Drawing While the Hand Trembles
A view of "Charlie Hebdo" from the world of Arab cartoonists, where the risks loom large and the humor is black.
CAIRO — The last time I saw a stable of cartoonists all draw an identical message was in Egypt, in 2011: the military boot versus the pencil. The privately owned daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm had censored a number of cartoons that criticized the interim military council marshaling the country’s so-called democratic transition. In a coordinated protest, five cartoonists drew a sturdy pencil, each in her or his unique style. The visual statement was simple enough that a child could understand it. With editors deferring to the junta and rejecting cartoons, these crude drawings were as far as cartoonists could go in print on that October day.
The drawings from cartoonists around the world in the wake of the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, though uncoordinated, have been similarly simple. Again and again, the same set of images: pens fighting automatic weapons, caricaturists facing masked gunmen. Likewise, when regime thugs assaulted Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, in 2011, an outpouring of nearly identical cartoons emerged, in strident support of the artist. Some drew the literal: a caricature of Ferzat, sitting in a hospital bed with both his arms in casts, defiantly drawing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Others depicted Assad quivering in the face of pens and pencils. Cartoonists thrive on originality, so it is always noteworthy when so many knowingly rehash an identical message.
I look at a lot of political cartoons — that’s basically my job. I scour the Arabic press daily for comics. I scan global papers, parsing trends as I identify original perspectives and recycled memes. I have noticed on several occasions, especially in times of fear, that the message of solidarity obscures the usual nuance of political cartoons. Many of these cartoons have the feel of protest slogans or mantras, rather than satirical insights. When it comes to addressing violence toward their own, cartoonists face an incredibly difficult task. Of course a pen is no match to a gun, yet cartoonists still feel compelled to draw. Many cartoons in the immediate aftermath, rather than grappling with complex narratives, fall short, a caricature rather than a commentary. The most effective cartoons challenge biases, and they are rare after a tragedy.
This is why Andeel, an independent Egyptian cartoonist, has been conspicuously silent over the last week. The prolific comic artist has not drawn a single image about the events in Paris. “Drawing was going to be very predictable,” said Andeel, who draws for the private news outlet Mada Masr and the comic ‘zine Tok Tok. “I just wanted to talk first and get people to talk first,” he told me at a basement café in Cairo’s Garden City neighborhood. He has hesitated to draw a reactive illustration that simplifies a multifaceted situation. “I think this is why cartoons are very important, because cartoons are actually all about flattening things: making things cartoonishly clear. I think what differentiates a good cartoonist from a bad one is the ability to do that without losing the point, without ending up being just like another copy of a voice that’s already there.”
What has fascinated me about Andeel is his dark, dark humor, his capacity to crack a joke the day after a bloodletting. When Egyptians lynched four Shiites in a Giza village in June 2013, Andeel drew a cartoon of three devout people holding a bloody corpse; one looks up to the heavens, smiling, and asks, “Is that good, God?” The jolly characters, penned in Andeel’s signature thick lines, are oblivious to the bright red carnage blotched on their faces and clothing. Andeel reposted that cartoon and several others last week. “The old cartoons still worked,” he said.
When Egyptian cartoonists offer condolences to their Parisian counterparts, they are doing so with an appreciation of the daily risks of the art form — making a joke about the assassinations remains difficult or superficial. Magdy El Shafee, whose 2012 graphic novel Metro has been censored by the government, broadcasted to his Facebook followers, “All my condolences as a cartoonist and comic artist, as a lover of Charlie Hebdo, as a son of Adam, as a Muslim.” The Egyptian illustrator Makhlouf drew a self-portrait, the cartoonist holding his pencil up to a masked gunman. He personally felt threatened, on the same side of the French cartoonists. It was courageous to identify with the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, when in Egypt blaspheming monotheistic religions is illegal and many have condemned the French satirical drawings against Islam. “I am a Muslim cartoonist [standing] with free expression and against killing,” Makhlouf wrote on Facebook upon hearing the news.
