The lot of political cartoonists in the Middle East & North Africa region is not an easy one.
In their native countries, many of these artistic activists’ face censorship, persecution, imprisonment or worse, for putting pen to paper.
Sudanese political artist Khalid Albaih lives in Denmark. His caricatures & criticism of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, have made it impossible for him to live in his homeland.
Romanian-born & Qatar-raised, the son of a diplomat has always been surrounded by politics.
Through countless exhibitions and via social media, the activist has been tirelessly trying to dispel mistruths about Sudan and the wider region.
Most famously, his works were emblazoned on walls and banners across the Middle East & North Africa, by protesters and street artists during the Arab Spring.
“For me, the Arab Spring is still going on. Its outcomes are still happening,” Albaih told Inspire Middle East’s Rebecca McLaughlin-Eastham. “And I believe cartooning will always be a strong way to convey a message. It’s in the middle, it’s not journalism and it’s not full on art, so we talk to everyone.”
Keen to connect the global artistic community, Albaih founded a digital platform called FADAA, putting artists in touch with patrons offering them places to showcase their work.
His aim is to build an artistic ecosystem and foster a creative sharing community in the MENA region, whilst promoting freedom of speech.
“Freedom of speech is a big issue, and there’s a lot of debate around its limits. Limits that you give yourself, or others give you,” he says. “But I think for an independent political cartoonist, the most important thing is knowledge of what you’re talking about & its implications.”
When asked about how connected the Sudanese diaspora in Europe were to political events that have taken place in his homeland in recent years, Albaih expressed a sense of solidarity:
“The Sudanese diaspora had a huge impact on what happened in Sudan last year, which is the revolution that toppled 30 years of the dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir,” he says. “What we did, as that diaspora, is try to magnify & tell the world about this place called Sudan, where most of the news you hear of is negative. We are trying to undo this with a positive, peaceful revolution. Because we all know what could be of this of this country, and what good there could be for the world as well.”
One of Egypt’s most famous and influential female cartoonists is Doaa el-Adl.
She is bravely drawing lines through global religious & political stereotypes, whilst highlighting the plight of women in her country by touching upon socially taboo topics like divorce & domestic violence.
Embarking upon her career 13 years ago, el-Adl initially struggled to be accepted into the male-dominated cartooning industry.
More serious challenges, however, have come in recent times, from political & religious groups threatening her personal safety and looking to silence her.
If anything, says the activist, the opposite has happened.
“When the Muslim Brotherhood were in power I drew [cartoons] against them. I criticized them and they accused me of insulting Islam – which is not true,” el-Adl told Inspire. “I criticized the way they mixed religion with politics, because they used religion to convince people about political things. So, I kept going and I drew more cartoons.”
Drawing on history
Whilst political cartoonists like Albaih & el-Adl come in for much criticism from some quarters, the attention they are drawing to important issues in their country would seem to paint a far bigger picture.
They are heralded by many as pen-wielding warriors, giving new life to an artistic form of political commentary that dates back many decades in the MENA region.
Arguably one of the best-known & original regional satirists was Palestinian Naji al-Ali who, from the 1960s onwards, fearlessly criticized Arab regimes and Israel through his artwork until his assassination in 1987.
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With contributions from Nancy Sarkis and Arthur de Oliveira.