I would be hard pressed to pick a better mascot for the United States as an imperial hegemon than Mickey Mouse. In Egypt — as with most of the “developing world” — Mr. Mouse is ubiquitous: you can see his big round eyes staring at you on the side of taxi cabs, through the glass windows of clothing stores, and from the cover of popular comic books. In fact, it is in this latter form that many Egyptians have come to know and love Mickey Mouse, or rather have come to know and love “Mîkî.”
In 1959, Egyptian publisher Dar Al-Hilal began printing Mickey Mouse and friends comics geared towards children in the form of a weekly magazine simply called Miki. Through a licensing agreement with Disney, the comics were translated from English into Arabic for an eagerly receptive Arab audience (eager enough to warrant 70,000 to 80,000 weekly copies at the height of Miki’s popularity) with all the original artwork in tact. This arangment continued until 2003 when Disney fees became “exorbitant” according to Dar-Al-HIlal and the publishing house Nahdat Misr took over the duty of giving Mickey to the masses.* What I will examine today is how Dar Al-HIlal altered the comics in translation to effectively localize Mickey Mouse for an Egyptian audience and how this localization made Mickey Mouse a beloved vessel of Western imperialism.
In their seminal historical overview of Middle Eastern comics Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture, Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas fittingly call Mickey’s transition into Arabic “The Egyptianization of Mickey Mouse.” As they observe, Mickey Mouse’s localization included embedding two pages of indigenous comics before the translated ones, adding non-comic pages with games such as crossword puzzles, renaming the Disney characters with Arab names, and creating new regionally specific covers.** Therefore as Minnie Mouse became Mimi and Uncle Scrooge became Amm Dahab (which literally translates into “Uncle Gold”), Miki marketed itself as a unique Arab product rather than a re-presentation of an already established American product. Perhaps the best way to illustrate just how Egyptian Mickey became in this process is by looking at a sample of covers from Miki magazines I have accumulated from Cairo’s book markets.
In this first cover Mickey, Minnie, and their illegitimate mice kin are seen celebrating Mawlid, better known to those outside of Egypt as the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday or Islamic Christmas. The illustration depicts Mickey climbing up a ladder to Minnie in front of a mosque and is embedded with a plethora of Mawlid symbology. The circles around Minnie are a reference to the edible treat Arusta-el Mawlid and the other mice are dressed in typical Mawlid dress (including the hat). On the building there is well-known Islamic script that reads “there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger,” while on the horse (another Mawlid staple) it states “Bless the Prophet.” In short, Mickey is very much in the spirit of celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
In this second cover, a gravity-defying Mickey is seen making the Ramadan treat kunefe (that is the special dough in his hand) in front of a storefront for “Mickey’s Kunefe.” Furthermore, he is wearing a traditional Egyptian galabia and cap associated with piousness. We can see another example of Mickey ready for Ramadan in this vintage ad for Miki magazine that ran in a 1956 issue of the popular children’s magazine Samir:
Here Mickey is studying the sheet music for his drum, which during Ramadan is played in the streets pre-sunrise to wake people so that they can eat and drink before the day of fasting. Up top the advertisement wishes you “Happy Ramadan.” I could literally continue with examples like this for quite some time (there is, after all, over forty years of Mickey being localized), but I will offer just one more quintessential instance of Mickey’s Egyptification:
This scene from a 1950’s Miki illustrates the Mouse steering a bunch of children through the streets on a horse drawn cart. If you’ve ever walked the streets of Egypt during Eid than you will instantly get how well this illustration references the culture of which it is trying to assimilate. The takeaway throughout these illustrations is that Mickey is Egyptian: he will make your kunefe, bang your wake up drum, and take your children and his horse around the streets on Eid. Through this localization process, Mickey’s point of origin is obscured even though the majority of the magazine’s content remains distinctly American. Indeed, most Egyptian children may not know what Disneyland is, yet their sense of ownership to Mickey is as strong as any regular park-goers.
