by Betsy Gomez
One of the side effects of the clashes and protests against President Bashar al-Assad that have seized Syria is the ability to speak more openly against the government, an ability that had been previously stifled by the regime. In the midst of this political discourse, some Syrians have embraced satire, generating videos, plays, and cartoons that use humor to counter the horror, frustration, and civil unrest that has affected citizens of the nation.
A recent report by Michael Rundle on the Huffington Post describes the role of satire in the protests, including the work of one cartoonist in particular, Ali Ferzat:
Much of the satire of the Syrian uprising draws on a rich tradition of dark humour in the country’s cultural past.
From the social criticism inherent in the plays and poems of Muhammad Al-Maghou in the 1970s, to the satire which bloomed in Syria’s (brief) ‘spring’ after Bashar al-Assad’s ascension to power in 2000, irony and self-deprecation is nothing new in the country.
Neither is the danger associated with expressing it. Now, as then, some of Syria’s top satirists are paying the consequences for their work.
One of those is Ali Ferzat, a cartoonist who was recently forced to flee Syria in fear of his life. An exhibition of some of the 15,000 cartoons he has published in dozens of Arab newspapers opened in London recently.
According to Ferzat the cartoonist was friends with Bashar al-Assad before he took over from his father as president, with what many believed to be a reformist’s agenda. When Bashar eventually took over in 2000, Ferzat, encouraged by the regime, began a satirical magazine called ‘al-Domari’, or ‘The Lamplighter’.
It was the first independent paper published in Syria since the Baath Party came to power in 1963.
“But when I realised Assad was more excited by the project than I was, I got scared,” Ferzat said in London recently, at an event hosted by Free Word and the Reel Syria festival.
He was right to be worried. By 2003, angry that they were increasingly the target of al-Domari’s comics, the regime effectively forced the newspaper to close, paying protesters to demonstrate, intimidating advertisers to pull out and filing defamation cases in court.
Ferzat’s relationship with the authorities grew ever more tense, even as he attempted to mask his satire behind symbolism. Eventually he depicted Assad himself in a critical cartoon, published online. “The first to disaster,” Ferzat said.
Finally, in August 2011, the regime snapped. Ferzat was pulled from his car in Damascus by masked gunmen, who he believes were employed by the government. They beat him and broke his hands, and dumped him by the side of the road near the airport.
As the unrest in Syria gains momentum, prompting action from the UN, satirists throughout the country acknowledge the importance of their role as opponents and critics of oppressive government regimes. Rundle interviewed several satirists, including Ferzat, who acknowledged that his work has taken on a life of its own. From another interview in Rundle’s article:
YouTube satirist Jiim Siin does not agree with all aspects of the Syrian opposition – and he disagrees with the idea of military intervention or arming the Free Syrian Army. But he remains a critic of the Assad regime, and the complexity of his views merely reflects the complexity of the uprising.
“Before the uprising, Syria had opponents but no opposition,” he said. “Now it has opponents and oppositions but still no opposition. … One of my clips ends with the security officer telling his lieutenant ‘When the opposition prepares a communique which is readable, clear, practical and which my brain can understand, come over and wake me up.’ I recorded that clip in November 2011 and I am saddened to see that it still rings true in March 2012.”
For a satirist it’s important to be as critical of the opposition as of the government, he says.