The answer may not be obvious, but, for some young Libyans, these famous Japanese anime characters inspire them to imagine a world of their own, away from the tough reality of post-Gaddafi Libya.
The art form has peculiarly drawn together Libyans of different ages, with fans in their thirties and forties. Many of the older enthusiasts reminisce over their favourite childhood anime characters – Grendizer, Hikaru, Duke Fleed – 1980s Japanese cartoons, dubbed into Arabic.
The first commercial Japanese animation appeared in 1917, with the instantly recognisable anime style emerging in the 1960s as the works of Osamu Tezuka spread across the world.
A limbo world of imagination
Today’s anime makes use of modern technologies. Zacharia Ben Mansour, a 22-year-old student at Tripoli University, shyly showed Al Jazeera some of his latest artwork on his iPad.
“My dad is against the fact I draw animes,” he said. “He thinks this art has no future and no career prospects. He is more Cartesian than me.” Though disheartened and frustrated because of his father’s dismissal, he continues to draw in secret.
“I prefer to live an imaginary world than live reality,” Ben Mansour said. Fluent in Arabic and Greek – his mother’s native tongue – he also speaks good English, French and Spanish. He loves to craft dolls and is passionate about Sailor Moon, his favourite Japanese anime character.
Sailor Moon, who fights for good against evil, appealed to Ben Mansour’s sense of compassion. “I discovered what real love is, I mean universal love. Her love reached out to evil people and changed them,” he said.
Torn between his native Libya and the Greek culture of his mother, he found in Japanese anime a refuge from the oppressive, outside world. He began to draw anime and Japanese manga in May 2010, almost a year before the revolution.
Drawing as a form of resistance
For many Libyan youth, drawing anime was a form of resistance during the authoritarian Gaddafi regime. Samira Musrati, a 22-year-old nursing student at the University of Tripoli, recalls how during the uprising she managed to preserve her sanity by drawing anime characters. “It was like an escape from reality, offloading one’s emotions and feelings,” she explained.
Musrati stayed with her family in Tripoli, one of Gaddafi’s last bastions, during the uprising.
“In besieged Tripoli there was a huge pressure on us and we had to go to school, work during the conflict, almost against our will. We had to go out but could not speak out or protest, as if everything was normal,” she added. Drawing anime was a way to relax.
Her sister, 17-year-old Kawthar, is a high-school student who started drawing anime in primary school. The sisters are luckier than Ben Mansour, as their family encourages them in their hobby. Their father, Fuad, recently returned from Germany with drawing material and colour pens for them.
Home-grown anime artists
Ben Mansour’s “evil” characters often take the form of the devil. “Some of them resemble Gaddafi, whom I always hated,” he said. He never dared to draw him, though, because he was scared that Gaddafi’s agents might uncover the pictures during the revolution.
They were guarding entry to the university, he remembered. In March 2011, he drew an anime character with the yellow crescent of the Libyan independence flag in the background. “He gets his energy from the crescent,” he explained. Ben Mansour took his work to university, where he met with other anime artists – and a member of Gaddafi’s militia saw the work.
“He was about to arrest me, suspecting that the crescent was that of the Libyan independence flag,” he said. Ben Mansour lied to him, telling him he had drawn it before the conflict began. He nonetheless maintains that he is apolitical, disinterested in politics – despite his hatred for the Gaddafi regime.
Fifteen-year-old Mahmoud Musrati, Samira and Kawthar’s younger brother, started drawing anime at the age of nine. “Right now, I am a beginner artist, producing short films and games of anime,” he explained. Mahmoud is learning anime to improve his skills in animation. He has published some of his work online, communicating with likeminded Europeans through Skype.
Mahmoud says that his online friends never knew where Libya was before revolution. During the uprising, he drew anime depictions of anti-Gaddafi fighters.
Ben Mansour and the Musrati siblings aspire to become famous anime artists, and hope to travel to Japan and Korea to improve their skills. In the meantime, they plunge into their imaginary world of anime, drawing and dreaming of a better reality for Libya, one in which love and hope prevail.
Follow Houda Mzioudet on Twitter: @houdamzioudet