Dr. Ramzi travels the globe in search of the 99 ancient Noor Stones that imbue their bearers with extraordinary power.
Country Focus: Kuwait (Al-Kuwayt in Arabic)
The 99 (Origins; Issues 1-3)
By Naif Al-Mutawa + others
Began publication in Kuwait by Teshkeel Comics, 2008. (publishes monthly)
My edition: online downloads from http://www.the99.org.
@40 pgs ea.
Acclaim: President Obama praised Al-Mutawa for his innovation at the 2011 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship; Al-Mutawa and The 99 were recently profiled in Forbes, USA Today, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, and the New York Times; Al-Mutawa spoke at the 2010 TED Conference; Al-Mutawa and The 99 are the subjects of the PBS Independent Lens film Wham! Bam! Islam!
Genre: Comic book
Time period: present day
To make a long story short:
Origins: In 1258 A.D., the Mongols were on the verge of sacking Baghdad. Knowing that their great libraries would soon be destroyed, the city’s librarians alchemized their books into 99 gemstones and escaped with them. After regrouping in Andalusia, they constructed a “Fortress of Knowledge” and incorporated these “Noor Stones” into the dome like stained glass. Rughal, the son of one of the Fortress’s guardians, discovered that under the right circumstances, a person could absorb light from a Noor Stone and wield miraculous powers. He plotted to concentrate the power of all of the Stones into himself during an eclipse. The dastardly experiment destroyed the fortress and all traces of Rughal…
Fast forward to the present day. Dr. Razem Ramzi, head of The 99 Steps Foundation, is searching for Noor Stones, believed by most to be a myth. Dr. Ramzi lucks out when the Saudi Arabian government hands him Nawaf Al-Bilali, a young man who obtained his Incredible Hulk-like strength and size from the shards of a Noor Stone that a landmine embedded in his body.
Issues #1-3: Dr. Ramzi locates three more members of the 99: Dana Ibrahim (Noora-The Light) who can literally see the light and dark sides of a person’s character; John Weller (Darr-The Afflicter) who can manipulate people’s pain; and Miklos Szekelihidi (Jami-The Assembler) who can physically attach himself to ingenious technology of his own design. Together with Nawaf, whose alter ego is “Jabbar – The Powerful,” they discover that teamwork intensifies and focuses their powers.
Quote [from “Naif’s Notes,” Origins] :
Our superheroes are built neither on the Western style of individual heroes like Superman, Batman and the like, nor in the Eastern mold of Pokeman where teamwork and shared values can overcome all. They are an amalgam of East-meets-West, an appropriate compromise given the foundation of Islam and the geography of the Middle East.
Our collective hope is that The 99 will serve more than the one-quarter of the world’s population who subscribe to the basic beliefs of Islam. Our characters intentionally transcend all language and cultural barriers. They offer the commonly shared ideals of all people as the basis of our heroic figures.
The armchair travel experience: None of the first four issues take place in Kuwait. However, Al-Mutawa takes the reader all over the world, including Baghdad, Andalusia, Paris, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, Missouri, Ottawa, and Pennsylvania. The 99 are an international group of superheroes, hailing (so far) from Saudi Arabia, America, the UAE and Hungary.
The author’s relationship to Kuwait:
Kuwaiti Naif Al-Mutawa leads a double life: creator of international hit comic The 99 and Clinical Director of the Soor Center for Psychological Counseling and Assessment in Kuwait City, where Al-Mutawa calls home. Al-Mutawa says that he was dismayed by extremist comics that championed suicide bombers. In order to give Muslim children positive role models, he dreamed up The 99.
My opinion: Al-Mutawa is setting himself up to be the Arabic world’s Walt Disney. There’s a The 99 movie, The 99 animated tv show, and The 99 Village Theme Park. Walt Disney liked to say, “It all started with a mouse.” How odd that in Al-Mutawa’s case it all started with a suicide bomber!
Religion was not mentioned in issues I read and Al-Mutawa insists that it will not ever be. Muslim readers will recognize that the characters and their gifts correspond to the 99 attributes of Allah; the rest of us are given the chance to appreciate these universally appealing abilities regardless of what religion we practice.
99 seems like an overwhelming number of characters to keep track of, but this large superhero pool ensures a nearly endless supply of plotlines (and merchandising opportunities).
Considering that Kuwaiti women are not among the world’s most liberated and have only been allowed to vote since 2006, I was curious about how the The 99‘s female characters. In issue #1, Dana Ibrahim (Noora) is a rich girl from the UAE who has been abducted and held for ransom. She ultimately escapes with the help of a Noor Stone, but her grit and tenacity come into play first. Future issues introduce Hadya “The Guide,” Musawwirra “The Organizer,” Widad “the Loving,” and Mumita “the Destroyer.” Maybe their most impressive power will turn out to be changing young minds about what women can do.
One thing is certain: so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities, these women will save the world while wearing relatively conservative clothing. Female superheroes not squeezed into outfits that look like they came from the Adults Only store? Now that’s what I call super.
In my book (or what Kuwait means to me and maybe you, too)
- The first time my government decided to engage in a war during my lifetime
- The only war that my country has won during my lifetime
- The first time I heard the name Saddam Hussein
- The first time war was televised live
- The first war fought by soldiers my own age, including my roommate’s boyfriend
Who wants to go to Fire Lake?
The Iraqi army set fire to over 700 oil wells during the Gulf War. A trailer for the 1992 IMAX movie Fires of Kuwait brought this environmental catastrophe to my attention. The fires burned for seven months. Over 300 lakes of oil formed. The desert’s surface mixed with oil and soot, creating a firm layer of ‘tarcrete’ that covered almost 5% of Kuwait.
The hardest hue to hold
Three Kings, a 1999 movie critical of the U.S. military’s role in the Gulf War, manages to be both serious and seriously funny. The lines below reveal Army reservists plotting to steal Kuwaiti gold from one of Saddam’s hidden bunkers.
George Clooney: What do you see here?
Ice Cube: Bunkers, sir.
George Clooney: What do you think is inside the bunkers?
Mark Wahlberg: Stuff they stole from Kuwait.
George Clooney: Bullshit. I’m talking about millions in Kuwaiti bullion.
Spike Jonze: You mean them little cubes you put in hot water to make soup?
George Clooney: No, not the little cubes you put in hot water to make soup.