Ali Farzat: Arab Cartoonist and Gadfly

Ali Farzat, Syria's best-known political cartoonist, began publishing Al-Doumari, the country's first independent satirical weekly in 2001. Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had initially encouraged Farzat's efforts, he soon soured on the experiment. The magazine's call for sweeping political reforms, its attacks on corruption and—most of all—Farzat's stinging cartoons infuriated the Baathist leadership. In 2003, the government shut the magazine down. Since then, Farzat has kept fighting to bring it back to life, and he has continued to publish his cartoons in the Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al-Watan. The BBC is now working on a project to bring his characters to life in animated cartoons that are to air in several Arab countries. Recently, NEWSWEEK-in-Arabic's Hassan Abdallah talked with Farzat in Damascus, where he lives. Excerpts:

Hassan Abdallah: Bashar al-Assad used to come visit you at home before he became president, and he's responsible for [at first] legalizing the publishing of your drawings. Why this change of heart?
Ali Farzat:
Before he became president, he used to attend my exhibits and a friendship developed as a result. But there are those who thought that Al-Doumari had crossed the line in exposing corruption and putting into doubt the reputation of some institutions and individuals. We used to cover important issues dealing with reform and the things holding it back, and we sent an open letter to the president asking him to institute needed reforms. They viewed that as a threat to their control. They wanted me to follow the official line, they offered all sorts of incentives, and then they threatened. Finally, they shut down the paper. People in Syria remember that Al-Doumari preferred telling the truth, even if that led to its demise, over lying to the people and staying alive. There are Baathists who consider Syria their property and they behave as if they are first-class citizens, better than the rest. Syria has become the property of a group of monopolists.

How powerful is the Baath Party in Syria now?
The Baath Party resembles a very old man, old and decrepit. Can you believe that none of the promises made by the Baath Party ever were fulfilled? They have to know that there are other national parties, which have the right to be part of the regime. I am not a member of any party, but all parties should have a part in formulating and making decisions.

Are you threatened with arrest at any time?
I've been questioned by the security agencies that deal with political affairs, and I've been sued by the Syrian minister of Defense because of one of my drawings. What's funny is that it's the same cartoon that caused me problems with Saddam Hussein in 1989, and I went through the same ordeal when I drew a cartoon published in an Egyptian magazine depicting Libyan President Muammar Kaddafi. The then-editor of the magazine told me that Kaddafi had barred the magazine in Libya because of my drawings. When I draw a dictator, a hundred dictators think that I'm criticizing and making fun of them. Similarly, the corrupt feel targeted when I draw cartoons depicting corruption. Many Syrian government institutions used to complain about my work even though my cartoons dealt with "wrongdoing" without mentioning names or providing descriptions.

Is this adversity to criticism specific to you, or is it a Syrian policy in general?
It's generalized of course. [It] extends to many fields: literature, science, medicine and art. They want people to be subservient just like the members of the Syrian People's Assembly, who get elected based on the needs of the regime. They don't care if you're a world-renowned celebrity, or if you're the winner of international awards. What's important to them is your willingness to compromise in favor of the regime. I'm on the people's side and I don't compromise, that's why they barred me from working.

Are you a political dissident?
That's belittling my importance as an artist. An artist and creator is more important than a politician. They know the importance an artist has, which is why their response is harsh when you refuse to accept their misdeeds. I hate conformity, and a true artist must rebel against all this. I don't represent a political party, but I represent the people's conscience.

What's the future of the Syrian regime?
If they don't recognize the dangers and if they continue to deprive other national parties of true and effective participation, I foresee a monumental crisis. The regime is in need of total reform and change. Free elections are a must, as is the formation of national parties and the peaceful sharing of power. Not one member of the current People's Assembly truly represents the people. We the Syrian people are now mature, yet we are still fed, given drink and clothed by the Baath Party as the party sees fit, as if we were children.

Drawing without commentary requires a broad view of the world. Why do you insist on this specific style?
I hope we're not underestimating the Arab reader by assuming he's not well informed. I draw without commentary because I want to leave the reader the intellectual space to enjoy the work, deducing and grasping the idea that I wove into the cartoon. The reader might forget the words, but he will never forget an image that drew his attention and made an impression upon his visual memory.

I think that by using this approach you are avoiding censorship and scrutiny by the security apparatus.
At the beginning, it was a form of avoidance. The regime in Syria is very brutal, and its security agencies very oppressive. Yet I "specify" the target when the need arises. For example, I drew a cartoon clearly identifying the Syrian Baath Party. I include written commentary when the event is exceptional and in need of identification. Symbolism then becomes damaging. But, in some instances, a symbol can be more eloquent. For example, I drew a cartoon depicting the prevalence of torture in Arab countries. It showed a torturer inflicting great pain on a jailed prisoner, tearing him apart with whips and saws, yet, at the same time watching a romantic television program that made him cry profusely. I think that symbolism in this case is more eloquent than naming a specific regime and this strikes the oppressors at their core.

Did you ever draw a cartoon of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad or his son Bashar?
In Syria, drawing the president is forbidden, be it to criticize or to compliment. This tradition is stronger than any law. Yet no enforcer can limit my imagination. I have drawings depicting all Syrian officials, but nobody will publish them.

Is this why you started using codes and symbols?
At the beginning there was a real need for that; it was a necessity. Taboos abound, starting with the president, and ending with the party or the government officials. To avoid trouble and reach the people, I started using specific characters with clearly identifiable traits. The character with torn clothes, hunger-stricken, with a long beard, is the miserable Arab citizen. As for the Arab official; he's the one wearing sunglasses, gold jewelry, fancy clothes, smoking a cigar, with a heavy build. The intelligence agent is the one with a gun dangling from his clothes and whose eyes dart every which way. This is the formula that I came up with to trick the censors.

There is a project which aims to transform the characters that you draw for the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Watan into animated cartoons.
The project is supervised by the BBC with the participation of five Arab countries. Its goal is to transform the characters into animated cartoons dealing with humanitarian and social subjects, which will be broadcast on Arab satellite stations. This is an excellent artistic step; I will be able to see my characters moving and yelling to their hearts' content. It's worth noting that most of the print-media readers are now captives of television.

Do you think that Arab political cartoons wield more influence than Arab opposition parties?
Absolutely. Cartoons have a larger reach than opposition parties. This medium builds bridges of sympathy between you and the masses, providing you with a measure of immunity, and empowering you with the courage necessary to struggle on. No one is without fear. We need the support of the people. Here in Syria people talk about how I was able to use symbolism to go beyond the constraints put on the media. And I formed a relationship built on credibility, which made the people trust me even though I worked for official media outlets that have no credibility. Then the regime closed down my magazine and used their official newspapers to slander me, which added more credibility to my cartoons.

Which one of your cartoons is your greatest work?
My portrait of "The General" which, ever since it was put on exhibit in Paris, every Arab dictator thinks is a depiction of him. Although, rather than portraying a specific individual, I portrayed their oppressive behavior, which made every single one of them a target for my pen. I fired the "enforcer" that once controlled my thoughts.