Zindan – Highlighting local culture through Comics

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Courtesy NYCBM

Courtesy NYCBM

We live in a time where despite the plethora of communication tools available, there is this constant fear of the other. The situation is pretty hard and it is time to put the art of storytelling to good use. This is exactly what Omar Farooq Mirza and his team at Zindan are doing.

Omar was born in Cincinnati Ohio, USA, to parents who migrated to the United States in the late 1970s. His father was a surgeon and it was expected that Omar would follow suit, which he actually did by completing medical school from New York. He is now practicing psychiatry at Mount Sinai, New York. It was his childhood passion of collecting comics that laid the foundation of Zindan – The Last Ansaars, turning him into a comic book creator despite no formal training in the field.

“I had always threatened my parents that I would go in the field of arts. For the longest time, I wanted to be a Bollywood actor. They were pretty scared that I would actually do it. After I completed medical school, they were like now you can do whatever you want on the side. They have been really supportive now that my education is complete. They even say do your medical practice for a couple of days, and then do your comics for the rest.”

Omar Mirza & Khurram Mehtabdin

Zindan’s journey is an example of what technology can help create when used positively. From an idea Omar had and an experiment he started with his medical college roommate, Khurram Mehtabdin, to its current state and a core team that is spread across the United States and now venturing into releasing it in India and Pakistan; the internet has helped in the coordination of the team and also in grooming the artists, most of whom are self-taught and are learning and sharing their work digitally.

Adelso Corona, Sabine Rich, Sajad Shah, Omar Mirza and Khurram Mehtabdin

Adelso Corona, Sabine Rich, Sajad Shah, Omar Mirza and Khurram Mehtabdin

Sajad Shah (born to a Pakistani immigrant family and academically trained as an electrical engineer), Adelso Corona and Alonso Espinoza who form the artistic team behind this comic book, had a childhood passion for the medium. They all believe that this is a strong storytelling medium that is capable of communicating across all kinds of segments and boundaries. For Alonso, the project has exposed him to new cultures and enriched his research palate and Adelso said that despite not sharing the culture that is being represented, he was still able to connect with the project due to the love and sincerity that is being poured into it.

CQ68E_mUkAAME-LAnyone who has been through comic books would be familiar with the theme set that makes the foundation of almost all the popular comic series. There have been some marketing and PR attempts to highlight a different voice but that is just a cosmetic way of gaging a wider audience. Upon starting off, Omar too went into the same pattern but realized quite soon that it was the same theme with brown skin. With interest in history, especially Mughal history, he started doing his research and when he was visiting Pakistan, he took proper tours to explore the heritage. In his own words, ‘I was blown away.’

The core idea was always to create something that the community he represented could relate to, and at the same time to share that rich heritage that is not the stereotypical imagery splashed on main stream media with the rest of the world. When these ideas and the said team gelled, Zindan’s story and imagery came into being in October 2013.

14191556_1050235741698022_649166479_oThe reaction to the comic is unexpectedly overwhelming and a lot of fans are Americans with no sub-continent roots. They love the imagery and the theme which is fresh and quite different. Most interesting of all is the fact that people from all age groups are reading it, kids, young adults, men and women in their 40s, just about everyone. Given that it is a prominent storytelling format and storytelling is the oldest form of education, school teachers come up to them and show their appreciation, given that it helps them when they are teaching Mughal history in their classes.

“One of the most rewarding incidents for me was when a four year old invited me to his birthday party and asked me to bring the Zindan characters along.”  

12164839_10205901393229059_160478089_oShifting to the topic of stereotypes and all that we get to see on mainstream news, Omar shared that with all that is happening, America is still the freest country where you can practice your religion. In his opinion, dismissing the other is not going to help the current situation. It is extremely important to engage people and be vocal about your community. The idea that if you keep quiet and limit yourself to your community, no one is going to bother you, doesn’t help.

This is not the model of our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who went to check upon the individual who used to throw garbage at him. It is important that we show who we are and engage with others, instead of responding to hate with hate. Omar took Zindan to this year’s Association of Physicians of Pakistan Decent of North America (APPNA) with the message that it is important that the community highlights and shares its heritage with pride.

“This is the first step for the comic right now. Then we will move on to introduce themes, things we struggle with. We want to talk about topics like how we see justice in our culture. One of the misnomers is that we don’t see right and wrong as the West. Next step is to bring back pride in our culture. The kids these days in the mixed culture who get bullied, deal with it by rejecting it. It is important to show them heroes from their culture that they can look up to. Like Muhammad Ali who was such a unifying force.”

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Omar Mirza & Khurram Mehtabdin

Shedding light on Zindan`s launch in Pakistan, Omar answered that it was an obvious decision as one of Zindan’s main purposes of existence is to highlight our heritage, it seems fitting for it to be released in Pakistan, since we have such a rich culture and heritage and it is essential that we know about it. Omar is of the view that the credit of Zindan’s launch in Pakistan goes to Mudassar Butt, the founder of Comic Con PK, and the team at CFx Comics: Gauher Aftab and Hammad Anwar.

“Pakistan is our ancestral homeland and Zindan in many ways is our love letter to the wonderful home of our beautiful and rich culture. Thanks to CFx comics, we have been able to release it in Pakistan and also translate Zindan into Urdu for our Urdu speaking fans.”

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Comic Con NYC 2014

Omar is optimistic that there will one day be as many fans of the Zindan heroes. His main reason for holding this view point is that the themes that have been addressed in Zindan are universal and can be related to by everybody. This fictional Mughal world tries to convey the richness and beauty of our culture in a way that is not found very often in modern pop culture. Omar agrees to the fact that his team might not have any financial edge over the world famous Marvel or DC, but what they do have is honesty and passion for their work. They are trying their best to bring to the table a fresh story that is built only with love and passion, and is free of any forced decisions that some big comic companies have to sometimes take based on financial demands.

Issue 1 CoverSelf-expression is a way to nourish our souls and religion is a form of self-expression. The problems come when the focus shifts from spirituality to dogmatic rituals. Following rituals without their essence and logic leaves them meaningless and makes room for conflict. On a personal level, Omar has been fortunate enough to not have faced any direct discrimination, but has observed it at a subtle level. People around him also have a contradiction between what they see in the news and what they experience firsthand with Omar. When they do make a mainstream comment, they highlight in the same breath that they are not referring to him as he doesn’t fit that frame. These bridges can only be mended when the fear of the other is shaken off and interaction and engagement is encouraged.

facebook-Cover-LaunchJust less than three years after its creation, Zindan is not only distributed all across the United States, it is also a part of all the major comic cons, is available in Pakistan through Cfx Comics App. As of now, Omar and his team are working under the guidance of Sohaib Awan (creator of Jinn Rise) and his company Jabal Entertainment, to expand Zindan to trans-media properties.

“With Sohaib’s help, we are in initial stages of exploring global partnerships for bringing Zindan to TV or Movies near you. Also we continue to need the help of our fans and digital platforms such as CFx to share the work that we are doing.”

Storytelling is a powerful way to put ideas out in the world, kudos to the team for putting out the much needed ideas of peace and the need to celebrate our diversity.

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