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International Character Watch #1

Country of the day - Afghanistan.

Afghanistan occupies an interesting place in the American mind. It was only after Rambo III that Americans learnt of this nation's existence. Even then, for a number of years, it was assumed to be your generic Middle Eastern country with camels and sand and still more sand. However after the events of September 11th, 2001, the country burst into the public consciousness. Suddenly everyone was offering expert commentary on this unfortunate state. Pop-culture gurus were not to be left behind. You had Afghan villains appearing in obscure Hollywood flicks, and reams of pulp fiction being churned out on the plight of the burqa-clad brigade.

It was only natural that comic books would follow suit. And so they did. Since 2002 Marvel Comics has introduced two Afghan characters into their pantheon. One is an established character, who was retroactively revealed to have been brought up in war-torn Kabul, while the other is an entirely new character. Interestingly, both are women - an oppressed minority in an inhuman patriarchal society. This made them ideal candidates for the X-books, which have always been written against a background of a prejudiced world that hates those it does not understand.

Character 1:

Name: Sooraya Qadir
Age: mid-teens
Code Name: Dust
Powers: Can convert her body into a cloud of abrasive dust.
Introduced: In December 2002, in New X-Men by Grant Morrison
Currently in: New X-Men: Academy X by Nunzio DeFillipis and Christina Weir
USP: Raised in a conservative Sunni Muslim family, she never appears in the open without her burqa and shows strict obedience towards figures of authority.

Background: She was found by Wolverine in a camp on the outskirts of Kabul, while he was on a mission to extend a helping hand to oppressed mutants in countries where the X-Corporation had no presence. She had manifested her mutant powers during an attempted rape and killed her would-be rapists by chafing the flesh off their bones. Wolverine brought her to the nearest branch of X-Corporation, in Mumbai, and she later joined the class of special students at the Xavier Academy, taking the code name of Turaab (later changed to Dust). She remained loyal to Xavier during Magneto's attack on New York, even though her classmates switched loyalties.

Current Status: After the school restarted, she joined regular classes and became one of the regular cast members of New Mutants (later New X-Men: Academy X), the book that focused on the students of the school. She is a member of the Hellions house, under the charge of Emma Frost. She has never questioned the orders of her team leader, often in spite of her own feelings. Her relationship with her roommate, Noriko, a brash low-rise jeans-wearing feminist from a rival house is one of the plot points of the current book. The differing ideologies of the two girls leads to frequent clashes and the authors have cleverly avoided taking sides in the argument.

Character 2:

Name: Tessa (last name unknown)
Age: early thirties
Code Name: Sage
Powers: Her mind is a living computer.
Introduced: In March 1987, in Classic X-Men by Chris Claremont
Revealed as Afghan: In 2004, in X-Treme X-Men by Chris Claremont
Currently in: Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont
USP: She was Xavier's first student, but he made her his spy in the Hellfire Club. Constant betrayals have hardened her to a point where she trusts no one.

Background: Tessa was introduced as the Black Rook of the Hellfire Club, right hand of the Black King and power behind the throne. Using her mental powers, she became the most trusted member of the club. However, she was not herself evil, and she did help the X-Men out on a number of occasions, though there was no mutual trust between them. Much later, after the dissolution of the Club, Tessa reappeared and was revealed to have been Xavier's mole inside the Hellfire Club. Apparently as a teenager, she saved his life in Kabul, killing a gang of bandits. He trained her, but did not consider her worthy to be an X-Man, relegating her instead to a demeaning and secretive life in the highly misogynist Hellfire Club. It seems she turned away from him due to this treatment, but her exact feelings are never known. She joined the team of the one X-Man she trusted, Storm, before they fell out with Xavier and went their own way.

Current Status: Sage's recent actions have been inexplicable to say the least. She left the team and rejoined her former mentor in an attempt to restart teh club, but caused a fight and ended up installing a new Black King, at the same time installing notable villains as members. She seems to have a grand plan, but nobody knows what it is, thus leading to frictions with her old teammates who are not sure if they can trust her.

So here we have two characters - one who was just shoehorned into a role and expected to fit it, and another who was built up from scratch. Its quite obvious who is more believable. Apart from Tessa's flashback scene 17 years after she was introduced, revealing her first meeting with Xavier, there has never been any indication of her Afghani heritage. Claremont just picked the only character whose past had not been revealed and retroactively cast her as Afghan. The fact that her mutation causes her skin to be deathly pale helped, as her ethnicity was hitherto unverifiable. But her retro-nationality was clearly just a gimmick because her only overriding characteristic is super-secretiveness. She could just as well have been Finnish, and it wouldn't have affected anything. Nor is this the first time Claremont has pulled such a rabbit out of a hat. Around the same time, he revealed Bishop to be aborigine, effectively taking the total number of African-American X-Men to zero.

On the other hand, Sooraya has been beautifully handled. She is not written as a mute victim, but as a girl whose actions are dictated by her strong religious beliefs. She chooses to wear the burqa out of choice, not compulsion (there is a beautiful scene with her mother where she explains her ideas of modesty). In another beautiful Morrison-esque touch, it is revealed that she is technically naked when she changes to dust form, so her power offers her all the freedom she needs. She is not a fundamentalist but quietly firm. This together with her inability to question authority are perfectly in synch with her purported background. This is how comic characters should be written.

hmmm, i thought there weren't going to be any comments here...?

either way, this is interesting stuff, g9. Though if you do plan to make it the 'daily' bugle...that's quite ambitious, no?:)
are there more references to Islamic fundamentalists / afghans that hve come up recently? Would be interesting to know...

quite agree with vague. didn't try o comment before 'cause thought they weren't allowed.
i love the idea of this blog, DO try to post more often.

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