A Pen of Damascus Steel:
Political Cartoons by an Arab Master
By Ali Farzat
Cune Press, 2005
At a time when the Arab world is reduced to a cartoon-strip of horror, when apathy is the world’s only response to the sight of burning villages and hundreds of butchered children, Arabs must try to stand back from the charred remains of corpses and ask how such mass killing could ever take place. How it could be given such wanton cover by Arab regimes, whose truly despicable “leaders” can only whimper before the U.S.-Israeli war machine, which keeps them so cozily in command of their outraged people.
The work of the Syrian artist Ali Farzat inspires such bitter questioning. For 35 years now, this gentle, unprepossessing man has been drawing the “Arab Predicament” in all its contradictory, impoverishing and repressive details.
Farzat was born in 1951 in Hama. This Syrian city’s name is tragically synonymous with the state’s military suppression of an uprising there, and with the security force’s vengeful massacre of its defenseless civilians. The harrowing details of what took place in Hama were enough to keep the entire country cowed and traumatized almost 20 years later.
A precocious talent, Ali Farzat had his first cartoon published when he was only 12, and it made the front cover of Al Ayyam, one of the many lively publications that pre-Baathist Syria boasted. But the Baathist coup d’etat of that year, 1963, put an end to the very notion of a free press, and the only publications allowed to operate from then on were state-controlled.
Like so many writers and journalists of talent, Farzat was forced to eke out a living as best he could from these dismal papers and magazines. He moved to the capital of Damascus to try his luck at full-time drawing. Because of the humorless party line and the heavy hand of military censorship, the young cartoonist soon perfected a style that would bypass the censors, and yet still say something meaningful and politically resonant – no easy feat, but a skill that thousands of artists across the Arab world also have had to adopt.
First in Al Thawra and Jaysh al Shaab, then in Tishreen, Farzat sought to illustrate the daily preoccupations and anxieties of his country’s men and women, most notably poverty, unemployment, injustice, torture and repression. Cynical about the militarization of Arab life, he depicted the Arab top brass as bloated, brutish figures, characters intent on terrifying and controlling the hard-pressed population that they were meant to be defending. His cartoons of the military earned him a following among his readership, although he was careful never to name names or otherwise make clear which dictator or security chief he was actually lampooning.
The exception was Saddam Hussein – always fair game in Syria – and an obvious target. Farzat’s drawings of Saddam were brilliant. Many of them, such as one in which he lights his Cohiba cigar with a burning Iraqi, were no doubt meant to refer to security and military thugs in general (pardon the pun), including, of course, those (cigar-smoking ones) snuffing the life out of the cartoonist’s beloved Syria.
What is most sad about Farzat’s cartoons is that the situations and characters they depict have not changed in three decades – the same fear and injustice, the same bombastic speeches that mean nothing, being brayed at the Arab people by the same sadistic strongmen – or their sons. Nothing has changed, except that people are now hungrier and more repressed, and prisons and graveyards are more full than they have ever been.
In 2001, Farzat was given special dispensation by Bashar al-Assad to start an independent publication, Al Domari, the first in 43 years! The debut issue sold its print-run of 25,000 copies within minutes of hitting the newsstands, such was the novelty of free speech. However, this event did not prove that Syria was beginning to open up, as the unelected president never tired of stating, but rather, that it was about to shut with a tremendous bang.
Today, its prisons are once again teeming with journalists, writers, human rights and social activists – with all those who have sought to have a free say in the affairs of their long-suffering country, to challenge the corruption and nepotism and hypocrisy of the bigwigs of a regime that daily grows more despised.
One can only dream of the day when Ali Farzat need not censor his gifted pen in drawing the destiny of the Syrian people. In the meantime, this beautifully-published book must suffice as indication of the talent and tenacity of this conscientious and modest hero.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)