When Ayman Kandeel shuts his eyes, he sees a vast desert region ravaged by conflict, living under the threat of nuclear war and populated by followers of three monotheistic faiths fighting over a single city holy to all.
In the Middle East, such scenarios can seem strikingly real - and intractable.But in the fantasy world of Kandeel, the creator of the first comic series featuring Middle Eastern superheroes, two buxom superheroines might have a chance against the region's woes, along with a 5,000-year-old pharaoh and a medieval warrior.
Kandeel, an economics professor at Cairo University, and fellow Egyptian comic lover Marwan el-Nahsar, joined a Saudi investor in creating AK Comics, which publishes four monthly comics magazines featuring different superheroes.
They chart the adventures of Jalila, Defender of City of All Faiths; Zein, the Last Pharaoh; and Aya, the Princess of Darkness. They all live in Middle Eastern cities set in the future, while Rakan, the Lone Warrior, roams across Persia during ancient invasions of Mongols, Crusaders and Turks.
Arabic- and English-language versions of the comics are on sale in Cairo and the United States, and they will soon appear in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Kandeel said growing up reading Batman and Spider-Man left him wondering why there were no Middle Eastern comics or crime fighters.
"All we had in the Middle East were the imported foreign characters," he said. "So I thought, why not start a comic series with Middle Eastern characters and use events and references relevant to people here?"
Extremists, Israel and the Palestinians, terrorism, and the nuclear threat scream from their pages, but it's done in an oblique, thinly disguised form, without naming names or religions, because as el-Nahsar and Kandeel explain, it's a fantasy.
"We are not about reality. The comics are about escaping reality," Kandeel said at his offices in a Cairo suburb.
The two say they support the Palestinian struggle for independence but oppose the violence and religious fanaticism that fans it. The AK Comics Web site has a disclaimer saying that to promote moderation, the comics don't identify specific religions.
"My view is the same as AK Comics; we all want peace," el-Nahsar said.
"We are two nations, Arab and Israeli, and we are blood brothers, we are all Semitic," he said. "In our comics we refer to Jerusalem as the 'City of All Faiths.' We believe it is a neutral place which should have no political agenda."
Kandeel and el-Nahsar dream up the characters, story lines and Middle Eastern backgrounds of desert and architecture, then farm them out to artists in the United States and Brazil who draw the finished product.
Leaping off the pages are a collection of villains and heroes, from muscled fighters to precocious street urchins. And then there are curvaceous women in skintight clothing, including the two heroines, who have raised a few eyebrows in the conservative Middle East.
"We bump into some people who have some comments and reservations, but of course there is going to be some controversy," Kandeel said . "I don't think you can be successful without it."
Kandeel is reticent, saying he's portraying connections, not current events.
"We have nothing specific; it has to remain open and elusive, symbolic," he said . "It is about vision, to have a vision about what could eventually happen, about things improving in the region, about people fighting for good."