Lissa’s Multimodal Ethnography and Revolutionary Citation

From the Series: Graphic Ethnography on the Rise

Lissa’s multimodal ethnoGRAPHIC fictional form enabled us to forge new and layered citational practices, merging the visual, verbal, and vernacular.[1] This was crucial as the uprisings leading to the Arab Spring in Egypt formed an important part of Lissa’s main story. During our team’s research trip to Egypt, we came across the oral testimony of Egyptian historian Alia Mossallam in the video recordings documented by the Women and Memory Forum in Cairo. A PhD student at the time of her testimony, Mossallam’s graduate research focused on the songs and stories of anti-imperialist protestors during the Arab-Israeli wars (Mossallam 2012). She was committed to incorporating marginalized voices such as those erased in official narratives as both her sources of knowledge, and her eventual readership (Mossallam 2017).

In her testimony, Mossallam had described how she participated in revolutionary action in the streets. Soon after, she began working to identify missing persons by going to morgues and comparing the faces of the deceased with photos of the missing.

Still from the oral history video the Women and Memory Forum’s “Archive of Women’s Voices.”

As we took stock of the inspiring work being done by people like Alia Mossallam in those early days of 2011, we asked: how can we capture such critical, political, and creative work in our depiction of the revolutionary scenes in Lissa?

This was a particularly important ethical and epistemological question for us to ask as American anthropologists writing about the Egyptian Revolution. First, as Egyptian sociologist Mona Abaza (2011) had explained, much research on the Arab Spring was marked by forms of academic tourism in which well-resourced Western researchers relied on Egyptian academics, artists, and activists as intellectual “service providers,” rather than knowledge producers. Abaza observed that this practice reinforced a troubling set of political, economic, and epistemic inequalities in which “European thinkers remain pervasively as the ‘knowing subjects’ whereas non-Europeans continue to be the ‘objects of observations and analyses.’”

A second and relatedly damaging narrative about the revolution perpetuated by the Mubarak regime held that it was the work of “foreign influences” instigating the protests, rather than a movement created and sustained by the Egyptian people. This counterrevolutionary narrative also played into Orientalist tropes of the passive and fatalist Arabs, unable to assert their own political agency and culturally doomed to authoritarianism. Third, in alignment with Mossallam’s commitments, we aimed to uplift the improvisatory acts of imagination, thought, and resistance that everyday Egyptians enacted on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other parts of the country during the uprisings.

In her beautifully written June 2011 article titled “Remembering Martyrs,” Mosallam insisted, “In remembering those who gave their lives for this revolution, we remember the revolution itself. Remembrance is more than just sympathy with the families—it’s a responsibility. It helps carry forward our hope for justice.” Finding ways to cite and amplify the voices of Egyptian thinkers, makers, and martyrs was a moral and epistemic imperative for our project.

In the following pages, we recreated a scene in the morgue based on Mossallam’s own account painstakingly described in her June 2011 article. On January 29, 2011, the day after the deadly “Friday of Rage,” Mossallam had stood outside of the morgue at the university hospital in Alexandria, joined by the families of the missing and the dead, waiting to find their loved ones. The morgue administrator barred people from entering and refused to share any details about the bodies inside. Moved by grief and rage, the families pushed their way through and began pulling sheets off of bodies. Mossallam describes a harrowing experience with a mother who finds her son dead. The dialogue presented in Lissa is all taken verbatim from Mossallam’s published account:

They entered a room where 14 bodies lay, placed at various angles due to limited space. A young man stepped forth and yanked the white sheets off one body after another, giving each anonymous corpse a name, age and life.
The first was 21-year-old Mostafa Shaaban. His face was still fresh with bruises and injuries. His young features and dark hair reminded me of my brother. As more blankets came off, I saw in each of their faces someone familiar. I felt the crushing anguish of standing before the bodies of loved ones that once throbbed with life and conviction, and a proud sense of dignity.
The room was brimming with grief as more families poured in. At the climax of this collective angst, an old woman, clad in black and her eyes glassy and wide, hobbled into the room and made her way to her son. She pulled his blanket off gently and patted his cheeks as if to wake him up. Then she turned around and pulled me closer.
“Look at him, isn’t he beautiful? Get up habibi, get up and show her how beautiful you are.” She turned to me again. “And wait till you hear his voice…get up habibi, let her hear your voice.” I whispered to her that her son had died a martyr and his blood would not go in vain. She stared back at me in shock and mouthed the words “shahid” over and over, until someone gently led her out of the room and she broke into wails (Mossallam 2011).
Excerpts from Lissa, pp. 188–189.

Incorporating Mossallam as a character in the graphic narrative allowed us to cite her evocative writing and foreground her important revolutionary work and her commitment to public scholarship.

Excerpt from Lissa, p. 190.

