Qais Sedki is a man on a mission. The 33-year-old Emirati is aiming to not only help young people of his country learn more about their heritage but also foster a love of reading. His method of choice is unique — using the Japanese manga format to tell the story of Gold Ring, in which Sultan, a 15-year-old Emirati, participates in a falconry competition.
"I didn't really see this happening [writing the first volume]. It was an awakening … many people don't question what they're doing, whether its work or otherwise … they just fall into that routine. But I came to the realisation that information technology [IT] was not my passion but rather something that I'm good at. I couldn't go on [like that].
"I needed to find my passion, which it turned out was neither IT nor manga but wanting to inspire or make an impact. Manga is the vehicle for me to that … but it's also fun to do," Sedki said, laughing. He went on to explain that creating Gold Ring represented his philosophy of doing something fun but socially responsible at the same time.
He felt that with manga, he could help revitalise interest in children to read, especially in Arabic. For his efforts, Sedki was presented with the Shaikh Zayed Book Award for Children's Literature.
"We always hear that [the] content doesn't motivate people to read … it's not that they aren't motivated but that the books are poorly produced and/or written. Some are gems but are badly represented … I think once people are presented with something that is attractive, they can judge because at the moment it seems that we can't compete with the quality of English books," Sedki said.
That was one of the reasons that he decided to seek out Japanese artists to develop the art in his story. But it wasn't because he didn't trust or believe in the quality of art that can be produced by Emirati artists.
"I sometimes get asked unfairly about [collaborating with] UAE artists on this ... I've seen their work, they're very talented and I look forward to working with them one day. But I'm the kind of person who likes to take the long way [to reach a goal]. That is, I decided to first go to Japan because that is the birthplace of manga and I wanted to learn all the nuances of [that field]. Afterwards, I'll definitely open the door to bring in Emirati artists to complete the cycle," Sedki said.
For research, Sedki went back to every anime [Japanese animation] series and manga he ever came across, watching and reading them with a more critical eye.
"I never really thought about what makes manga manga. But then I learnt various things, such as manga doesn't stick to a frame like Western [comics do]. It is sometimes borderless; it uses a lot of action words and even the numbering of the pages … its all kind of random. Also, a small side story may suddenly become the main part of the overall story," he said. "One thing I love about manga is that it's not so serious … the heroes have shortcomings and make mistakes but at the same time, when they need to, they step up to the plate. That is convincing for any reader because it shows that no matter what, you can do anything you want."
However, at the very beginning there was a small obstacle in his path — Sedki did not know anyone in Japan. But that was soon taken care of when he remembered that he had a childhood friend whose mother was Japanese.
"I needed some inroads into Japan but I didn't have any contacts … then I remembered my childhood friend and called him up … at that time I was very secretive about my project, even my close friends didn't know about it … I thought that he would be a good source of help so I told him about my idea.
"His mother went to the web and managed to get the contact [details] of a self-publishing wing of a big manga company, gave them a brief about what I wanted to do and they agreed to take it up. The rest, as they say, is history," he said.
One of the aims of Gold Ring's story, Sedki said, was to give UAE nationals a chance to look inwards, be proud of their culture and build a sense of self and at the same time mix in modern elements to make it "cool".
"I wrote various synopses based on that thought but the Gold Ring one kept calling to me to use it, so I did," Qais said. "But the more I worked on it, the more fun it became. Volume 1 was not just me using my imagination but I also received valuable feedback from the artists working on the story … a very good friend gave me some interesting ideas that I hope to use after volumes 2 and 3 … I'm very open to constructive criticism and any ideas that people may have about the story."
It took several years for the first volume to be completed. "It took a while because I'm new to this industry. But I hope it doesn't become a cycle," he said. "As for printing, for now I'm doing that in Japan because I want to focus on quality before I do that somewhere else. Distribution-wise, that is a bottleneck … I'm not as active as I should be but at the moment, the books are available in a number of outlets.
"When I first approached bookstores, I was shocked to learn the economic theories of the industry. There are a lot of middlemen, which causes you to lose a big chunk of your budget."
That led him to set up Pageflip Publishing, which is based in Dubai and focuses on original content classical Arabic graphic novels produced in authentic Japanese manga format.
Sedki admitted that he hasn't been as active on Gold Ring's Facebook page because for now it is still a one-man show. "I still haven't reached the stage where I can have a team following up on everything for me … but I feel very blessed with all that I have achieved. Many artists told me that they feel stifled and that they don't have a lot of support or acknowledgement. But I think that is changing … parents are now more accepting, plus Emiratis have a nice track record of changing people's perceptions … just look at all we have achieved," Sedki said. He was quick to acknowledge, however, that all this couldn't have been possible without the support of family members, who are his biggest fans.
Sedki especially credits his wife for her understanding because he has various dependants but she allowed him to pursue his passion, which is a rare opportunity for anyone.
"Every parent wants stability for their children so they may discourage them from fully pursuing their hobbies … but I'm lucky that my parents came on board and supported me, especially during the rough patches.
"My wife is incredibly understanding because to get this off the ground, I had to take 10 steps back … I have great respect for her for encouraging me to pursue this path," he said, smiling fondly.