Almost a year ago, when Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was abducted and had his hands broken by men likely connected to authoritarian president Bashar Assad’s government, the message was clear: stop drawing. But Ferzat defied the warning and, in solidarity with the rebels fighting the Assad regime, resumed creating his cartoons with new zeal as soon as his hands healed. Instead of silencing Ferzat’s work, the attack amplified it worldwide, bringing him recognition from Cartoonists Rights Network International and Time, among many others. Now, his cartoons are figuring prominently in an exhibit at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam.
In the accompanying artist’s statement reprinted on the website of Nafas Art Magazine, Ferzat discusses his past efforts to circumvent censorship and his determination to continue drawing no matter what. For almost 40 years, says Ferzat, he managed to avoid government sanction:
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.
He even published in the official paper Al Thawra, where Assad was among his fans. Ferzat describes the approval process instituted for his cartoons there:
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.
At one point, a former prime minister even offered to pay Ferzat not to publish in Al Thawra, because “‘your cartoons undo all of our work on the first page.’” Instead, Ferzat founded his own independent newspaper, Al Doumari, which was allowed to publish for just over two years before losing all of its advertisers due to government intimidation. Ferzat is now working on reviving Al Doumari from Kuwait, where he lives in exile.
Shortly before the Syrian rebellion began last year, Ferzat decided to move beyond the oblique symbolism he had previously used, and drew identifiable caricatures of Assad and a few cronies. Ferzat knew that this would likely provoke the government, but he felt it was an important statement that the Syrian people needed to hear:
I wanted to help break the barrier of fear in the hearts of the people. I considered this to be my duty, as well….It was a decision that took a lot of guts, but I felt it was time. No one could take their corruption anymore.
Even after being beaten and threatened, Ferzat feels he must contribute to the resistance any way he can, just as thousands of other Syrians have done:
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.
The exhibition Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria runs through November 23 at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam. Nafas Art Magazine has collected a selection of the cartoons in an online gallery. Previous CBLDF coverage of Ferzat and his work can be found here, here, and here.
Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.