Rediscovering My Roots Through Sanya Anwar’s 1001
By Trevor Abes
In 1972, when my dad was 15, he fled the Philippines with my aunts, uncles and grandparents to avoid persecution by the country’s rather handsome dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.
Marcos declared Martial Law that year, following widespread civil unrest at his graft and cronyism. Demonstrations, marches and protests, many of them catered with Molotov cocktails, were met with the ever customary police violence in the name of democracy. Marcos went a step further and silenced the press, arresting anyone he considered a threat against the state. Those of the opposition who evaded his grasp were blacklisted to be murdered, including a certain Liberal Party staffer I call lolo, aka my grandpa Abes. This sudden lack of an opposition allowed Marcos to seize companies and public institutions as gifts for family and a few choice bffs. Meanwhile, his supermodel wife, Imelda, spent millions in public funds on shoes, art and real estate in her self-appointed role as guiding light for the poor.
Those who loved old Ferdinand praised his military mindedness. He increased the country’s army from the mid sixty-thousands to over a quarter million in four years, and with it a general perception of safety. His friendliness with the U.S., from which the Philippines gained its independence in 1946, made his followers feel secure about the future. Still, lolo wasn’t going to stick around and get himself killed. He did what any sensible person would and boated it to Switzerland with his wife and kids — with the help of some shifty smugglers, may I add, because Martial Law entails closed borders — to nibble on some chocolate and weigh their options on neutral ground. My dad had learned French and enrolled in school by the time asylum offers came in. Africa stepped up, as did the United States, but Pierre Trudeau’s persistent roar was too much to pass up.
Fast-forward 42 years to me, typing on a dusty laptop in my Toronto apartment, feeling grateful lolo had the guile to haul ass when he did. To uproot and change plans so long as they happened in peace. The value of my family’s great escape, at least for present purposes, lies in its view of life as a succession of stories that don’t necessarily follow each other. They don’t follow because most of them are abandoned or postponed for a wealth of reasons of which boredom ranks low and murder by megalomaniacal dictator ranks quite high. Their stops and starts unravel the biographer’s illusion of life as linear progression, as one story with a plot of connected events, into you and the jumble of stuff you’ve done from birth til right now. A direction or life-path is myopic and can be wrought only in retrospect. In the moment, everything hinges on the agency and imagination needed to determine which story comes next.
Such is the case with Toronto-based Sanya Anwar’s 1001, her first solo comic. Anwar refashions the One Thousand and One Nights — a collection of Persian, Arabic, Indian and African stories that dates back to the 9th century — into a family tragicomedy driven by two orphaned sisters’ struggle to get by. The curious, mischievous Dunyazade is part of the cleaning staff at a local all-male academy, where she’s acquired alchemical skills far greater than any of its students. Scherezade, the eldest, transcribes legal documents in her uncle Farbod’s horse stable, where she’s left alone to daydream and write her fancies into fiction. The way these ladies look and act ties into a refreshing statement about sexuality in comics, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, a few words on the original One Thousand and One Nights. Though it has been released in countless editions over the centuries, with stories added, removed or mended to reflect the time and country of publication, they all share the same frame story.
Cantankerous King Shahryar finds out his wife cheated on him and has her killed. His manhood irreparably tarnished, he decides that all women are unfaithful by nature; yet, a wife’s company is still first priority. Shahryar’s solution is to marry women for the day and kill them by the next morning to prevent them from getting in someone else’s pants. This goes on until he sets his horny gaze on Scherezade. On her first night with him, which she hopes is not her last, Scherezade tells the king a story and ends it on a cliffhanger with the rising sun. The king demands she finish, but she declines, saying he’ll have to wait until the following night. He obliges, but she manages to extend her story until the next night, and the next, a total of 1001 times.
Scherezade’s story doesn’t have a tightly woven plot as you’d imagine in a novel. A character from night eight may become the narrator of a separate tale on night nine, in which a separate character does the same, forming chains of stories within stories. Each raises the question: will Scherezade get out alive? In all known versions, the answer is yes, but it’s unclear how 1001 will play out. By the end of the latest issue (#2) — read both here — Shahryar’s goons are just getting around to capturing her.
Anwar draws heavily on Art Nouveau, a European style that favours ornamentation, strong colour and rhythmic, undulating lines, the suggestion being that anything could flow naturally in and out of anything else. Anwar takes after Alphonse Mucha, one of its most famous proponents. Both are masters of the facial expression and show considerable restraint in the number of colours used per page or illustration. There’s an Eastern-Western fusion to be explored here, since 1001 is set in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age, sometime between the years 700-1200 when the Arab world represented the forefront of knowledge. It’s an interesting meeting because Art Nouveau’s sensual, elegant curves are in a sense reactionary; specifically, against the starkness and lack of dynamism in Gothic revival architecture. One question worth asking then is what is 1001 reacting to and what does it have to do with retelling a twelve-hundred-year-old story today?
A good place to start is to say that 1001 offers an alternative to mainstream comics’ oversexualization of the human body. Anwar’s bodies are no doubt attractive, but not in the idealized and fetishized way of, say, Milo Manara’s variant cover to the upcoming Spider Woman #1. Instead of basking in gratuitous asses-in-air, Anwar takes a subtler approach by imbuing every object with sultriness, every figure with some level of passion. She doesn’t hit you over the head with tits or ass because she draws set scenes, finely balanced so that her characters’ movements and features play just as well off a pawn shop entrance as they do an apple on the floor. Her use of anatomy is inseparable from the rest of the panel and page. Everything flows in and out of everything else. Anwar doesn’t equate eroticism with a character’s worth, she allows it to be one more source of value, visible to those who care to look. The small of Scherezade’s back as she changes in haste, late to deliver copies of an important treaty. A gentle bite on her lower lip as she’s deep in thought, searching for the next line in her latest story. Anything more would be overdoing it and a slight to the original book’s faith in the immersive power of narration.
The One Thousand and One Nights is, after all, a literal look at a bit of self-deprecating humour many of us have heard before. A friend or family member is asked to share an anecdote, and they quickly pass the task to someone else, saying, “I can’t tell a story to save my life!” Sadly for her, lucky for us, Scherezade hasn’t the option. She must bet on herself, speak up and be heard, whether or not the situation fits into what she thought her life would be.
What 1001’s Art Nouveau influence ultimately means for the characters is a shift of focus. Their appearances recede from the spotlight, leaving their actions front and centre. An important feat given the industry standard’s one-track-minded point of view.
The story continues here.
Trevor Abes is a writer and editor with a penchant for conceptual art.