CAIRO (AFP) — Neither censors nor "Orientalist" stereotypes have dampened demand for the cartoon adventures of Belgian boy reporter Tintin, who has stoked the imagination of generations of Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf.
Created in the middle years of the 20th century, Tintin spent more time in the Arab world than anywhere else, in four books: "Cigars of the Pharaoh," "The Crab with the Golden Claws," "Land of Black Gold" and "The Red Sea Sharks."
"It's extraordinary that Tintin came here so many times and still has so many friends," according to Tunisian academic Issam Marzouki.
Opium smuggling, the scramble for Middle Eastern oil, the slave trade and more were all sources of adventure and -- to this day -- controversial storylines for Tintin's Belgian creator, the illustrator Herge.
"Reading Tintin when I was a child was like seeing yourself in a magical but distorting mirror," said Marzouki, insisting that "Herge's way of looking at the Arabs kept on evolving, renewing itself."
But the end of the relationship a year ago between Belgian publishing giant Casterman and Egyptian publisher Dar al-Maaref, which had the right to print Tintin in Arabic for 30 years, means the daring reporter with the trademark quiff is no longer available in Arabic.
"Being absent from the Arab world is most regrettable when you think that Tintin is translated into 80 languages around the world," Casterman's head of international publishing, Willy Fadeur, told AFP by telephone from Brussels.
"We couldn't continue with... alternating black and white and colour pages," he said.
Dar al-Maaref declined to comment on the end of the relationship.
Nevertheless, in this centenary year of Herge's birth, the Arab world still reads Tintin in English and French, apparently ignoring the charges of racism and colonialism levelled at the books in Europe and Africa.
"Cliches and stereotypes, sure, but nothing harmful, and Herge refined his view of the Arabs throughout the series... as well as his use of written and spoken Arabic," said Marzouki. "But the adventure is the most important thing."
Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy find plenty of adventures in exotic deserts, with angry Bedouins, oases and mirages that lead his some-time companions Captain Haddock and the Thompson twins into increasingly bizarre misadventures.
Tintin first travelled to the Middle East in "Cigars of the Pharaoh" in 1934.
The book made the most of the Egyptomania sweeping Europe at the time following the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, set against the background of the Arab revolt at the end of the Ottoman empire.
In 1941's "The Crab with the Golden Claws," Tintin travelled to French-protectorate Morocco to uncover drug traffickers before going to the Arabian peninsula in "Land of Black Gold," one of Herge's most heavily revised books.
That adventure, printed in 1950, sees Tintin travel through British-mandated Palestine where Jewish and Arab nationalists are fighting each other.
Tintin ends up being mistakenly captured by militants from both sides, although a new edition published in 1970 removed that episode.
Instead, the intrepid Tintin now travels straight to the imaginary land of Khemed (Saudi Arabia) where British and German oil companies scheme and squabble to take control of the natural resources.
"And that's where we see Herge attacking Western interference, just as he showed his humanist vision against slavery in "The Red Sea Sharks," Lebanese academic Sophie Nicolaides-Salloum told AFP.
The 1958 book sees Tintin smash a slave-trafficking ring under cover of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia set against the rivalry between Prince Ben Kalish Ezab -- a liquorice drink in Brussels dialect -- and the anti-Western Sheikh Bab el-Ehr (babble).
Without giving a reason, Egyptian authorities have now censored the book and forbidden its importation, said Zeina Badran who heads Cairo's biggest Francophone bookshop.
Despite the publishing prohibitions, illegal parodies continue to hit the market, including "Tintin in Lebanon," "Tintin in the Gulf" and most recently "Tintin in Iraq."
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