By Soukaina Rachidi
Despite difficulties, a pioneering magazine based in Benghazi is using Japanese art as a medium to share a creative message of hope and empowerment with communities throughout Libya.
After civil unrest, it can be hard for people to imagine life going back to “normal.”
Normalcy not only implies people returning to living their lives in relative peace and restoring a country’s functioning social, economic, and political institutions again (even if they do so ineffectively), but resurrecting an environment that is conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship that allows creatives to explore their imagination and produce artistic work.
In Libya, a country that continues to suffer from, among many other things, high levels of insecurity, constant power outages, and a currency crisis, it seems that restoring any sense of normalcy is a slow and painful crawl. However, 26-year-old Libyan artist Nouralddeen Alhouni has not let these challenges stand in the way of his creative endeavors.
Alhouni is the CEO, editor-in-chief, and lead writer of Habka Magazine, Libya’s first “manga” initiative, founded in Benghazi in 2015. Manga is a style of comic books and graphic novels that originated in Japan in the 20th century.
Since the 1950s, not only has manga become an important part of Japanese culture, it has also gained widespread popularity globally, captivating the imagination of young people like Alhouni.
In Arabic, habka means “plot.” Alhouni specifically chose this name for the magazine because he believes that a well-thought-out plot is the foundation of any good story.
Habka Magazine’s mission is to promote art in Libya, specifically the unique Japanese art form of manga, by making it more accessible to English and Arabic speakers.
Before deciding to focus his energy on Habka full-time at the end of 2014, Alhouni worked as an English teacher at a language center in Benghazi. In 2013, he became interested in development in Libya and began working with multiple NGOs as a volunteer.
Alhouni worked with other creatives to promote peace and social cohesion through art. These experiences inspired him to found Habka Magazine at the end of 2015. Since then, Alhouni has fought relentlessly to promote both art and youth empowerment through his magazine.
Alhouni told Inside Arabia that he had founded Habka Magazine for two main reasons. First, he wanted to bring together “people who are passionate about manga and comics” and “establish a space where they could be creative and share their creative ideas with each other.” Second, he wanted to “highlight young Libyan artists in the space and spread the culture of manga comics in Libya.”
In just three short years, the magazine now has a staff of 28, some of whom perform more than one role. The team is made up of writers, artists, designers, an operations manager, and a team manager.
Alhouni and his team currently publish one annual edition of the magazine, made up of 12 monthly issues, or chapters, each anxiously awaited by its eager readers.
Each magazine issue takes five weeks to produce. “Every team works on one story and each team consists of a writer and a main artist. We also have assistant artists who support the main artist if they need help,” said Alhouni.
In the first week of production, the various teams submit a story idea for a sketch to Alhouni for consideration. Then, the Habka writers meet to pitch these ideas to each other and respond to each other’s questions. If the sketch proposals are approved, they are sent to the artists to be illustrated.
The artists have four weeks to illustrate the sketches, after which they submit them to the design and editing teams for review. After the sketches are approved by Alhouni, they are ready to be shared with the world.
Although a lot of passion goes into producing Habka Magazine, not everyone appreciates the hard work that goes into the final product. Alhouni and his team have faced many obstacles in their effort to popularize manga in Libya, but their main challenge is a financial one. The fluctuating price of the U.S. dollar in the Libyan black market has made it prohibitively expensive to print the magazine.
Another publication might have resorted to increasing the price of its work product. However, Habka is unable to do so because most Libyans can barely afford daily necessities, let alone a niche magazine that features drawings in a foreign art form.
Consequently, the magazine was forced to stop printing after publishing five issues between the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016.
Subsequent editions of the magazine have been published online, but even this has resulted in problems for the Habka team.
“The idea of an online comic platform is new to my country,” said Alhouni. “Even though it has taken us a long time to finish the website, the real challenge with the magazine has been with bureaucracy.”
Habka Magazine is still a novel concept in Libya, so the country’s bureaucracy is struggling to process it. “Libyan law isn’t familiar with this new industry, so we’re facing delays in getting our legal documents.”
Despite these setbacks, these young Libyan artists have not given up on sharing their love of manga. For Alhouni and his team, the very existence of the magazine is something to celebrate.
“I believe Habka Magazine itself is an achievement, because I have seen other youth-led projects in Benghazi rise and fall in the past few years,” he said.
His initiative has been able to avoid that fate thanks to the unique family dynamic that the Habka Magazine team has been able to build. Not only does Alhouni hope to continue cultivating this love of manga among his own team members, he also seeks to continue promoting the art form throughout Libya.
In the short term, the young artist is striving to achieve this mission by making new issues of Habka Magazine available online again by the end of 2018. However, the team’s ultimate goal is to make the magazine available in print again. The team hopes to see the magazine printed on a monthly basis and to receive national recognition.
Although Alhouni and his team have faced many challenges, he knows that these challenges are not unique to him, his initiative, or even to Libya. Young people across the world face similar obstacles.
“The members of the Habka team have sacrificed their time, effort, and considerable money to bring the magazine to life,” said Alhouni. “Sometimes, we stay in our office for days without socializing with our families or friends and we have yet to achieve our goal as a publication.”
Alhouni advises aspiring young entrepreneurs and artists to mentally prepare themselves for the demanding path of a trailblazer. “It won’t be easy, so you need to prepare yourself to do what it takes to achieve your dream,” he said.
But like art, life is all about how you interpret it. The path of a trailblazer is only as rewarding as you choose to make it. Alhouni and his team are choosing to focus on how Habka Magazine can empower Libyan youth, artists, and society—today and well into the future.
Soukaina Rachidi is the founder and author of Soukie Speaks, a blog which strives to reimagine the narrative of young leaders, businesses and communities in the MENA region and empower a new generation of Arab leaders and entrepreneurs. With a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware, Soukaina is passionate about writing, global issues, entrepreneurship, youth empowerment and sustainability.