سوار الذهب (or “Gold Ring” in English) is an Emirati manga written by Qais Sedki. It follows Sultan, a 15-year-old boy who lives with his mother in the old town (of Dubai, I assume, but the book doesn’t specify). Although his father passed away a few years earlier, he is a constant presence in Sultan’s decisions and everyday life and leads him to discover his passion and talent. The story starts with the finals of an international falconry tournament, Gold Ring, where Sultan and his friend Ziyad are attempting to sneak in to watch the competition without getting caught, despite the pangs of Sultan’s conscience. This sets off a sequence of events that see Sultan befriend a wild falcon, meet a mysterious and legendary desert-dwelling friend of his father’s and learn to train his new falcon friend, Majd, so he can take part in the next season of Gold Ring. The author’s intentions with this book are made very clear both in his introduction and in the story itself. He wants to use his books to encourage reading among Arab children and impart good morals and character in an "inspiring and stimulating” story. I think this down-to-earth, straightforward intention and execution is part of the appeal for me. His choice of manga to achieve this is significant in the Emirati context where anime, and Japanese culture in general, has been a staple of childhood for several decades, much like many other countries in the Arab world.
In imparting moral messages I think the book is overall successful. There are a couple of places where it is quite explicit, such as when Sultan tells his friend “الخطأ خطأ… و لو لم يُكتشف" (“wrong is wrong, even if you’re not caught”), but I don’t think this is a disadvantage and a child wouldn’t find this distracting. Aside from integrity, the story encourages respect for parents, upholding family ties, hard work and persistence, trustworthiness and the good treatment of animals. This is intimately intertwined with a strong sense of faith and trust in Allah, which is visible in the book and in Sedki’s interviews. I would have enjoyed finding out more about the women and girls in Sultan’s life, as his mother was the only significant female character, but I appreciate that a lot of the story took place in contexts where there would likely be more men and there aren’t many characters in the story anyway. Along with the moral messages, I also sensed a strong nostalgia for the traditional Emirati life, which I was happy to indulge in, in the choice of the old town for Sultan’s home, the pull of the desert and the man-of-few-words character of the desert-dwelling Suroor. The newer developments of the country are only present in passing reference to “the city centre”, which Sultan and his mother have no interest in being part of, and are never seen on the page, except in the modern falconry stadium. This is not to say that this is a story stuck in the past; it is still very much rooted in the present with mobile phones, dune buggies and the stadium, but these are just a small part of an active, organic and meaningful lifestyle. Perhaps in doing this Sedki also hoped to tempt his young readers away from their phones and shopping malls to explore the natural world around them.
A major contributor to creating this atmosphere in a manga is of course the illustrations. Drawn by the well-established Japanese illustrating duo, Akira Himekawa, the Emirati character of the book is taken to new heights and I loved every page of it! Although I haven’t given manga or graphic novels much attention until recently, I could immediately see the enrichment these illustrations brought to the book. Through Akira Himekawa’s drawings we could experience the beautiful simplicity of Sultan’s traditional home and neighbourhood, the majesty of the desert and the impressive Gold Ring stadium, all while maintaining their distinct Japanese manga style. A personal favourite in these drawings has to be the clothes: the Emirati men’s dishdash and ghotra in various styles, the women’s burqa’ and even an Afghani competitor wearing a Pakol hat, which was a lovely surprise! Sultan’s outfit was not always entirely accurate, in my experience (I’ve never seen a ghotra tied like a bandana), but it still somehow portrayed the essence of how a boy playing in the streets dresses. A frame that sticks in my memory most, though, is the simple scene of Sultan greeting his uncle with the Emirati touch of the nose, which is the type of evocative detail that creates truly authentic stories its readers can relate to.
All in all, I think this book would be a valuable addition to a child’s library, whether Emirati or otherwise. It portrays strong examples of characters with integrity, dignity and compassion and encourages a passion for learning and persistence in achieving a goal. Although I felt the end was a little rushed, the story was engaging and otherwise well-paced. While the UAE, and Dubai in particular, is quite popular with Muslim tourists, I felt that this book provided an authentic view of a traditional Emirati lifestyle that most tourists would not be exposed to. It also gives children insight into the traditions and way of life in another Muslim-majority country, which I feel is hugely valuable in inspiring in Muslim children a sense of unity in the Ummah that goes beyond borders and nationality. My dream Muslim child’s library consists of books from across the world portraying the real, everyday lives of children and adults in all its complexity, not just the pretty and not just the struggles, but always with faith and integrity!
Unfortunately, after all that, I have to add that this book is very difficult to find in its original Arabic and so far impossible to find in the English translation. There have been two books written (in Arabic) in this series, but after that it seems to have come to a halt.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.