Political cartoons in Syria, whether exhibited in newspapers or art galleries owned by the cartoonists themselves, have long been the victim of censorship, which distanced this art from its public. This reality runs against the essence of the art itself: it is enough to know that the word “caricature” is derived from the Latin word carricare or “to attack”, to realise the intractable nature of political cartoon. Syrian cartoonists are waiting for a modern law to regulate media and end censorship on this intransigent art, which has resisted all forms of repression, the peak of which was shutting down Al-Dumari, the newspaper produced by cartoonist Ali Farzat.
Al-Dumari’s license was withdrawn in March 2003, and the 115th issue of this publication – seen as a special space for Syrian cartoonists – was taken out of circulation.
“The Syrian press doesn’t believe in the art of political cartoons at all; we have noticed this lack of belief for the past 20 years, even though, before that time, the [contribution] of cartoonists to local newspapers was a source of respect,” says caricaturist Fares Qarabet, recalling the past era. “The space [allocated for cartoons in newspapers] started to diminish with the decline of the level [of professionalism] of editors in national newspapers, which coincided with the appearance of a new category of cartoonists whose level was as bad as that of these publications’ administration.”
As a result, prominent names such Ali Farzat, Abdel Hadi Shamma’, Hameed Qarout, and Abdullah Basmaji were marginalised, and this form of art nearly disappeared from Syrian culture.
“Political cartoons are an undesirable art in Syria,” said Abdel Hadi Shamma‘. “Why should Syrian cartoonists draw [subjects] outside of their country?” he wonders, before answering by saying that, first, their “own country” does not want them to include it in their drawings, and second, this art cannot “afford them bread,” it can merely provide them with “egg shells”.
Shamma’ cites these reasons for quitting his art, adding that he was able to draw many Arab leaders, such as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, whereas he has been unable to depict a single director general in Syria.
Political cartoons in Syria are still caught in the past; they are only allowed to alternate between insulting either the United States or Israel. Despite the progress that news media have achieved in reporting and commentary, some still insist that caricature lags behind current political events. Consequently, any cartoon that appears in a Syrian newspaper will come across as lacking creativity because all the topics have been already been used up. The suspicious disappearance of space allocated to political cartoons in state-owned newspapers such as At-Thawra, Al-Ba‘th and Tishreen illustrates this issue quite well. But is anyone enquiring about this absence? Is anyone concerned about it?
Cartoonist Abdullah Basmaji points out that the majority of both public and private publications promote cartoons that aim for entertainment rather than relating to the concerns of the average citizen.
“Let’s take the newspaper Baladna, for example,” said Basmaji. “It suspended its young artist Ala’ Rustum after criticising parliamentary elections in one of his drawings, which then caused the newspaper to be suspended from issuing its print edition for a month. After that, Baladna continued to run political cartoons, but of the kind devoid of any content and unrelated to what is happening on the streets. It was lacking a critical, sarcastic essence.”
The crisis facing political cartoons in Syria reflects the dire situation that the Syrian press has reached in the past decades. There is a common saying among Syrian editors, “Never mind! Who’s going to read what we write any way?” This expression, which reflects an established disbelief in the importance of the content of writing, might explain the lack of worry among most Syrian journalists about the meaningless verbiage in their writings.
“The important thing is that no one complains against the newspaper, it’s not important for it to be read,” said Shamma’. “That is why our newspapers are used to wipe glass and cover kitchen shelves; this is what I drew in one of my cartoons that mocked the Syrian press.”
What is surprising, though, is that in Syria the ceiling of censorship seems high for television drama, unlike the case for political cartoons. Qarabet gives the example of the television series Buq’at Dawa‘, which has been allowed to make daring criticism that breaks social and political taboos. Cartoonists, on the other hand, are not allowed to present their own view of the problems facing Syrians.
From Nidal Khalil’s experience, censorship of political cartoons in Syria follows a logic that is not easy to understand.
“I have drawn several political figures in the previous government. I’m not scared of drawing political figures, it’s drawing people in their entourage that I’m scared of,” said Khalil. “These people are more royalist than the king; they stand on guard against any creative work, and they could interpret it as they wish.”
Khalil thinks that it is not necessary to draw the president of the republic to become free.
“As a cartoonist, it’s sometimes enough to include a small detail that is socially sensitive in order to start a big crisis. I could draw a vendor sexually harassing a woman, and it could turn from a minor issue into an affair of public opinion.”
As for Fares Qarabet, he believes the revival of political cartoons is conditional on a radical change that touches upon journalism as a whole.
“I believe that once we have journalism that depends on the box office – ie cares about gain and loss -and when newspapers [start] searching for gifted cartoon artists and pay them decent salaries, then political cartoon will have a decent space,” he said. “At that point we will be relieved from these media that employ a wooden rhetoric. The media do not care about issues of distribution, marketing, gain or loss, because the state covers all of these expenses as well as this [large] amount of nonsense in its newspapers.”