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Nov. 21–BEIRUT — Pow! Forbes names “The 99” as one of the top 20 pop culture trends sweeping the globe. Shazzam! “The 99” theme park opens. Kerboom! Endemol begins work on an animated television series featuring “The 99” superhero characters. Slam! “The 99” creator Dr. Naif al-Mutawa is described as one of the 500 most influential Muslims by Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center.
The seemingly unstoppable rise of “The 99,” Mutawa’s collection of comic-book superheroes, is littered with the kind of accolades that make rivals as green as, well, the Hulk.
On Thursday, the former clinical psychologist appeared at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Invited by the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR), Mutawa spoke about the genesis of his supernatural creations.
It’s no coincidence that CASAR issued the invite: funded by the Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, CASAR was founded alongside centers in numerous Arab and Western Universities after the calamity of September 11, 2001, to help bridge the cultural divide.
“The 99” similarly rose from the ashes of the World Trade Center attacks, and aims to produce comics that foster understanding between East and West.
“For me, the attackers were trying to take down Islam under the Twin Towers,” he said of the September 11 attacks. “I had to fight back.”
“The 99” claims to be the first group of superheroes born of an Islamic archetype. “American superheroes all spring from the Judeo-Christian-Greek back story,” he said. “Superman, Batman, Spiderman — like biblical prophets, they are all orphans. They all receive some kind of message from above. They all reject their power before deciding to use it for good.”
Mutawa even made a convincing case that “Waterworld,” the 1995 mega-flop starring Kevin Costner, is a retelling of the Book of Genesis.
“Hollywood does this again and again,” said Mutawa. “But no-one had ever done this with the Koran.”
“The 99” is a collection of youths from all over the world, each endowed with a special power, corresponding to one of the 99 attributes of Allah. An Indonesian character Toro Ridwan, for example, is known as “Fattah — The Opener” for his ability to open portals that allow him to traverse time and space.
Dana Ibrahim is a wealthy Emirati teenager who transforms into “Noora — The Light,” with the ability to see the truth and make others see it too.
Other attributes bestowed on the group are generosity, strength, faithfulness, wisdom.
“These aren’t the words that were used to describe Islam in the media,” said Mutawa.
How did this collection of international teens come to be endowed with supernatural gifts? Mutawa’s back story delves into the history of the Islamic world, specifically the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 by Mongol leader Hulagu Khan.
Baghdad was the location of Dar al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), a library of Arabic, Persian, Indian and Greek texts that became a major intellectual center of what is known as the Islamic Golden Age.
When the Mongols stormed the city, they tossed the library’s texts into the Tigris. According to legend, the river ran black with ink for the following six months.
In Mutawa’s version, all is not lost. The librarians are in possession of 99 “Gemstones of Light,” which they place in the Tigris to soak up all the knowledge gushing from the pages of the submerged books.
“If you want kids to have access to your books, make sure that the heroes are librarians,” Mutawa joked.
After a sojourn in Andalusia, the stones are dispersed all over the world: Some to Europe, some to Asia via the Silk Route, some to the Americas with Columbus, ending up in the hands of their present-day holders.
The adventures of “The 99” are a blend of kinetic comic book action and the kind of rollicking supernatural plotlines that might be the brainchild of a Muslim Dan Brown. Preternaturally gifted teens uncover dark secrets in UNESCO world heritage sites and face moral dilemmas on which the fate of the world depends.
Mutawa’s project is not intended just for Muslim youth.
“Only when Jewish kids look at this and find characters to relate to, and the same with Christian and Hindu kids,” he said, “then I will consider my job done.”
For this reason, his characters don’t read the Koran. Some girls wear the hijab, but others don’t. Mutawa’s aim is to convey Islamic value systems and use Islamic archetypes without suggesting that Islam has a monopoly on any of these things.
“The project has a different face for every reader,” he said. “For the Arab audience, the characters provide positive role models that are often lacking in our societies. For other audiences, the comics present a vision of Islam that is completely different from what is often shown in the media.”
Mutawa doesn’t define his project in opposition to the American model. On the contrary, he poached top talent from comic giants DC and Marvel to write, draw and color the texts. The aesthetics of the comics will be instantly familiar to any reader of “The X-Men” or “The Fantastic Four.”
The project reached something of a pinnacle earlier this year when DC announced they are planning a crossover mini-series in which members of “The 99” collaborate with the “Justice League,” a super-group of superheroes containing all the jewels in DC’s crown.
“My characters get to hang out with Superman,” he said. “You can’t get much better than that.”
Well, maybe. Mutawa has also signed a deal with television giant Endemol to turn the franchise into a computer-animated series. The initial series will run to 26 half-hour episodes, created by a team of Hollywood writers over which Mutawa has complete creative control.
Thursday’s audience at AUB had the opportunity to watch Endemol’s trailer for the series, full of high-octane escapes, high-definition explosions and a Nietzchean villain spouting forth on how the strong must crush the weak.
The success story of “The 99” has an amount of luck involved in it. The day after the Danish cartoon controversy, the New York Times ran a full-page story on the project. Mutawa’s characters popped up on Google almost every time anyone searched for the cartoons, leading to worldwide coverage.
Undoubtedly, though, the lion’s share of success is due to Mutawa himself, whose rapid-fire speaking style on Thursday night gave a hint of his skill with potential investors.
He is certainly a wily business man: When trying to access heavily censored markets such as Saudi Arabia, Mutawa avoided getting bogged down in clerical approvals or refusals: He let money do the talking. Mutawa applied for funding from the Unicorn Investment Bank, which has a reputation for one of the toughest Sharia boards. When they invested heavily in “The 99,” conservative nations felt safe opening their doors to the teen heroes.
One audience member queried whether, by using a comic-book form so familiar to Western audiences, he was acting or merely reacting, a crucial distinction in the contemporary Middle East.
“I consider this an action,” he responded. “A reaction would be one of those Egyptian films where the bad guy is an American or a Jew. I have created a whole universe.”
For more information on “The 99,” visit www.the99.org.

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