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Sofiane Belaskri:

Reframe - Comics from Algeria

With an astonishing seven out of every ten Algerians today under 25 years old, the country’s vast, vibrant youth offer huge potential but can enough opportunities be created to harness this? Meanwhile, it’s little wonder so many look across the Mediterranean and long for Europe. Despite the Euro crisis, economic slump and political storms over immigration, rising comics artist Sofiane Belaskri (21) knows how much Europe remains a promised land to many of his generation, who dream of getting there somehow, even if they risk arrest or worse on the open sea. Belaskri understands them, because he used to be one of them. “Europe is so close, and for them Europe is what they see on TV and in music videos: beautiful lives, beautiful women… But it wouldn’t be like this if Europe hadn’t closed its doors to these young Third World people and they could have visited, seen the truth and come home again. They are only people who have not accepted their daily lives, where each day is full of “emptiness”. They just want a better life.”

Originally from Ain el Turck in Oran, Belaskri is is one of three emerging Algerian talents (plus three from both Turkey and Britain) chosen to create a new graphic short story exploring personal attitudes towards Europe for the touring exhibition Reframe, supported by the European Cultural Commission, Article 19 and Free Word. For his new strip (which you can read at the end of this Article), he records a beach conversation with his friend Houari who dreams of escaping to Europe, another ‘Harrag Among Many Others’. Belaskri explains his strip’s title: “Harragas literally means ‘people who burn’. They got that name because they burn their immigration papers if they’re about to be caught. They’re people from North Africa who try to emigrate illegally to Europe in makeshift boats. Since the early 2000s their numbers have increased constantly.”

In an ironic twist, apparently unrelated to the sensitive critique in his comic, Belaskri’s visa application was denied by the UK authorities, so he was unable to attend Reframe’s premiere at Comica, the London International Comics Festival. You can read more about reactions to this refusal on the Free Word website. It remains to be seen what the reactions will be when Belaskri’s strip travels as part of Reframe to Algiers itself, exhibited by FIBDA (Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d’Alger) on February 5-8, and whether he will join it when the exhibit continues to Istanbul at the Istanbulles Comics Festival on February 17-24. The Reframe exhibition also features Soumeya Ouarezki and Mahmoud Benameur from Algeria, Murat Mıhçıoğlu, Cem Özüduru and Naz Tansel from Studio Rodeo in Istanbul, and Hannah Berry, Ilya and Daniel Locke from the UK. It continues until Friday November 22nd at the refurbished, expanded Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3GA, admission free. Eight of the visiting artists are shown below in London, with Joe Sacco and Reframe co-curators Canan Marasligil, and Megan Donnolley and Paul Gravett from Comica, but sadly without Belaskri. The contrasting individual perspectives of all nine participating artists affirm that there is not one but many Europes, which can differ sharply for those within and those outside.

Web-Exclusive Extra:
Sofiane Belaskri kindly answered some more of my questions about his work:

Paul Gravett:
What comics inspired you as you were growing up?

Sofiane Belaskri:
As I am a self-taught comics artist, I was inspired by the comics I could get hold of and, as we don’t find lots of bandes dessinées on sale in Algeria (except at the FIBDA festival in Algiers over the last few years, we had to look on the internet, where we found ‘scans’ of translated manga. They’re illegal, of course, but it was the only way for us to read them. So for a long time I stayed with only manga (the very first comics I ever read is Dragon Ball). Then with time I started to get interested in comics more generally…

Japanese comics are clearly a major influence, so who are your real manga masters?

Naoki Urasawa is the top one, you can see that in my latest work that he inspires me a lot. I love his drawing style and his way of telling compelling stories across several volumes! There’s also Jiro Taniguchi, whose work I appreciate enormously. As well as Akira Toriyama who really influenced me during my childhood with his masterpiece Dragon Ball. It’s perhaps all thanks to him that I am making comics now! I also like lots of other comics creators from Europe and elesewhere like Baru, Joe Sacco, Hugo Pratt .. etc.

