If I were in Lebanon this week, I know what would be on my calendar: a fantastic exhibit of Arab cartoonists. “Lighting Lamps: Cartoons from the Arab World” will be at LAU Beirut January 8-18, after which it moves north to Tripoli for another short run (where, I do not know, although I imagine Balamand).
Editorial cartoonists, as they are called in the U.S., have a very important role to play. They use satire and other forms of humor to make people think: about world events, about local injustices, about hypocrisy. Lebanon is very lucky to have this exhibit – and if you are in Lebanon now, you are very lucky to be able to see it (and I am very envious of you!).
A sample of the cartoons you are likely to see – this one by the very courageous Ali Ferzat:
Here’s the review from the Guardian, which hosted the exhibit in its news offices this past summer:
It could be an airport security check or a border crossing and the subject could be anyone — a heavily-moustachioed everyman patiently opening his suitcase for inspection while an armed, elaborately-uniformed guard peers instead deep into the traveller’s brain, which is hinged open absurdly across his bowed head.
The image is a universal one but it has a special resonance across the Arab world. Its creator, Syrian Ali Ferzat, is the doyen of Arab cartoonists, justly famed for highlighting the absurdities, miseries and injustices of daily life. And the drawing’s the thing: no words or captions are necessary to make his point.
Ferzat, one of the stars of Lighting Lamps, a new exhibition at the Guardian’s Newsroom, has produced thousands of silent cartoons that speak volumes by lampooning corrupt leaders, torture, venality and oppression — yet (with some gaps) has still managed to carry on working in a political environment where creativity, wit and strongly-held views do not always sit happily together.
Other cartoonists from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia may be blunter. But all tiptoe to some degree around the sensitivities of regimes which will tolerate mild criticism of social and economic issues — and hostility to Israel and America — but do not hesitate to censor and punish when domestic taboos are tackled.
On their home turf, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt are never caricatured like Gordon Brown, George Bush or Nicolas Sarkozy. The authoritarian Arab republics have made lese-majeste a crime, as it is in monarchical Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco. Steve Bell, the Guardian cartoonist, worked with the participants in this exhibition. But none have produced the equivalent of John Major wearing his underpants outside his trousers.
Mustafa Hussein, a veteran of Egypt’s semi-official al-Akhbar newspaper, deploys his caustic talent to expose the multiple failures of the state — over unemployment, price rises, bread queues and sheer inefficiency — that exploded into riots earlier this year. Hussein’s cartoons are wry and troubling images in a country where the gap between rich and poor has never felt so wide and the sense of stagnation in the political system is crippling to the point of paralysis.
Jordan’s Imad Hajjaj takes well-aimed potshots at western power in the Middle East, drawing bloodstained Christmas stockings for the suffering children of Palestine and Iraq and a fine rear view of George Bush and Osama bin Laden milking the cow of the 9/11 attacks for all it is worth. His Wedding Security cartoon is a poignant take on the al-Qaida suicide bombings that killed 60 innocent wedding guests in Amman in 2005. Israel, as ever, is a source of anger and resentment: one recent Hajjaj cartoon portrays Barack Obama declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel — while collecting a shower of banknotes marked with a Star of David.
Jalal al-Rifai, a Palestinian-born cartoonist with Jordan’s ad-Dustour, also keeps up withering eye on the Americans in Iraq and Israel in the Palestinian territories. But he is renowned too for tackling unemployment and poverty, favouritism, the use of connections (“wasta”) and malpractice in the public sector. Zan Studio (Amer Shomali and Basel Nasr) in the West Bank town of Ramallah focus sharply on the conflict on their doorstep — producing bold graphics in support of ending the occupation and pressuring Israel.
Lebanon’s Armand Homsi, who works mostly for the Beirut daily an-Nahar, takes a darkly humorous view of the volatile confessional and political divisions that have seen assassinations, sectarian incitement and fears of a return to open civil war. Yazeed Alharthi from Saudi Arabia stays closest to the “safety zone” drawn up by the British Council sponsors of this exhibition — looking exclusively at “soft” social issues such as marriage, charity and conspicuous consumption. Politics and religion do not even get a look in in that most conservative and deferential of Arab societies.
It’s a reasonably representative selection, though it would also have been good to see some of the recent cartoons from Morocco and Algeria condemning takfiri terrorism as a distortion of Islam and criticism of the clergy’s acquiescence in the face of violence.
Lighting Lamps grew out of the British Council’s four-year Media in Society project, designed to improve “the effectiveness of the media in raising awareness of key social issues” in six Arab countries. Iraq was unable to take part because of the security situation.
Rereading this review’s description of the cartoonists and their work as I paste it in to this blog post makes me envious all over again. If you are in Beirut or Tripoli, please make a point of stopping by this exhibition. These artists are very brave, and their work does a great service to society.