Wearing Hijabs and Ninja Costumes, Egypt's Geeks Balance Passion for Manga With Islam

Manga fans gather near Tahrir Square for Cairo's third comic con, celebrating their obsession with racy Japanese comics while adhering to local religious values.

Participants in the EgyCon convention in Cairo dressed up as anime characters.
Paul Sánchez Keighley

CAIRO - A throng of young Egyptians gathers excitedly near Tahrir Square. Many carry large, sword-shaped parcels and strangely shaped packages. But they aren’t here this Saturday morning to protest and clash with police: instead, they are dressing up as ninjas and robots, playing games and salivating over comic books.

They are Egypt’s otaku, a subculture obsessed with Japanese manga (comics), anime (cartoons), video games and other pop-culture elements. They have come to the GrEEK Campus – a high-tech and innovation park near the square that was the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution – to participate in the third edition of EgyCon, a homegrown comic-book convention in the style of hugely popular international comic cons.

EgyCon was the brainchild of Islam Risha, 27, the self-proclaimed “godfather of Egyptian anime events.” He is a big bear of a man with a charming baritone and zebibah (the marking on the forehead of devout Muslims).

Risha discovered anime 10 years ago, when he walked into a cyber café and became intrigued by a bunch of hirsute men watching cartoons. After peeking over their shoulders for a bit, he was hooked. He began connecting Egyptian anime-lovers through Facebook and organizing small get-togethers – the second of which took place one day after the Arab spring protests broke out at Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011.

“The country was having a revolution, but we were sitting somewhere else talking about anime,” Risha recalls. “We didn’t care.”

In 2014, Risha single-handedly organized the first EgyCon with the support of the Japan Foundation (a public institution dedicated to culture exchanges around the world). Attendance has increased by about 30 percent each year – this year’s official count was 3,150 – and this edition was the first to include a gaming room packed with PCs and gaming consoles, as well as self-published comic-book stands.

Participants in the EgyCon convention in Cairo dressed as anime characters.
Paul Sánchez Keighley

When the event opens, the parcel-carrying crowd pours into the campus and race to the changing rooms, where they change for their cosplays, dressing up as their favorite anime character.

The demographics at EgyCon skew younger than comic cons in Japan or the West. In Japan, for instance, many otaku are now parents or even planning retirement; most Egyptian participants are in their late teens, and only a handful are above 30, reflecting just how young this cultural phenomenon is here.

Upper-middle class pursuit

Doha, 27, is dressed as Ahri, a voluptuous fox-lady with nine white tails and flowing blue hair from the video game “League of Legends.” But instead of showing cleavage and wearing a miniskirt, she is modestly wrapped in a long-sleeved dress over thick white leggings.

Doha says she saw anime for the first time 10 years ago, on national television. “They used to broadcast shows like ‘Naruto’ or ‘Detective Conan,’” she says. “Everybody watched them, but we didn’t know it was called anime or that it was part of a bigger movement.”

It was only when Egyptians gained access to the natural habitat of the otaku – the Internet – that they learned about the broad subculture that surrounds manga. But in Egypt, access to the Internet is not widespread, so to be a manga fan usually requires being financially well-off.

“It’s a matter of social classes,” explains Noor, 18, who wears a hijab and a hoodie from “Avenger.” (Many of those interviewed for this article asked that only their first names be used for reasons of privacy.) “The majority of Egypt is poor,” she says, “and doesn’t have access to culture or the Internet.” So the otaku are middle class? “Upper-middle,” she laughs.

Cosplay can be a costly hobby, especially without local specialty stores. Most costumes at EgyCon are handmade, with a few purchased from Amazon (reluctantly, admits one participant, because it represents the West). The attendees all enjoy a level of social comfort; one of them, Ziad, 17, says he travelled to Japan recently on a family vacation.

Participants in the EgyCon convention in Cairo dressed up as anime characters.
Paul Sánchez Keighley

Content broadcast on state television is subject to censorship; parts of shows that might offend the country’s more pious Muslims are scrapped. “In Egypt, the government has to watch a show before airing it,” Noor explains. “When we watched ‘Detective Conan,’ there would often be missing scenes, and some episodes weren’t broadcast at all.” But the Internet has given Egyptians access to newer, edgier and, more importantly, uncensored shows.

At EgyCon, there is no contradiction between faith and fantasy: the overwhelming majority of otaku are practicing Muslims. Men excuse themselves to pray during the salat (the five obligatory daily prayers) and women have skillfully incorporated the basic dress codes of Islam (covering their hair; not showing skin above the wrists or ankles) into their cosplays. Even women in full-body niqabs make it work, dressing up as masked characters, robed sages or ambiguous ninjas.

However, the competing forces of the precepts of Islam and the cultural trends of Japanese otaku – which can be sexually suggestive – do create some tensions.

Abdul, 17, who is dressed as the ninja Kakashi from “Naruto,” is clearly upset about how some women don’t wear a hijab for their cosplay because they want to look more like the Japanese.

“It’s just not right,” he says. “You can’t be a Muslim only on the days you feel like it ... I love anime and come here to show my love for it, but we also have our own culture. We should also celebrate and be proud of it.”

Participants in the EgyCon convention in Cairo dressed up as anime characters.
Paul Sánchez Keighley