Critically, Mossallam’s dedication to remembering those whose contributions are silenced (Mossallam 2017) inspired us to visually cite the revolutionary graffiti that memorialized those whose deaths were erased by governmental media accounts (Lennon 2014, Hamdy and Nye 2019).

Excerpt from Lissa, pp. 230.

In Lissa, it is only when Anna—the fictional American character—is swept up with Layla’s revolutionary fervor that she questions her previous individualistic view of health and her own body. Yet this storyline also presented a problem for us: how could we depict a foreign character at the scene of revolutionary activity, without perpetuating the false governmental propaganda that attributed the revolution to foreign instigators? Or worse still, how could we avoid falling into the trap that Abaza critiqued in which Western observers swoop in and take academic (or “white savior”) credit for the revolutionary sacrifices of Egyptians?

Excerpt from Lissa, p. 177.

Centering Mossallam and her work in the morgue was thus crucial to how we depicted Anna’s participation in the revolutionary events around her. First, we depicted Anna’s contributions as auxiliary to Mossallam’s initiatives to locate missing persons. Far from being an instigator or leader of the movement, Anna’s role is supportive of Mossallam’s.

Excerpt from Lissa, p. 194.

Second, we revealed the sensitivity around these questions of positionality, so that readers could also ask questions about who should be where, without having to provide all the answers. We created a scene in which Layla’s brother Ahmed vents his suspicion and resentment of Anna’s presence. While watching Layla and Anna go through photos of missing persons, Ahmed questions Anna’s place in the revolution and calls out her positionality as the daughter of an American oil executive. Labeling Anna as someone whose family profited from extractive and imperialist policies in the region, Ahmed suggests that Anna is in many ways complicit in the economic inequalities that pushed so many to risk death in pursuit of dignity and justice. The multimodality of the comic fiction form made it possible to effectively layer these multiple perspectives and critiques in a single scene, while maintaining the authorial voices of Egyptian revolutionaries.

Excerpt from Lissa, p. 191.

Eerily prescient of how the revolution would be erased, Mossallam wrote:

In forgetting, we fail the revolution and risk losing ourselves as a people. We lapse into a state where the police once again rule without any accountability and where some lives matter more than others. People died because they believed something in their society was changing. Hope was so imminent that they risked not seeing the future. Our martyrs left us with that hope and it’s up to us to realize it. (Mossallam 2011)

Mossallam’s words animated Layla and Anna in the final pages of Lissa, as they walked through a now quiet city, trying to come to terms with their losses and grief.

Excerpt from Lissa, p. 229.

Mossallam is clear-sighted in describing hope as both life-giving—in that it enables people to hold onto a vision of a brighter future—and also life-endangering—in that it could distort perceptions, appearing so imminent that people risked “not seeing the future.” Mossallam’s writing captured the ethos of the revolution that we sought to carry through in the panels of Lissa. Mossallam paved a path for us to put academic —her dissertation research recovering voices of those silenced—into direct action—refusing to let people’s lives and sacrifices be forgotten.

Excerpt from Lissa, p. 233.

[1] Lissa: A Story of Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution, by Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye, illustrated by Sarula Bao and Caroline Brewer, is the first book-length ethnography in comic form to be published by the University of Toronto Press in 2017, and the inaugural book in the press’s ethnoGRAPHIC series.


Abaza, Mona. 2011. “Academic Tourists Sight-Seeing the Arab Spring.Jadaliyya, September 27. Reprinted from Ahram Online.

El-Fiki, Mohamed, and Gail Rosseau. 2011. “The 2011 Egyptian Revolution: A Neurosurgical Perspective. World Neurosurgery 76, no. 1/2.

Hamdy, Sherine F., and Soha Bayoumi. 2016. “Egypt’s Popular Uprising and the Stakes of Medical Neutrality.Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 40, no. 2: 223–241.

Hamdy, Sherine, and Coleman Nye. 2017. Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hamdy, Sherine, and Coleman Nye. 2019. “Comics and Revolution as Global Public Health Intervention: The Case of Lissa.” Global Public Health.

Lennon, John. 2014. “Assembling a Revolution: Graffiti, Cairo and the Arab Spring.Cultural Studies Review 20, no. 1: 237–275.

Mossallam, Alia. 2011. “Remembering the Martyrs.Egypt Independent. June.

Mossallam, Alia. 2017. "History Workshops in Egypt: An Experiment in History Telling." History Workshop Journal 83, no. 1: 241–251.

Mossallam, Alia. 2012. "Hikāyāt sha‛b - Stories of Peoplehood: Nasserism, Popular Politics and Songs in Egypt, 1956–1973." PhD dissertation, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Sarhan, Mohamed, Ashraf A. Dahaba, Michael Marco, and Ayman Salah. 2012. “Mass Casualties in Tahrir Square at the Climax of the Egyptian Uprising.Annals of Surgery 256, no. 6: 1093–1097.