Flight, super strength, invisibility — most superheroes enjoy powers that humans can only dream of having. Now Naif Al-Mutawa ’03 has introduced the world to a new breed of superheroes whose attributes mere mortals stand a much better chance of emulating: The 99.
Conceived, developed and launched by Al-Mutawa, The 99 are Muslim comic book superheroes — male and female — each embodying one of the 99 attributes of Allah. Bari, the healer, for example, channels his and others’ own energies to cure illnesses or mend injuries, and Soora, the organizer, creates order out of chaos, seeing patterns and the big picture.
The premise: It’s the 13th century, and 99 gems — the source of both wisdom and power — get dispersed around the world after the Moguls invade Baghdad. The gems hold powerful knowledge but are also the root of power, and when all are brought together, their powers multiply to exponential proportions. Twenty superheroes are dispatched to seek out and return the gems before they fall into the hands of evildoers.
An eponymous monthly magazine, The 99 was launched throughout the Middle East in June 2006 from Al-Mutawa’s native Kuwait. The 99 regularly debuts new characters, each based in a different country and endowed with unique traits and skills that are honed and then put to the service of good.
Al-Mutawa’s early experience writing children’s books, a doctorate in psychology from Teachers College and his MBA have proved an ideal base from which to launch Teshkeel Media Group, the parent company of The 99. (Watch a RealPlayer video clip from a Frontline documentary that tells the story of how Al-Mutawa dreamed up The 99).
Al-Mutawa estimates that about 40 percent of the class of 2003 came through his apartment, where every Sunday he cooked a Kuwaiti meal for 20 guests. Classmates also put up 15 percent of the first round of financing for Teshkeel.
“Business school made sense of my life,” says Al-Mutawa. “Up to that point I was doing this and then that. I remember having a conversation with Safwan [Masri, then vice dean of students and the MBA programs] about the School’s concern that I was just going to put up the degree on the wall and go get another one. I made a promise to myself that that wouldn’t happen,” he says.
He kept that promise when he established Teshkeel. The 99 will soon launch in Malaysia and Indonesia. In late August, the company started distributing free copies of The 99 in the United States in advance of the U.S. launch of the series in October. Teshkeel, which also distributes Archie, DC and Marvel comics in the Middle East, is preparing to diversify. It just received a license to publish an Arabic-English newspaper and is working on the first multicountry controlled circulation magazine based on the free newspaper model.
It is fitting that Al-Mutawa, an avid reader, is establishing his place in publishing. He didn’t read literature in Arabic until he was in his twenties because it was hard to find much that got through the censors that would captivate his interest. He devoured English-language books to feed his curiosity but even access to those could be limited: George Orwell’s Animal Farm was banned in Kuwait, not because of its political message, but because there was a pig on the cover. “So for me part of the project with The 99 is to provide content in the Arabic language that kids will want to read in the Arabic language.”
The 99 has faced some resistance. The magazine has not yet been approved in Saudi Arabia, although the characters appear every Friday as a full-color supplement in the Saudi paper with the largest circulation. “The censor who makes the decision about the magazine is different than the censor who makes the decision on newspapers,” Al-Mutawa explains.
But the censors haven’t stalled Al-Mutawa, and Teshkeel has received important support from Islamic institutions. Earlier this year the venture secured Sharia board approval from Unicorn Investment Bank of Bahrain (Sharia boards typically make assessments about whether or not an issue or course of action adheres to the tenets of Islam). Viewed as somewhat conservative, the bank provided not only financial backing but also crucial cultural buy-in that may help win over more Muslims with conservative tendencies who have often found Western comics at odds with their traditional values.
For Al-Mutawa, ultimately the 99 superheroes aren’t religious at their core, and he has often insisted that they “are based on underlying Islamic values that in truth are universal”— for example, the importance of teamwork: none of The 99 can succeed without help from at least two others.
“The real goal,” says Al-Mutawa, “is to teach kids that there’s more than one way to solve a problem.”
Al-Mutawa and The 99 are also the subject of an article in a recent issue of the Chazen Web Journal.