On the Passing of Suleiman Bakhit—a Modern-Day Superhero

Suleiman Bakhit, who died of cancer in August at the age of 41, was widely recognized and revered for his work as the creator of comic books that feature superheroes based on Arabic traditions and culture which give Middle Eastern youth, both male and female, positive role models as alternatives to extremist leaders. 

photo courtesy of Human Rights Foundation
(Photo courtesy of Human Rights Foundation)

In 2012, Bakhit discussed many of the experiences that shaped his mission in life up to that point in an interview on the TED Blog (Technology, Entertainment, Design).  

Bakhit recalled :

“During the time of the Libyan civil war, another TED Fellow, Adrian Hong, and I found out through our contacts that there were a lot of injured civilians that needed medical attention. We started lobbying, creating sort of a channel between Libya and Jordan to try and help some of the injured civilians come to Jordanian hospitals. The ball got rolling, and I am happy to say that over 15,000 injured civilians got treated in Jordanian hospitals.” 

While attending the University of Minnesota, Bakhit was president of the international student union, where attacks against Middle Eastern and Arab students started almost immediately following 9/11. He began an awareness campaign about the violence, which garnered significant media coverage and resulted in a public apology to international students issued by the state district attorney. However, in retaliation, Bakhit was attacked by four college students on his way home late one night and beaten so severely with beer bottles, his recovery required surgeries.

Bakhit did not give up in the face of intolerance and adversity:

“As I recovered, I thought, “Well, either I pack my bags and go home to Jordan, or I do something.” And I decided the best way to fight racism is to start with the young. So I began talking to schoolchildren ages 6 and 7 about Middle Eastern culture and what happened to me on 9/11, spreading a very simple message: Not all Middle Easterners are terrorists, and Al Qaeda is like the KKK.”

Bakhit spent time speaking in classrooms about Arab and Middle East traditions, especially the stories of those cultures, including Aladdin and Sinbad. What he found repeatedly was that the students were particularly interested in whether there were any Arab superheroes such as an Arab Superman or Arab Batman or an Arab Barbie. Bakhit realized that although there were characters from Arab history, “no one [had] ever done an animation or comic book based on the actual mythology from within the culture.”

For the next several years, Bakhit did extensive research on ancient Arab history and artifacts, taught himself to draw and began creating characters based on Arab culture. 

“Eventually, I became so convinced that this was my calling—creating characters and stories based in Arab tradition to spread the culture of tolerance—I dropped out of my master’s program in human resource development, went back to Jordan and in 2006 registered my company, Aranim—which comes from a combination of ‘Arab’ and ‘anime.’ (There is no Arabic word for animation, so I had to come up with something.)”

Bakhit quickly developed his company into a force to be reckoned with in the militant environment of the times. Learning through trial and error and hiring local Jordanian programmers, Aranim became “the only Arab company in the entire Arab world that creates social games in-house at the quality that we do.” As a result, he was awarded a grant to create a “massive city-building social game to teach youth positive social values when it comes to urban planning.” 

However, Bakhit’s new ventures promoting tolerance through positive role models drew the ire of extremists. Once again he was attacked.

“One of them hit me with a razor blade in my face. He was trying to take out one of my eyes. Because it was late at night and I drive a motorbike, I had to cauterize my own wound with a pocketknife before getting to a hospital. That’s how I ended up with a big, massive scar on my face. But … I got attacked by racists in the US and extremists here — so I must be doing something right.”

Bakhit pushed forward with his dreams, never letting adversity stop him. In 2014, he participated in the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum, where in a presentation called “Superheroes Against Extremism,” he spoke about the lessons he had learned. It is well worth the listen.

In a tribute to Bakhit published in the National Review this August, author Jay Nordlinger recalls some of the things Bakhit had to say at that forum:

“Bakhit says that little kids in Jordan were admiring bin Laden, Zarqawi, and other terrorist monsters, because at least those monsters were strong and ‘honorable.’ He wanted to give them other figures to admire: superheroes.”
”The biggest problem in the Middle East, says Suleiman Bakhit, is ‘terrorism disguised as heroism.’ We must have a David to slay this Goliath of a lie, he says. And ‘the comic book is our slingshot.’”

In 2015, Bakhit founded the Hero-Factor project, described by Human Rights Foundation as “an organization dedicated to promoting heroism as an antidote to extremism for Middle Eastern youth. Suleiman believed that cultivating a heroic moral imagination among children is the most effective technology for defeating the allure of terrorism and disrupting the vast recruitment networks of terrorist organizations.”

Bakhit’s untimely passing drew expressions of praise and sorrow for the loss of such a visionary:

“With Suleiman’s passing, the world has lost a wonderful man: a warrior-poet with a strong and loving heart,” – Human Rights Foundation President Thor Halvorssen
“If I had the chance to tell him something now, I would tell him that his wounds gave us a chance to see the brilliant light that shone out of him as well.” — Nasser Bin Nasser, World Economic Forum 
“He was one of the most exceptional people I have ever met. Instead of merely expressing dismay at Arab extremism—or denying or excusing it—he tried to do something about it. Something damn creative, too. And there was nobility in that face, that scarred face of his. His attackers tried to shame him, but the honor was all his.” – Jay Nordlinger, National Review

Suleiman Bakhit will definitely be missed.

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