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Art and satire play an important role in the current situation in Syria. Ali Ferzat, cartoonist, has become the voice of the Syrian people and the revolution. His drawings and caricatures transcend barriers of language and nationality and encourage new insights into the abuse of power, corruption of state control and aspirations for freedom. At once amusing and disturbing, Ferzat’s distinctive imagery displays a visual vocabulary long sharpened from decades of avoiding the censor.
Already in 2002 he was recipient of the Prince Claus Award in recognition of the way he fuses artistic creativity with courageous commitment to moral principles. Until 23 November 2012, the Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam presents the exhibition Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria. Cartoons of Ali Ferzat, cyber puppet plays of Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, cell-phone cinema, art, songs of a revolutionary hit parade, graffiti and writing show the non-violent creative dissent of the Syrian revolution.
This statement of Ali Ferzat is published in the exhibition's accompanying publication, which analyses the creative expressions of dissent taking place in Syria today as well as essays and interviews with prominent Syrian intellectuals.
I think I was five when I started drawing cartoons and making up satirical stories about what was taking place in my own house. I didn't choose to be a caricaturist. I was born like this. When I was twelve years old, I had my first cartoon published in Al Ayyam ('The Days'). The owner had no idea I was only in the sixth grade!
My cartoons touch on people's lives, and people trust them. They became like a lantern that people look to. My caricatures were devoid of speech and used symbols, and because of that I could survive censorship in my country and publish some of them freely. This approach also gave my work an international appeal since it relied on images anyone could understand – without the barrier of language intervening. So while I was trying to avoid censorship at home, I unintentionally gave my cartoons wings that made them fly off to the rest of the world. In this way I managed to get the voice of the people inside Syria to the international community, basically through shared channels of human interest.
My early cartoons showed actions and behaviour based around a general theme, like hunger. Little by little my cartoons became very popular and people bought the newspapers for the cartoons. From the early to late 1970s, I published a daily editorial cartoon in the official newspaper Al Thawra ('Revolution'). Sometimes the managing editor failed to understand the symbolism in the cartoon, and after it was published, he would get a shouting phone call from the government. So a new procedure was put in place. First, the editor in chief had to look at the cartoon. If he approved it, he had to send it to the general manager of the newspaper. Whether or not he approved it, or found it too controversial or difficult to understand, he had to send it to the minister of information (in charge of media). At that time, the minister was a bit of an ass, and he would say 'yes' because he didn't understand it. The next day people saw the cartoon and immediately comprehended its meaning because it was just a matter of common sense. Then the angry phone calls would start all over again.
One time, the general manager sat for a long time contemplating one of my cartoons, unable to detect exactly why he should censor it. But he felt he needed to, simply because he didn't trust it, so he looked at me and said, "Just promise, swear to God, there is nothing bad in this." In 1980, I had a meeting with a former prime minister who said, "Can we give you a salary so that you will stay and do nothing. Your cartoons undo all of our work on the first page."
For me, drawing is a means to an end and not a purpose by itself. The artist is always the one who produces an idea, but if that artist is not living within his own community and going through what the people there are going through, then how could he understand what's going on and reflect it? To be a good artist or painter, you have to express the feelings and experiences of the people. Art is all about living with your own people, and having a vision about what they need as well. You can't sit in your own room isolated behind your window and draw about life. It doesn't work like that.
The concept of red lines depends on the culture and the level of civil liberties achieved in a country. Europe and America are definitely different from the Middle East. Freedom of the press should imply a responsibility rather than something undertaken chaotically. It's not like I do whatever I feel like doing at whatever moment I feel like doing it, regardless of the consequences. It is a matter of moral commitment. It's relative; you always have to find the right balance. Some newspapers refrain from nothing and call it 'freedom', while other newspapers even censor human interest stories. I see both as bad. Too much suppression in the name of commitment is not good, but by the same token too much unethical commitment in the name of freedom is not wise either. They are both the same.
