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Amid revolution, Arab cartoonists are drawing attention

By Michael Cavna
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.

"Before the revolution, I [only] drew part of Mubarak - his big nose. When readers saw it, they knew what I meant," says Okasha, who has received death threats over his work. "After the revolution, I am drawing Mubarak completely."

Egyptian political cartoonist Sherif Arafa, 30, says: "It was impossible to criticize Mubarak in a governmental newspaper. The cartoon would never be published, and if it was, the editor in chief can lose his position and the cartoonist could get arrested."

"I was working in a governmental newspaper, so I wasn't allowed to criticize top officials and of course Mubarak," Arafa says. "However, we had tricks to draw him in cartoons, such as cartooning him from the back."

After the revolution, he says, "the first thing I did was cartoon Mubarak and publish it on the Cartoon Movement's Web site. I finally published all the cartoons I had hidden in my drawers for many years."

'The right to laugh'

Emad Hajjaj appreciates that there is a subversive power simply in depicting an Arabic leader in a silly manner.

"Powerful visual arts are really affecting on the Arabic street," the Jordanian political cartoonist says, especially "in a place like the Arab world, which still lacks for basic freedoms, human rights," and where there are "high levels of illiteracy and powerful pro-government media."

"In a place like that," Hajjaj says, "there is a great appreciation for jokes and humor and cartoons. People here just love the guy who can simply draw the Arabic dictators in a funny way. If we can't change them, we have at least the right to laugh about them!"

Thanks to social media, "there are no secret jokes anymore," says Hajjaj, whose cartoons appear in the newspaper Al-Ghad and on the site ArabCartoon.net . "Arabic cartoonists have their own Web sites now, Facebook groups and pages dedicated to wild cartoons, political jokes and funny Flash cartoons."

Although Hajjaj has received death threats in the past, being controversial is part of his job now. His most controversial cartoons often are works that condemn terror, or criticize Islamic clerics, or take on social issues, such as honor killings and women's rights.

"Sometimes I take the risk to shock readers," Hajjaj says, "and let them see what they don't like to see."

Auxiliary role for change

Cartoons alone might not spark a revolutionary shift, but they help bolster larger movements.

"They are not the cause of political change, but they can help the process in creative ways," says Babak Rahimi, a scholar on Arab and Islamic culture who teaches at the University of California at San Diego. In such nations as Egypt and Tunisia, he says, graphic works might play an auxiliary role by contributing to popular culture.

"Popular culture can be viewed as a distinct type of political discourse," Rahimi says, "and in many ways, graphic forms of expressions are part and parcel to a political aesthetics with subversive qualities."

The UCSD scholar also notes the powerful appeal of comics among younger citizens.

"Many Arab countries, especially Egypt and Francophone Arab nations, have had a rich comics literary culture since 1960," he says. "Historically, the audiences of Arab [comics] have been largely younger men in their 20s and 30s . . . and the popularity of this unique genre has grown in recent years."

Reimagining reality

Ziada has faith that the message of nonviolent protest can continue to resonate with young comics readers.

The comic she translated into Arabic, "The Montgomery Story" (about the Montgomery bus boycott), was published in 1958 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. "The book is an inspiration to all young people, and it helped so many understand the core strategy of the American civil rights movement and compare it to other nonviolent movements in India and South Africa," says Zaida, whose writings have appeared in many publications, including The Washington Post.

"The story of MLK is universal because it focuses on the human side inside all of us," Ziada adds. "It is about bringing justice to all. . . . The people in the Middle East are hungry for this knowledge, and they [are] surely inspired by MLK."

Okasha says he sees hope in his young neighbors who stood up for their rights.

"I remember Gandhi and his struggle for independence," Okasha says. "And what adds to my happiness is that these brave young Egyptians who sparked the revolution are the same people who painted and cleaned up [Tahrir] Square after the revolution. . . . I want to say that the Egypt before the January 25 revolution is not the Egypt now - and the future will be better than today."

And the ultimate role of comic-rendering amid a revolution?

"They can primarily help people to rethink their political conditions," Rahimi says, "and through the power of images, they can provide new ways for people to reimagine their everyday reality."

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