New generation of cartoonists confront new challenges

Arab cartoonists often reach parts of world opinion that other regional commentators cannot.
Sunday 11/11/2018
Bernard Hage’s “Martini at Momo’s.” (Courtesy of  Bernard Hage)
With a keen eye. Bernard Hage’s “Martini at Momo’s.” (Courtesy of Bernard Hage)

A new generation of Arab cartoonists is drawing the frustrations and absurdities of life in the region.

They are heirs to a fine tradition. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lebanese cartoonists took on leaders such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and, in the 1970s and 1980s, they skewered Lebanese warlords with their satire. For decades, Palestinian, Syrian and Egyptian cartoonists mocked the system.

Now, cartoonists portray a radically different reality — what it means to be young in a region that has uneven political, economic and developmental growth and increasing exposure to the world via the internet.

The cartoonists take their task very seriously.

“The main aim of my cartoons is to create a small crack in the wall of closed-mindedness and to highlight the thick layer of dust covering our social values,” said Lebanese cartoonist Bernard Hage.

Hage’s “The Art of Boo” cartoons are punchy and daring, commenting on the Jamal Khashoggi crisis, political incompetence and more. On Halloween, October 31, for instance, Hage drew a lineup of contenders for scariest costume. The winner was a character wearing a board that reads “commitment.’’

In acid reference to the laggardly pace of government formation in Lebanon — and possibly Iraq, as well — Hage depicted two snails watching a television presenter announce “the new government formation could be pushed to 2019.” “Wow,” one of the snails says, “we found someone slower than you, Martha.”

Hage is not the only one with a keen eye for the sad and funny realities in the region.

“Nour’s World,” one of the most popular comic strips on Instagram, with 8 million followers on Facebook, comments on parenthood, gender violence, young adulthood, school, employment, relationships, the gender gap and religious extremism. It is drawn by an art student, simply identified as Nour, an Arab.

“What’s important is that everyone keeps finding a piece that represents herself/himself through our cartoons,” said Fadel Faisal, an illustrator in Jordan. ‘’I personally think it important to provide women a place in our society, hence I mainly draw women.’’

Nour Fakhoury, editor-in-chief of ToshFesh, a platform that promotes upcoming Arab cartoonists, said the new generation is different from those that have gone before. “This generation grew up with technology, development and, therefore, openness. They want to express themselves in a very personal way, having each defined a style,” he said.

Fakhoury added that today’s cartoonists routinely tackle “sensitive and audacious subjects.”

Doesn’t doing so put cartoonists at risk?

In the 1980s, Ali al-Naji, a fearless critic of Arab regimes and often described as the greatest Palestinian cartoonist, was assassinated in London. In 2011, Ali Ferzat, the award-winning Syrian cartoonist and head of the Arab Cartoonists’ Association, was beaten by Syrian security forces. “Samandal,” a Lebanese comic book for adults, was fined $20,000 for mocking the Catholic faith.

Members of the new generation of cartoonists said they feel there’s more space to express themselves than in the past but they admit they’re conscious of the red lines.

“Free speech to the Arab world is what Donald Trump’s hair is to coiffure,” Hage said. “Any topic you address in this part of the world can be extremely sensitive for someone who holds a position of power.”

Is it worth the risk?

“A cartoon is like a sound-mixer,” said Syrian illustrator Ibraheem Ramadan. “You put your message out there and smoothly make some parts more effective or louder than others.”

Cartoonists say it is satisfying that their work prompts discussion. Many young commentators respond to cartoons by sharing their experiences and frustrations.

Salma, a 22-year-old Algerian student, said she follows many cartoonists, particularly from the Arab world, on Instagram. No matter whether they’re from Morocco, Iraq or Sudan, Salma said she likes “the way they shed light on our daily challenges… and offer much-needed therapeutic laughter.”

Fakhoury said Arab cartoonists often reach parts of world opinion that other regional commentators cannot. “I am not sure what would make a bigger impact than war, than compassion, than the feeling of losing one’s identity and trying through art to maintain it,” he said.

That itself is a challenge, Fakhoury added. It’s always been hard to make a living as a cartoonist in the Arab world but the situation is especially grim, he said, with “newspapers having problems surviving.”

No laughing matter.