By Danica Davidson
Josh Neufeld (“A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge,” “The Influencing Machine”) has been Eisner-nominated for his webcomic “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand,” which gives both a journalistic and personal perspective to recent uprisings in the Middle East. After visiting the small country of Bahrain, Neufeld became friends with local political cartoonists Mohammed and Sara, and soon learned that the two have very different opinions about what’s going on in their nation. Using their experiences — and some of their cartoons — Neufeld applied the comics medium to inform people about what’s happening in Bahrain. The piece has been translated into Italian, will probably be in Farsi soon for a liberal Iranian website, and Neufeld has been given the Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship to study more on Bahrain.
MTV Geek: What can you tell us about “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand”?
Josh Neufeld: It came about from a trip I made with the State Department as a cultural ambassador of sorts. My previous book, “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” was critical in some ways of the government response to Hurricane Katrina, and the State Department found that it was a useful example of our country’s freedom of expression. So they asked me if I would like to travel to countries that don’t have that freedom and talk about it in that context. I went to the small country of Bahrain, which is a monarchy with a Sunni minority in control and a Shia majority. They’re very free in some ways compared to other Arab countries, but they have a very controlled press. During that trip, I made some appearances at universities, arts organizations and journalist organizations, where I met editorial cartoonists and aspiring political cartoonists. I met two twenty-year-old kids, a young man and a young woman, whom I stayed in touch with on Facebook. When the Arab Spring movement started to take place in 2011, Bahrain underwent its own upheaval. Through Facebook I determined pretty quickly that the two young people I’d made friends with were on opposite sides of that struggle going on in Bahrain. So my piece documents that whole story.
The story is very much about social media, which has also been a big part of the so-called Arab Spring movements. Without Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LiveStream, many of these uprisings never would have gotten off the ground. In the story, I try to illustrate that through conversations I had with the subjects via Facebook, and also show how the Bahrain government used Facebook to identify and later punish demonstrators. And of course both Mohammed and Sara publish their cartoons exclusively online.
My story is also exclusively online.
Geek: Did you go to Bahrain planning to write something about it?
Neufeld: No, though I always wonder if my experiences will lead to something. I’m not a typical journalist in that I don’t troll the news wires looking for a story. I look for things I have a connection to on an emotional level and turn it into a story. It was after being in Bahrain I saw the potential for a story and telling both sides to the story, though I think the reader will come to the conclusion that my empathy is more on the side of the oppressed majority of Shiites than the ruling Sunni party.
Geek: Do you hope people will learn more about Bahrain through this?
Neufeld: I think you can’t help but learn, because 99% of Americans don’t know anything about Bahrain, just as I didn’t before going to the country. It’s really small, very far away and not a lot of news gets out. Whenever I do work, I hope it can enlighten, because that’s why I do nonfiction comics.
Geek: Are there any hopes or plans to get it in print form?
Neufeld: I think what I wrote is a boiled down version of the whole story. I would like to expand what I have and it would easily be a full-length book. I would hope to use this webcomic as a spring board for a larger project.
Geek: What do Mohammed and Sara think of it?
Neufeld: Mohammed, I think, felt I did him a great service. He and his friends on Facebook have been very grateful and feel I’ve helped to spread the word of what’s going on in Bahrain. There’s been a lot of tweeting of the story around the Middle East.
Sara wasn’t as happy with the story. At the same time, she doesn’t accuse me of misquoting her or misrepresenting her opinion. She says I didn’t get enough information to get the “true story.” But I think that’s something the reader gets out of this story: both sides have very few things they agree on, even things we consider facts about what happened where and when. They have trouble finding common ground even on things that were factually documented.
Geek: How did you learn it had been nominated for an Eisner?
Neufeld: I actually got a heads up from one of the administrators that I should look for it the next morning. That was pretty cool!
Geek: What are you working on now?
Neufeld: My current project is a 35-page comics piece for The Atavist, a boutique publisher producing original nonfiction stories for mobile reading devices. A collaboration with journalist Tori Marlan, our piece tells the harrowing true story of a young Ethiopian boy’s illegal migration from South Africa to the U.S — all in comics form and with accompanying multimedia components. It should debut in July.