At the beginning of Bashar al-Assad's presidency, I used to communicate directly with him beyond the control of the mukhabarat, the secret police, and I was happy about that. I tried to get him to meet other artists. I remember when he first walked into my exhibition at a cultural centre – a tall dude with a large entourage. He asked me how he could access what the people were thinking and I told him to just talk to them. When he asked me what my plans were for the future, I said I was going to start a satirical newspaper and wanted to tackle every aspect of the government. He said I might as well go after the parliament as well.
When the Ba'ath Party initially came to power in 1963, it closed all private and independent newspapers and publications. My newspaper, Al Doumari ('Lampl ighter'), was the first independent newspaper in nearly twenty years. One of our themes was corruption. A scandal had erupted with IV serums because they were out of date and yet they were still being used in a hospital in Damascus. So I drew serum bags filled with fish. The newspaper was allowed to publish for two years and three months exactly. Then it was banned. During this period, there were two attempts to arrest me and 32 cases were filed against the newspaper in the courts. Pro-Ba'ath students demonstrated in front of the offices of Al Doumari. People were prevented from advertising in it. By then, I was never able to reach Bashar, and when I finally did get through, he told me to handle my own problems. Now we're working on publishing a new Al Doumari outside of Syria that will complement the coverage of the revolution from within.
Breaking the barrier of fear
Although my cartoons always used symbols to focus on behavioural patterns and rarely portrayed identifiable persons, three months before the revolution began I wanted to help break the barrier of fear in the hearts of the people. I considered this to be my duty, as well. So I put on my website, "We have to break the barrier of fear that is 50 years old," and I drew first Prime Minister Adel Safar; then (the wealthy businessman and cousin of Bashar) Rami Makhlouf; recognisable figures from the security apparatus and finally the president. It was a decision that took a lot of guts, but I felt it was time. No one could take their corruption anymore. Admittedly, it was nearly suicidal to draw someone who is considered a god-like figure for the regime and the Ba'ath party.
As a cartoonist, it is not my position to discuss politics, but we have been explaining our cause and bleeding for over a year. We will be bleeding and explaining our cause for the next ten years. I haven't seen the British, Dutch or French demonstrating against what's happening in Syria in the way they demonstrated against the Vietnam War. It is a massacre and I am upset by the world's silence.
When I was living in Damascus, the US ambassador and other officials visited me and asked the following question: "We support the revolution, but do you know who the people in the streets are?" I told them, I don't know them one by one but I do know their conscience. Every Friday is dedicated to a theme. The first Friday was 'No to sectarianism'. Then there was Azadi Friday, which means 'freedom' in Kurdish; Great (Good) Friday to acknowledge the Christians; 'Free Women of Syria' Friday and 'The Syrian Revolution Is for Everyone' Friday. Now we are seeing certain sides breaking these pledges of freedom, and there are conflicting sides within the anti-government opposition. Despite all that is going on, I have a request: Don't confuse the politics with the diplomacy.
After I was assaulted and my hands were broken, someone asked me: could I still find the courage to draw? I told them I had been ashamed by the suffering of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib (whose body was badly mutilated, returned to his family and prompted nationwide protests in Syria). I am humbled by the culture and heart of people who cannot draw or write but who are sacrificing their lives for freedom. It's not about being well read, it's about how you behave. I don't want to sound extremist, but Syria is the birthplace of the world's culture – your home before your home. It is where the alphabet was created.
Has the revolution inspired me to draw more? Your enthusiasm to produce varies, according to how you're feeling psychologically – what's going on around you – and how well you are physically. I just started drawing after healing. Now my hands are better and I've begun to come back.
Culture in Defiance:
Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria
4 June - 23 November 2012
Prince Claus Fund Gallery
1017 CE Amsterdam
The exhibition is an initiative of
the Prince Claus Fund
Curators: Malu Halasa, Aram Tahhan, Leen Zyiad and Donatella Della Ratta
A bilingual English and Arabic publication accompanies the project