What can political cartoons do beyond messages of solidarity? We might look at how Arab cartoonists have responded to their own local and national conflicts, notably in Iraq and Syria, during moments as bloody and disturbing as the events in Paris. In fall 2013, when reports of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks spread, Jordanian cartoonist Osama Hajjaj illustrated an outlandish guide to surviving unconventional warfare, an example of humor’s power to address the very real menace. When Westerners were decapitated in Syria this past August, cartoonists made light of the Islamic State’s campaign of terror. Many readers were squeamish about the cartoons proliferating in the Arabic press. In the Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm, Abdallah drew a headless man walking into the “ISIS” barbershop and saying, “Pardon me, chief, has my head rolled through here?” Abdallah walks the fine line between bad taste and irreverence. While the world recoiled with revulsion at the executions, cartoonists unveiled imagery that shocked in order to shame the Islamic State jihadis and other extremists. This is offensive. This is also Muslims critiquing Muslims. Beheading cartoons are an answer to anti-Muslim chatter, and that vapid intonation of “Where are the moderate Muslims?” They’re drawing.
As I talk to cartoonists in Egypt and across the Middle East, the opposition between the religious and the secular starts to seem spurious. The world is upside-down: Anti-religious cartoonists have been martyred and Muslim cartoonists stand in solidarity with the slain. The Middle East is only beginning to grapple with the contradictions, polarities, and xenophobia arising from the Paris attacks. Officials from states with strict blasphemy laws, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, marched in Paris alongside a million French demonstrators. Leading Islamic institutions have condemned the murders while expressing outrage at Charlie Hebdo’s drawings. But the bigger questions raised by the deaths pertain to the root causes of terror, from the legacies of colonialism to the endurance of dictatorships, and many more global problems. Andeel described it like this: “The way I see this act of killing is that the world is ill and every now and then it throws up, or it itches, or it has an ache, and this is one way of the world telling itself that something is wrong, and the fact that things are okay in a certain place in earth doesn’t mean that things are okay.” I suggested he draw it.
Cartooning is not normally associated with danger, but now the perils of the career have come to the fore for cartoonists in the West. Yet Arab illustrators have long struggled for the right to parody: In 2011, Assad’s thugs kidnapped Ferzat, beat him, broke both his arms, and sent him into exile. The Syrian cartoonist Akram Aslan has been disappeared for two years, and the Cartoonists Rights Network International fears that the Syrian regime has executed him. In London, in 1987, undercover agents — most likely dispatched by either the Palestine Liberation Organization or Israel’s Mossad intelligence service — gunned down Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, a bold illustrator who had censured Palestinian leaders, as well as Arab, Israeli, and Western politicians.* Artists everywhere face danger when they go too far, though the boundaries are never clear until they are crossed. This is a starting point to razing the barrier between the West and the Middle East, a barrier that is unfortunately being perpetuated in many cartoons about the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
Ferzat, now based in Kuwait and drawing for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, told me by phone: “The cartoonist must be a panorama, observing the entire world and reading between the lines, understanding what’s happening in this world — sometimes with the logic of a journalist, sometimes with the logic of an author, sometimes with the logic of a poet, sometimes with the logic of a painter.” The day after a tragedy, the cartoonist “must continue to draw cartoons — without fear, without fear — to continue to defend freedom,” he said.
In response to the killings, Ferzat drew bloody fingers trying to grip a fountain pen, though sharp spikes encircle the pen’s barrel. There’s no paper, no cartoon, no drawing board — only splotches of blood on a blank frame. He illustrated the question of how to draw when cartoonists have fallen, how to respond when the act of drawing itself has been assailed. He also illustrated the impossible task facing cartoonists after Charlie Hebdo: to capture the intricacies of the tragedy while one’s hand trembles.
*Correction, Jan. 15, 2015: The identity of Ali’s assassins is a matter of debate. An earlier version of this article said they were most likely from Israel’s Mossad intelligence service. Many also believe they could have been from the Palestine Liberation Organization.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images