Amid revolution, Arab cartoonists are drawing attention

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 10:28 PM

It was August of 2006 when Dalia Ziada, a young Egyptian writer, discovered her favorite comic-book action hero. He trumpeted justice. He preached of nonviolent pressure. And he had dreams of a promised land that protest might bring.

Ziada had just heard the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"It was amazing and really moved me," says Ziada, now 29 and a Cairo-based activist. "Since then, I decided to use MLK nonviolent strategies in everything in my life, starting from my personal life to major political participation and civil problems - and it worked perfectly."

Ziada tried out some of King's strategies that very August night, when she applied verbal "pressure and negotiation" to win a battle with her uncle, who was planning to have Ziada's 8-year-old niece circumcised in the morning. Ziada herself was circumcised as a child.

And Ziada was also motivated politically, as she decided to translate a half-century-old American comic book about King into Arabic. "The main motive [was] for me to have this book available for the young activists in the region," says Ziada, noting that King was a young man "when he launched his movement."

Since first publishing the book in 2008, Ziada and her group, the American Islamic Congress, say they have distributed thousands of Arabic-language issues of "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story" in the Middle East, including in Tahrir Square at the height of January's revolution.

The book is testament not only to the power of King's message, Ziada says, but also to the popularity of cartooning in the Arab world, especially among the younger generation. And she is just one of many Arab comic publishers and cartoonists who believe passionately that their work can help inform, inflame and open the hearts and minds of their Mideast readers.

'Drawing Mubarak completely'

When Egyptian political cartoonist Amr Okasha sits at the drafting board, his drawing hand is fresh from brandishing larger objects to defend himself and his home. Amid a revolution, sometimes the artist must wield both the pen and the sword.

"There are some images I can't forget my entire life," says Okasha, whose editorial cartoons appear in such Egyptian newspapers as Al-Dostor and Al-Wafd. "In the first days of the revolution, I couldn't go to Tahrir Square because the secret forces and thugs who belonged to the Mubarak regime came every day to the resident districts where I live [randomly firing]. . . . Every day, my neighbors and I had to gather in the street with whatever tools we had - thick sticks and knives - and stayed overnight to protect our homes, wives and children."

Okasha says that he and his neighbors set up checkpoints and that the army told them they would have to fend for themselves. "One of my neighbors was killed protecting his home," says Okasha, 39.

Okasha channels his opinions and experiences directly into his cartoons. "I'm trying to expose corruption," he says, "or explain . . . what would happen if Egypt's ruling National Party continued to control Egypt."

The most obvious change in his work, however, is his ability not only to render judgment against Mubarak, but to literally render Mubarak.

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