Graphic Novelist Marguerite Dabaie Explores the Silk Road

July 22, 2013 2:02 pm Last Updated: July 24, 2013 12:30 pm

NEW YORK—If Brooklyn-based artist Marguerite Dabaie ever wanted to have a career making arcane world customs palatable to teens, she could.

Did you know that ancient Chinese slept on porcelain pillows because they believed soft ones sapped the sleeper’s life energy? Or that during the Tang Dynasty, women used black to paint fake dimples on their faces? Or that Sogdians, people from an ancient Persian civilization, generally didn’t sit in chairs, but when they did, they referred to them as “barbarian beds”?

Dabaie’s blog is packed full of these and other amusing facts from her extensive research. In one post about Chinese dress, she wrote:

“As I found out, colors and clothing styles were dictated by decree, depending on one’s rank. As such, if you were not royalty or an official, you pretty much had to wear your clothes this way, and they had to be white. I read about how some of the common folk got so frustrated with only wearing white, they’d wear brightly colored underwear and occasionally flash it in public to protest. I hope that’s true.”

Realizing A Dream

Dabaie (pronounced da-BAI) is not looking up fun facts about the ancient world for her own pleasure (though as a self-proclaimed “dork,” she admits it’s fun). Dabaie is well underway on her latest project: a historical graphic novel about a seventh century family’s adventures along the Silk Road.

“For years I’ve wanted to do something specifically about the Silk Road. It’s something that Western art history doesn’t really focus on at all. Even doing the research for this, it was hard to find books in English about any of the stuff. If I were Russian or Chinese I’d be in a gold mine, but for an English reader, it was so hard, which made me want to do it more.”

She recently completed the Fashion Institute of Technology MFA Illustration program after studying illustration at the School of Visual Arts. Raised in a Palestinian family in San Francisco, Dabaie is a first generation American and the only visual artist in her immediate family.

“Within my house, it was fully Palestine, and then you go outside and it’s totally American. And just dealing with that amalgamation influences a lot of my work,” she said. “It makes me think there’s a lot of stories that need to be told.”

She brings this wide-eyed curiosity of otherness to her forthcoming book, “A Voyage to Panjikant.”

The story follows a Sogdian family on the way to China from Panjikant in modern-day Tajikistan. During the seventh century, when the story takes place, it was a prosperous town in the Sogdian Empire, which encompassed today’s Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Sogdians played a pivotal role in facilitating trade between China and Central Asia.

“Panjikant” is a historical fiction about an important place and time. Flourishing trade not only brought foreign goods, but also technology, ideas, and faiths. Glassblowing went east. Papermaking went west. Believers of Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism treated each other with a surprising degree of mutual tolerance. The seats of empires from the Mediterranean to the Pacific debated the tenets of good governance.

But it is also a novel about being alive and young during such an interesting time. The story is told through the viewpoint of Upach, a merchant’s daughter.

In the story, Upach’s introverted, bumbling brother is being groomed to take over the family business. Old Shafnoshak briefs his son about the customs of diverse peoples they will meet on the trade routes. Intrigued by her father’s stories, Upach asks to tag along. Shafnoshak acquiesces even though women didn’t typically partake in business travel, and a new world opens up to the young woman.

Richness of Pattern and Color

The aesthetic of seventh century Central Asia is as accurately represented in Dabaie’s illustrations as she can discern from original sources.

“I’m harkening back to the Tang Dynasty, Silk Road, seventh century,” she said. “They loved colorful things. I knew it had to be colorful, bright, full of patterns.”

To achieve this look, she digitally inks each page, prints them on silk screening paper, and applies watercolors by hand, achieving glittering jewel tones that glow like porcelain glaze.

“I really love making colors bleed with each other and you just can’t do that with a computer. I want to give it that handmade touch.”

When she’s not with paint and paper, Dabaie spends a lot of time at the New York Public Library research libraries and museums, looking up murals, trade documents, and sculptures.

“You’d be surprised. The research library has a Sogdian-English dictionary,” she said. Though the Sogdians shared a linguistic root with the Persians, their language doesn’t exist anymore. Modern linguists found preserved letters and cracked the code, publishing this dictionary in 1995.

Right now, Dabaie is making pages and doing research.

Her goal is to bring “Panjikant” out in single issues and sell them at comic book conventions and stores with a focus on educational markets. She hopes to have the first book done in September.

Follow the progress on her blog, www.panjikant.tumblr.com. Her website is www.mdabaie.com