Dubai – Last April, I visited Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I went there to cover two events and my hotel was basically inside the exhibition pavilion. I’d already seen a lot of things that were different from my daily life, but I could never imagine that a guy dressed as Pikachu would pass by me in the middle of an Arab country. I couldn’t be more wrong… So, even if Pokémon Go was out of date, I thought it would be nice to follow that Pikachu and see where he was going. He was laughing with a group of friends dressed as characters I didn’t know and crossed the lobby.
On the other side, he went into a pavilion. The Middle East Film & Comic Con was occurring there. Pikachu got a wristband to get in and he was gone. I stood at the doorway. Turned away at a half-Arab, half-Japanese Pokémon party? Not today! I talked with the reception personnel and explained I was a journalist, asked if I could come in to take a look and try and write a story (so here I am, paying my debt). She explained that was the last day of the convention, only two hours left before it was over, but she let me in. The show had books, comics, games, and an exhibition of illustrators and graphic artists.
I walked through that convention that was so unlike the others I had visited. A karaoke stand after a game stand, boys and girls, men and women. A Chewbacca cosplay fighting a ninja cosplay in a hallway. A T-rex, or was it a Godzilla? The most surreal was not the costumes themselves, but the mix. I was already used seeing people wearing traditional Arab clothes. But a boy dressed like that with his face painted like a zombie? Jeez. Maybe that’s why they say Dubai is a cosmopolitan city.
Forty minutes before Comic Con ends, I was deep in it. And I arrived at the part I liked the most: comics! Dozens of stands with hundreds of them. Leafing through the pages, Dubai prices. OK, better leave it. I already have more books than I’ll be able to read this year, anyway… I decided to see the independent artists’ stands. One of the best decisions I made during that trip.
In a corridor full of tables, most of the exhibitors were packing up their stuff to close their participation at the show. But a girl remained seated. I got closer and saw the drawings at the wall behind her. I asked her if she was the designer. She kept staring at me while I was talking. She answered with gestures, first pointing a finger to half of the drawings and to another artist’s card, and then to the other half and to the name she uses on Instagram, Ko, written at a paper in front of her. Maybe she only speaks Arabic, I thought. But she understood me, and I understood her, so that was enough.
I could see her admiration for the Japanese drawings in her illustrations. I was happy to see a cute penguin in one of the buttons. “I’ll take this,” I pointed and produced AED 15 out of my wallet. Then I noticed an open notebook on the table, where people left messages. She smiled and handed me a pen. I wrote: “Your drawings are beautiful! Thanks. Hugs from Brazil! Thais.” As I put my little penguin away, my new friend read the message. She grinned at me and gestured for a hug. So, I understood Ko was hearing-impaired. She looked closely at me so she could read my lips. And she would answer with gestures because I couldn’t understand sign language.
Then, she went around the table and gave me the hug I had promised on my note. One of the best I’d ever received! Ko, who understood both English and Arabic, also taught me to say “Thais” in sign language. Her kindness is one of the sincerest memories I have from anyone. So, I asked her to take a picture and she explained to me she could not appear on pictures because of her religion. Therefore, I took pictures of her drawings.
I said her goodbye and used the last minutes of Comic Con to search for other girls’ works. Close by, I found two friends that shared a desk. Both were Muslims and went to the show together. The designer and architect Zahra’a Nasralla was exhibiting her handcrafted notebooks with Coptic bindings. The 22-years-old Val, a design student, was selling her drawings and stickers. When I asked them if they had a drawing in another format, they told me they took orders and asked me where I lived. I laughed and said: “I don’t think that’s a good idea because I live in Brazil.” They were both surprised and excited to know their drawings could travel so far.
A few minutes before Comic Con ended, I went back through the corridors looking at all those people. Illustrators, exhibitors and pop-culture lovers were gathering to leave. Among American and Japanese drawings and movies, Pokémon along the way, finding those young female artists was much more than I could expected of an evening in Dubai.
Translated by Guilherme Miranda