From a London taxicab to the covers of Newsweek and Forbes, it’s been an amazing journey for Kuwait’s Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa and his heroes of THE 99.
A product of Kuwait’s Bayan Bilingual School and the government’s educational largesse in form of successive scholarships abroad, Dr. Naif, as he is universally called, is one of his country’s most accomplished students. An honors degree from Tufts University capped off a triple major undergraduate career and was quickly followed by two masters degrees in organizational and clinical psychology, and an MBA from Columbia University’s School of Business and finally by a PhD in clinical psychology from Long Island University. Along the way he penned a children’s book that won a 1997 UNESCO prize for “children’s and young people’s literature in the service of tolerance.”
After graduate school, Dr. Naif returned to Kuwait and a teaching position at Kuwait University’s Faculty of Medicine with a continuing itch to do more to advance the cause of peace and tolerance by enlisting the imaginations of children in its support. Eight years ago, in a cab ride in London with his sister, a Kuwaiti fashion designer, the origins of the idea for THE 99 began to take shape. She pressed her brother to go back to writing his children’s books. He told her that to influence the world through its children, the premise would have to be as big and far reaching as Pokemon, the multi-media, multi-billion dollar franchise that now transcends all the world’s borders, languages and cultures.
As they talked, his imagination took flight and the idea began to take shape. He would create a group of superheroes that would reflect the teachings and culture of Islam not in a religious document but through comic books that would use values that are common to all the world’s cultures and religions. They would become the building blocks of his characters. He would create role models for peace and tolerance from the same places and messages where others found excuses for prejudice and violence. And to do so, he would use derivatives of the ninety-nine attributes that Islam uses to describe Allah; strength, courage, wisdom and other virtues that all good people throughout the ages have tried to emulate.
The backstory of THE 99 begins in 1258 when history tells us the Mongols invaded Baghdad and destroyed it. All the books from the Dar-Al-Hikma library, the largest, most famous library in its day, were thrown in the Tigris River, changing its color with all the ink. Here is where the liberties of the slightly bent pen of Dr. Naif (or historical fiction) take root. When the librarians find out that the Mongols are on their way intent on destroying all of Baghdad, they create a special solution called King’s Water that when mixed with the waters of the Tigris running black with the blood of the library’s books and then soaked into porous stones, could save all the knowledge in the books onto ninety-nine special stones. The librarians succeed, and over the course of days and weeks, they dip the stones into the Tigris to absorb all the collective wisdom that even today, most all think has been lost to civilization. Once created, the stones were then hidden as three sets of prayer beads and successfully smuggled through Arabia to Andalusia in Spain where they were safe for 200 years.
But in 1492, Granada, the last Moslem enclave in Europe falls to the Spanish. As a result, thirty-three of the stones were smuggled on Columbus’ ships and are spread in the New World. Thirty-three went on the silk routes to China, Asia and South Asia and thirty-three were spread among Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Now it’s 2012 and there are ninety-nine heroes from ninety-nine different countries.
Even before the launch of the comic series, praise for the concept came from every quarter. A young documentary filmmaker, Isaac Solotaroff, began tracking Dr. Naif and the development of THE 99. Even as the first comic books began to appear, the world’s press took notice. Soon, a visit from the television giant, Endemol, took place and an agreement to create twenty-six episodes of an animated television series was signed. An Islamic investment bank joined in to finance the venture.
THE 99 was praised by the world’s press and especially so in the United States: “One of the top 20 trends sweeping the globe,” said Forbes, “The antidote to Bin Laden” said Newsweek. From the American Left and Right, THE 99 was praised as ‘part of the solution’ by gentling the children of the world with new superheroes created in their own image of innocence and promise.
As expected, THE 99 had its objectors. For a while, it was banned in Saudi Arabia and fringe conservative groups in the United States threatened to boycott it largely because of an event on April 26, 2010 when President Barack Obama, in a major address on international entrepreneurship, publicly praised THE 99 and Dr. Naif for inspiring the world’s youth with its innovative message of peace and tolerance.
Shortly after the Obama speech, THE 99 began to appear standing cape to shoulder with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in a six-part comic book crossover series, which will soon be released in the Middle East.
In October of 2011, the documentary film of Dr. Naif and the making of THE 99 was broadcast nationally to more than two million viewers in the United States on the season premiere of the PBS television series, Independent Lens. Later that same month, the New York Film Festival invited Dr. Naif to preview THE 99 in America’s renowned Lincoln Center, which he did to great acclaim.
Kuwait’s homegrown filmmaker and THE 99 had taken New York by storm.
The future of THE 99 is even more certain than its past. This month, that same movie of THE 99 will debut in Kuwait’s theatres. And shortly after, the animated TV series will begin its worldwide premiere in more than sixty nations around the world including MBC in our region. A second season of THE 99 is already in production. Live action motion pictures are now in discussion and a treasure trove of proposed licensed products are now being considered. It’s website www.the99.org grows each week and its Official Facebook site www.facebook.com/THE99FanPage is about to hit the rarified mark of one million ‘Likes’.
2012 is shaping up to be the Year of THE 99.