESC tents at Al-Azhar Park during the World Environment Day celebrations on Saturday 5 June. The event is scheduled to begin at 10AM.

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