As was the case of Superman’s translation into Arabic, the perceived ownership of Mickey Mouse by an Arab audience exemplifies the pervasive reality of American imperialism. I have little doubt that this particular point is made more thoroughly by the remarkably-relevant and sadly out-of-print How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971), written in Spanish by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart about how Disney comics spread capitalist ideals throughout Latin America and the rest of the developing world. In their Marxist critique of Mickey and friends, Dorfman and Mattelart specifically observe how the relationship between Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and his nephews is more commercially centered than familial (potently pointing out the conspicuous absence of mothers and fathers among the Disney characters). As Harold Hinds summarizes in his 1978 review of the book:
“[Uncle Scrooge and company] frequently set off on adventurous vacations, trips back to nature where they discover child-like noble savages. These simplistic, caricatured natives of the Third World benevolently enrich the adventurers. The undeveloped peoples innocently do not realize that the treasure or raw materials are valuable and are genuine products of their own labor or of a past culture from which they are descended. These fleeced natives also lack the wisdom of Donald’s nephews, who frequently must assert adult values, since Donald fails to. Incidentally, the nephews thereby internalize adult values, and thus ensure their own ‘colonization,’ while simultaneously colonizing the Third World adults.”
Indeed, this framework is visible throughout many of the adventures in the Arab-translated Miki magazines, including the time when Amm Dahab and the boys decide to vacation in Egypt. In need of rest after waddling through the Giza desert, Uncle Scrooge yelps when he mistakingly sits on a pointy object. Upon further inspection, he realizes that the object is the tip of an undiscovered pyramid buried in the sand.***
Although he initially argues they should abandon their find, Uncle Scrooge soon realizes that the king’s treasure might be sealed away in the pyramid. A few panels later, Amm Dahab (again, Uncle Gold) has hired a full crew of Disney Arabs to dig out his pyramid so he can claim the treasure.
After the pyramid is excavated, Amm Dahab uses a hieroglyphics translation book to find the room where the treasure is kept. Of course, to give the story the sort of comedic finale that the Disney audience had come to expect, there is no treasure, just a note from the King explaining he used all his fortune to build the pyramid. Like all good stories, it ends with Uncle Scrooge chasing Donald with his walking cane.
With Dorfman and Mattelart’s text in mind, this Duck tail reads as a remarkably imperialist narrative. The Western ducks discover a historical landmark that the Disney Arabs were incapable of finding on their own and what naturally follows their act of discovery in a foreign land is their immediate sense of ownership (Christopher Columbus much?). Furthermore, we as readers are lead to believe that the pyramids do not possess inherent value for their historical and cultural significance, but only for their ability to hold potential treasure. You see, without this treasure it wouldn’t have been worth digging out the pyramid, not worth hiring the cheap Arab labor. Lastly, we see the popular trope of Pharaonic culture being used as shorthand for all of Egyptian culture. In other words, traveling to Egypt for the Ducks is traveling into the past, not into a different contemporary culture.
Ultimately, I believe the real harm of this story is that it was tucked within the pages of a comic’s magazine that had Mickey wishing young readers Happy Ramadan or celebrating Mawlad on the cover. Mickey was localized insomuch as he could help Disney sell more comics globally, extending their commercial reach deep in to an emerging comic’s market. To be an avid Miki fans means to be an avid internalizer of the importance of capitalism and hence a way of seeing the world that makes certain countries first and others third. Mickey Mouse certainly has a big place in the history of Arab comics, but I believe it is a history whose depth we must challenge and whose psychological harm may be immeasurable.
*A full account of the publishing history can be found in the 2004 Al-Ahram Weekly article “My Favorite Mouse.”
** In the chapter “Mickey in Cairo, Ramsîs in Paris,” Douglas and Malti-Douglas go on to examine the salience of four indigenous strips that ran before the translated Disney pages of Miki in 1972. I would love to explore these strips in greater detail — especially the bizarre “Ramsîs in Paris” which recasts the Pharaonic figure in contemporary times as a living statue who escapes a life of boredom in Egypt for the perceived excitement of Paris, only to find Paris (i.e. the West) isn’t all that great — but that would be too extraneous for the purposes of this post. I instead encourage you to check out Arab Comic Strips or, at very least, look how weird Ramsis looks:
*** The following scans come via this useful site.