Tell me more about your published comics.

Drahem was my first published comic for Z-Link Edition, a 100-page one-shot manga which I made when I was 17-18. It’s about Ramzi, a young adolescent who finds a suitcase full of cash and shares his secret with his best mate Samir. As a result, Ramzi’s relationships with others he knows, especially his family, start to go bad…

El-Moudjahid is a 6-page comic which I entered into the young talent competition at the FIBDA Festival and I got the second prize! After that, I reworked it to make a small 40-page album which became Le Vent de la liberté, also from Z-Link. It’s about Mourad who saw his father, older brother and uncle killed before his eyes during the massacres of August 1945. Ever since, he hates France and signs up to the ALN (army of national liberation) when they first put the call out for recruits in November 1954. 

From this follows a whole chain of events, the Algerian War of Liberation starts and Mourad is at the centre of the ALN’s fighting. He lives through atrocities inflicted by the French army and, starting from his comrades in arms in the ALN, he learns above all about the values of the courage and fraternity of the Algerian people. This comic helps us live through the experiences of young Algerian soldiers who sacrificed everything to liberate their country. Purely fictional, Le Vent de la liberté is inspired by key moments in the history of the Algerian war and sets out to instill the values of self-denial in young generations so that fifty years later, none of them forget the real value of the Algerian people.

You have tackled contemporary themes and social issues already in your comics - do you prefer dealing with real themes rather than fantasy?

There are lots of problems in Algerian society and among my friends, which I enjoy dealing with in my stories. I won’t change society with my comics, but I can do my bit! And when I read a comic or a book, or watch a film, I can put myself into the stories whether they are real or fantasy.

Is your Reframe story your first autobiographcial story and would you do more?

I wouldn’t call my Reframe story biographical, but just a way to tell the story of my friend Houari ... Up till now, I’ve not told an autobiographical story, but it’s possible I might make one, not to tell how I’ve become a comics artist, but to tell significant events in my life or my childhood or my parents’ lives…

Can you tell me more about your next graphic novel, Demain Inch’allah (‘Tomorrow, Allah Willing’, preview above)

It’s about Réda, a young guy from Oran, who has a bad reputation after taking part in the riots there in May 2008 which puts him on the front page of a cult newspaper. To get him away from the police, his father decides to send him to his cousins’ place in a village for a few weeks! Réda feels disgusted at having to make this trip and live a life he is not used to. But he changes his mind when he comes across Aicha, a beautiful village girl. Réda does all he can to meet this girl and finally gets to go out with her. But problems continue to dog him, when Aicha’s older brother Djamel dscovers that his sister his have a relationship with a ‘foreigner’. Furious, he decides to find them to kill them both and save his family’s honour.

So in Demain Inchallah I am dealing indirectly with these young couples who are not able to love each other freely because of their families and their friends. Here is a news article about a sad event that happened only two days ago. A young couple aged 18 and 20 from Jijel committed suicide by jumping hand-in-hand from the fourth floor of a building under construction in Ayef, because both their families refused to let them marry. The young woman was supposed to marry another man on that day.

How do you think the government might deal with the ‘harragas’ and encourage more Algerians to stay in their homeland?

I think if the government wants to contain the ‘harragas’ problem, they ought to create places where young people can get together, safe places open to all young people, places for fun. And they should provide obligatory training schemes to those who have not continued their studies and create jobs for them.  Basically, they should do all they can in this current situation so that young Algerians can find work!

How do you think your Reframe story will be received in Algeria?

I think some people here will like my story A Harrag Among Many Others and understand it, but there will be others who will say it has too many clichés, because the subject of immigration has become a very hot topic here and lots of people have used and abused the subject, so it’s become a bit of a gimmick. But the numbers don’t lie, and the important thing for me is that I was sincere. Sincerity speaks to those who can recognise it.

‘A Harrag Among Many Others’
Translated by Canan Marasligil
Click images to enlarge.


Posted: November 18, 2013


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