Hergé was the Jules Verne of the bande dessinée, the comic-book genre he invented (bande dessinée is French for, literally, "drawn strip," amended in English somewhat inaccurately to comic strip, at least as far as the French and Belgian productions of Tintin, Asterix, Tanguy and Laverdure and other classics of the genre are concerned). Like Verne, who wrote 100 novels set around the world but did much of his research in Paris' National library, Hergé used his imagination and his readings to infuse Tintin's life with its worldliness.
Tintin in the Middle East
Between 1929 and 1976 Hergé featured Tintin in the Arab world or the Middle East in four of the 23 "albums" Hergé published during his career:
- In Cigars of the Pharaoh (1934), Tintin is in Egypt as Hergé, soon after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, exploits European enthusiasm for all thin gs Egyptian.
- In The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), Tintin is off to Morocco, hunting drug lords.
- In Land of Black Gold, an album that witnessed three editions and three different stories before it was published in its final form in 1970, Tintin ends up in Saudi Arabia, on the hunt for German saboteurs of the oil trade.
- In Coke en Stock, rendered in English as The Red Sea Sharks (1958), one of Hergé's more ambitious and daring stories has Tintin tackling the African slave trade on the road to Mecca.
Every one of the albums (as French-language readers refer to the books) skirts a fine line between stereotype and social commentary, sometimes illustrating one, sometime the other.
Tintin and Arab Oil
The swing is especially apparent in Land of Black Gold. It was Tintin's 15th adventure. The stereotypes are there--the oily rebel, the muezzin's chants, the obvious connection between Arabs and oil, the rich sheikh, the German trouble-maker.
But the fictional Arab world Hergé createsis merely a canvas for what turns out to be a rather conventional plot: auto engines are exploding everywhere in Europe. Tintin, ever the investigative reporter (who never once files a story) gets curious. His curiosity leads him to an attempted plot by a German operative to disrupt world oil supplies and provoke global war, with a subplot involving the rebel Bab El Ehr looking to overthrow Ben Kalish Ezab.
Hergé's astuteness comes through. He could see clearly the central and potentially disruptive role oil would play in world economies as far back as the 1930s. But Tintin catches the bad guys and returns home without too many surprising adventures along the way. It's as if Hergé had cleaned up his story so as not to offend.
Erasing the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
The very first edition of Land of Black Gold, in strip form in the magazine Tintin, began to appear in October 1939, just a few weeks into the beginning of World War II. By the time Tintin is wandering the desert looking for water in Hergé's fictional world, the German army has invaded Belgium in the real world. Hergé abandons Tintin where he was until 1948, when he rewrites the story to reflect the Arab-Jewish-British conflict burning through Palestine at the time, and the creation of Israel. Tintin's ship lands him in Palestine, where he is soon kidnapped by terrorists from the Irgun (the extremist Jewish group once led by Menahem Begin, the future prime minister), then by an Arab terrorist group (that of Bab El Ehr): Hergé had no allegiances with either, but decried terrorism. The story reflected the tensions and bloodletting so common between Jews, Arabs and British forces at the time, again reflecting Hergé's ability to see endless conflict for what it would become.
In that 1948 version, Bab El Ehr's men drop Tintin in the desert, from where Tintin then manages to escape and resume his hunt for the oil saboteurs.
By 1970, Hergé and his editors thought the story outdated--at least officially. He rewrote it again, or rather, deleted all allusions to the Arab-Israeli conflict and its trigger-happy British fuses, reducing the book to its current form: an adventure in what appears to be Saudi Arabia with more suggestions of humor than political commentary. It's a shame: the previous version was closer to reality, the latter one more comic-like.
Were Hergé and his editor trying to appease Arab readers--or publishers? If so, it didn;t work. Tintin is translated in some 80 languages. But not Arabic. He has legions of readers in the Arab world, but in French or English or Italian or other languages.