Twins Cartoon: Meet the Egyptian twins at the tip of the Arab comic revolution

Meet the Egyptian twins leading the Arab cartoon renaissance
7 min read
02 April, 2024

Twins Cartoon is the artistic partnership of Egyptian twins Mohamed and Haitham Elseht. Their award-winning cartoons are known for their unique blend of religious and political commentary, delivered with a healthy dose of humour and satire.

Fuelled by the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the recipients of the Mahmoud Khalil Award have since launched the Garage Comics Magazine and the Cairo Comix International Festival — two initiatives dedicated to elevating the Arab world's comics industry.

"In the 15 years we've been in the industry," Mohamed and Haithem explain to The New Arab, "we've learned that working together makes a difference. It generates a lot more creative dimensions. We want them to have cultural value as part of a larger project, the Kawkab El Rasameen (Planet of Painters) — another idea we founded ten years ago."

"Cairo is a cosmopolitan city... Every wall tells a story. Vivid colours. The more you walk, the more stimuli you find. Pop culture is what inspires us. We don't adopt a specific style: what surrounds us is what guides us"

In understanding the twin's creative ecosystem, Kawakab El Rasameen aims to build a platform where Arab artists and art enthusiasts can freely share their work.

Garage Comics Magazine fosters the growth and appreciation of narrative comics within the Arab art scene, particularly in Egypt. Finally, the Cairo Comix International Festival, the first of its kind in Egypt, brings comics to life with a vibrant mix of concerts, book markets, and discussions.

"Launched in 2015 with Magdy Al-Shafei and Mohamed Shennawy, the idea for Comix came from Egyptian comics wanting to learn the craft of other country's comic style, from different schools, the French one for instance," Mohamed and Haitham explain to The New Arab.

"The event hopes to promote the development of the independent comic art movement in Egypt and, on a larger scale, in the Middle East and North Africa by introducing regionally-specific awards."

Egyptian "Mickey" with Tweety in toe [photo credit: Twins Cartoon]
Egyptian "Mickey" with Tweety in toe [photo credit: Twins Cartoon]

This spirit of playful innovation defines Twins Cartoon's work. Their comic Mickey perfectly exemplifies this fusion of influences, showcasing their style.

The comic is dedicated to the Disney character Mickey Mouse and was recently published in the Italian magazine Arabpop and translated by Luce Lacquaniti, an Italian interpreter and translator who specialises in Arab/Iranian comics. 

"Comics are, by definition, an art that originates as 'popular'," Luce tells The New Arab. "Twins Cartoon simply play with that. In the comic published by Arabpop, the icon of Mickey Mouse is catapulted into the Egyptian context and is distorted both graphically and symbolically. 

"The story's protagonist, a young man from a poor suburb of Cairo, works as a party entertainer for children's birthdays to make a living and is forced to dance while wearing a Mickey Mouse costume. Throughout the story, readers witness Mickey Mouse smoking during breaks, riding a scooter with Tweety, and even being handcuffed. At one point, a suited politician with Mickey Mouse's face pops up on the TV screen, using empty rhetoric to speak about the youth and the future," Luca concludes. 

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Twins Cartoon is interested in uncovering societal ills, taboos, harassment, and injustice. "In our stories, we address things like irregular migration. We were a part of the team that published the photographic novel Lampedusa — Images Stories from the Edge of Europe. We also covered the forced displacement of the Egyptian Nubians in the 1960s with the graphic novel Hudhud Al-Aghosn ('Hoopoe of the Bough')."

Twins Cartoon, "Hoopoe of the Bouch"

A history of Arab and Egyptian comics

Across the Middle East and North Africa, comics are enjoying a renaissance. Egypt, boasting a flourishing comic scene for more than eight years, stands as a leader in the regional market. However, the history of comics in the region goes back over 100 years, as the twins explain. 

"In 1923, the magazine Al-Awlad (The Boys) was published throughout the Arab British colonies and in the 1940s Doria Shafik founded the children's magazine Al-Katkout (The Chick)," Mohamed and Haitham tell The New Arab.

"Up until recently most of these comic strips were aimed at children. Whilst the scene has since expanded — which is great — we must continue to keep that foundation, to encourage and support young creators and make sure a specific agenda does not condition our support and gives them the freedom of expression to push opinions and ideas."

Twins Cartoon comic strip

"In the Arab world," Luce tells The New Arab, "there are two traditions: children's comics — which Egypt has pioneered in the Arab world — which has historically tended to serve as a tool of institutional propaganda, and editorial comics which are completely opposite and serves as dissident, contrarian commentary on current affairs.

"After the Arab Spring, a new Arab comic scene emerged, inheriting things from both traditions: comics and comic stories (not just single cartoons) for an adult audience."

According to Mohamed and Haithem, this has been a liberating development, with entertainment and art for art's sake now more satisfying than academic recognition. "We strive to find a sweet spot – channelling the energy and concerns of our generation, all while staying fuelled by the pure joy of creating.

"Cairo is a cosmopolitan city," they continue. "Every wall tells a story. Vivid colours. The more you walk, the more stimuli you find. Pop culture is what inspires us. We don't adopt a specific style: what surrounds us is what guides us."

"Egyptian comic artists are masters of navigating censorship. They use ambiguity, the unsaid, the metaphor, and historical or dystopian settings to deliver their messages"

How the Arab Spring sparked the new comic movement

The post-revolution comic movement is driven by independent collectives of writers and artists who, in various Arab countries, publish self-produced magazines with short stories.

"For example, in Egypt the Tok Tok magazine appeared alongside the revolution, anticipating an atmosphere of ferment and freedom of expression that would arise in 2011 and 2012," Luce tells The New Arab. Twins Cartoon founded Garage in 2015.

"The choice of self-production is dictated by the lack of a publishing market that is ready to finance comic books but it also keeps creative autonomy. As a result, contemporary Arab comics, especially Egyptian ones, emerge from the underground and are open to all kinds of experiment and influence, addressing social, identity, and taboo topics."

A shift in Egypt's political climate has forced comic creators to tread carefully. Some artists even faced exile, while others grappled with censorship. Luce cites the case of Shakmagia, a magazine dedicated to gender-based violence, which was abruptly shut down after its first issue. However, a beacon of hope emerged when Lebanese comic artists, in a powerful act of solidarity, published a second issue in defiance of Egyptian censorship.

Looking to the future, Mohamed and Haitham are optimistic. Egyptian comic artists are masters of navigating censorship. They use ambiguity, the unsaid, the metaphor, and historical or dystopian settings to deliver their messages. Humour, Luce Lacquaniti notes, becomes a weapon, with the "typically Egyptian" ability to laugh in the face of hardship increasingly valuable.

Twins Cartoon exemplifies this strength. Their expressive, caricatured characters populate stories that capture the complexities of modern and historic Egypt. Since 2013, they've collaborated with a wide range of international organizations, from the UN to the Goethe-Institut, on projects like an upcoming issue of Garage Comics Magazine focusing on environmental issues with German and Egyptian artists.

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However, in search of greater creative freedom and financial stability, Mohamed and Haitham Elseht have relocated to Dubai. "Dubai is the perfect destination to open new horizons in an emerging market that brings investment. We thought, why not?" the twins conclude.

This move allows them to continue their projects and tap into a growing market. They've already participated in the Sharjah Art Book Fair and met with young audiences at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library, demonstrating their commitment to fostering the next generation of comic creators.

Giovanni Vigna is a freelance Italian journalist with a focus on Middle Eastern and global politics