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‘I am not Latifa’: Meet the first female Saudi superhero

Fahad Al-Saud, CEO of Na3am and creative director of Latifa.
Stan Berkowitz, co-writer of Latifa, at Na3am’s booth at Saudi Comic Con. (AN photo by Lulwa Shalhoub)

Her name is Latifa (meaning “kind” in Arabic), yet she is ruthless and vindictive, living in a revolting future world.
Latifa, Saudi Arabia’s first female comic superhero, and her dystopian universe are the brainchild of Fahad Al-Saud, CEO and creative director of award-winning gaming and transmedia incubator Na3am (New Arab Media).
“Latifa was born, and it just kind of developed from there. I’m seeing her come to life now. I feel like my child has just graduated from high school,” Al-Saud, who co-writes the comic book with Stan Berkowitz, told Arab News.
“She accepted herself as a warrior and she’s committed, so I wanted her to talk to people who feel there’s a war beside them and are scared to come out.”
Latifa was introduced to audiences at the recent Saudi Comic Con in Jeddah, at which the turnout exceeded expectations.
“The fusion of Marvel and Na3am next to each other (means) you’ve got the outside example and the local example, so it’s a historic moment not just for Saudi and for Comic Con being here, but also for Saudi to receive and welcome its first superhero,” Rozan Ahmed, the editor of Latifa, told Arab News.
Al-Saud said the world of comics accompanied him from his childhood to his adulthood, and he decided to turn his passion into a profession. His favorite superheroes are the X Men, Psylocke and Storm.
The Stanford University graduate majored in mechanical engineering and studied management science, humanities and art history, which set a strong foundation for him. He said it taught him problem-solving skills and made him view the world differently.
“I grew up reading comic books. I learned English from reading comic books,” he said. “In every single comic book or video game with a female character, she has been my favorite. I think that whole experience just turned my hobby into my profession.”
Latifa, with her talking sword, is the first comic from the Saudi Girls Revolution (SGR) universe.
She is illiterate, always questioning her surroundings, and is on a mission to help those who are struggling around her. The concept of justice is strongly highlighted in her story.
Al-Saud said it was important for him to make stories about women that are not centered on a man, but he also wanted to keep a balance.
The sword Al-Faisal is robotic with male energy, and is a metaphor for her father, whom she lost as a child.
“The narrative is essentially about one big prison break. Latifa isn’t in the prison. There are other characters outside the prison who will get to know the people breaking out of the prison,” Berkowitz told Arab News.
“There seems to be an effort in the camp to change women. The women are only brought there if they’re rebellious. They’re delinquent, trouble-makers, free-thinkers and the plan is to make them docile citizens,” said Berkowitz, who also wrote for the “Justice League,” “Batman Beyond” and “Superman.”
For Al-Saud, the prison in the story can be seen from the readers’ perspective as limitations in the community or environment, limitations we impose on ourselves, or our fears. “This is a piece of art, and I’d love for people to interpret it in their way,” he said.
Al-Saud’s use of the word “revolutions” was his way of reclaiming this “buzzword” and giving it a different meaning.
He said the word has been charged with so much negativity, and he wanted to go back to what it actually meant.
It can be “changing something, evolving it into something better and challenging the status quo, but of course not for the sake of pushing back, for the sake of moving forward,” he said.
“The concept of revolution here is: Each girl in her own personal growth is going through a revolution. It’s a spiritual one, an identity one, a political one, a societal one, depending on that girl’s story.”
He added: “The revolution I wanted to start is having us reclaim our own identity, giving an opportunity for Arab women, and Saudi women specifically, who globally have been put into a box of oppression and regression.
“I wanted to change the narrative and rhetoric around women in comics, but also have the ones who are pioneers of change, stories of Saudi women who globally, for the last decade or so, have been seen as oppressed. I wanted to challenge that, so that’s what this revolution is about.”
Latifa’s world is 100 years in the post-apocalyptic future. About five years ago, when the project started, Al-Saud wondered what the world would look like in the future.
“The best way to see something is to imagine it in the future, to push us to an environment that’s completely different but also still similar,” he said.
“The work I’m doing with SGR is a way to creatively solve problems that I feel exist in our world today.”
The project is the result of a collaborative team effort. “The first thing I did was to collaborate with Stan,” Al-Saud said.
“There are people who are more skilled than me. It’s important for this project to reach the quality I intend, to release the ego and bring in experts and collaborate with them throughout the process, which is working out so far.”
The intention is to create something Saudis, Saudi females and global audiences are proud of. “I’m hoping to present audiences with so many options rather than just Latifa (in the future),” he added.
Saudi Comic Con also saw the newly launched Bedouin Blade game mobile phone app. “It’s Latifa’s first video game, and we’re also looking at a feature film,” said Ahmed.