KUWAIT CITY: Art and revolution are complementary things, according to Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat. He said the Syrian uprising broke the barrier of fear that had bound his art.“ An artist must go through a concrete experience, a life experience,” Ferzat told The Daily Star. “Reading is not enough. Looking at things and listening to them is not enough. You should touch your art with your own hands.”
The revolution did not change him as a person, the artist continued, but his experience was made more complete.
“The revolution also showed me that art and culture cannot be only a theory or something you lecture about,” he said. “They are a way of life and a comprehensive behavior.
“I cannot isolate myself from society and from the people. If I wear gloves and put a barrier between me and them, I am not an artist anymore. This why the Syrian revolution exposed a lot of so-called intellectuals and revealed they could not get out of a narrow entourage, they were not genuine.”
Among Syrian, Arab and international newspapers, the 63-year-old Ferzat has published more than 15,000 caricatures. He has developed his passion for caricature since he was young and said that the talent of a cartoonist was based not only on drawing skills but also on the spirit of irony.
“When I was 5 years old, I did not draw,” he said, “but I recall my parents would ask me to mimic someone in a funny way during family evening gatherings. I’ve had this sarcastic spirit since I was a child.
“This proves that the real talent is in this spirit; drawing and technique are things you learn. What really matters is this spirit.”
The artist’s ironic spirit and wit are obvious in his behavior as well as his extensive ability to capture details around him. Ferzat frequently interrupts conversation to tell a joke, or just to mock something in a tone so serious that you find yourself momentarily taken in before bursting into laughter.
He said events in Syria changed his style of illustration and moved his cartoons from the discrete and symbolic to the direct.
“When I found myself living under the rule of an oppressive regime that monitored everything, I resorted to symbolism while drawing the characters of my cartoons. The cartoon did not have a clear identity and could apply to any time frame or place, and the people I drew could have been anyone.”
Ferzat said that he broke the barrier of fear almost three months before the uprising in Syria began and he bluntly drew a caricature of Syria’s President Bashar Assad and other Baathist regime officials.
“After breaking the barrier of fear, I became more direct. ... I added words and I drew the characters as they are with all their facial expressions.”
In August 2011, after publishing a satirical drawing of Assad lifting a thumb for Libya’s ousted Gadhafi, Ferzat was attacked on the streets of Damascus by Assad loyalists who beat him ferociously and shattered both of his hands.
Ferzat recalled the incident and said his survival was miraculous. The men blindfolded him, threw him in a car, called him names and attacked him.
“After 10 minutes of beating, your body gets numb and you stop feeling the pain,” he said. “I was motionless when they threw me in a deserted street, but I was relieved because I was not dead, and I had to crawl and walk my way out for help.
“No car would stop to give me a ride. It was a highway. What happened is that one of the tires of a pickup truck that was passing by exploded, and the driver had to stop to change it,” he added. “I asked him to drive me near my home because I was afraid to go to any hospital.
Pictures of the bloodied Ferzat spread through mainstream and social media, provoking statements of support from all sectors.
The artist was awarded many international prizes. In 2012, Time magazine named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
“I am still keeping the shirt I was wearing during the attack with the blood stains on it, whenever stability is restored in Syria, I will hold an exhibition with all the prizes I collected and the torn-apart shirt.
“I will say this is what the world has offered me and this is what the regime gave me.”
Ferzat moved to Kuwait City shortly after the attack, where since 1992 he has been drawing caricatures for Al-Watan Kuwaiti daily.
He spent over a year roaming the world with international exhibitions of his drawings, trying to promote the revolution as a way path to a diverse democratic state instead of one that falls prey to Islamic radicalism.
“People abroad interact with artistic language more than the political rhetoric; the Western population is different from their officials and regimes. ... The people sympathize with the Syrians and their quest for freedom.”
Ferzat spends hours a day interacting with Syrians via Facebook. He posts updates about rebel military action and comments upon political events.
Ferzat said that that living in exile was part of the price he had to pay, a very small one compared to what his countrymen were paying to get rid of over four decades of living under the Baath regime.
He maintains hope for a breakthrough his country and that the essence of the revolution will eventually emerge from the distortions.
“If you look throughout history, you find that there is no sterilized revolution,” he said. “It is very hard to get rid of a regime that ruled for almost 50 years and that established a mafia network of interest with the entire world.
“Let me put it this way. ... For 50 years, Syria has been similar to a deserted home with broken doors and shattered windows. If you open the water tap of a deserted home, what you get at first is all the dust and dirt. But if you keep it open for a while, the clean water will eventually come down [out] of it.”
Ferzat said the quest for democracy was being combated not only by the Assad regime but by the Arab and Western powers as well.
“The Arab regimes are employees of the West, and the West oppresses the revolutions before anything else because they it does not want to lose its power over the region.”
“They thought the Syrian uprising that was peaceful for the first seven months was dangerous because it is really seeking democracy, and democracy can be really frightening to the Arab world. It turns everything upside down.”
For Ferzat, the regime died long ago. It remains in place due to foreign support and the infiltration of Al-Qaeda and radical Islamists into Syria.
“The West was able to establish spy networks everywhere,” he said, yet “wasn’t able to track Al-Qaeda before entering Syria. Such phenomenon and movements will eventually leave because they have no real roots in my country, neither in Iraq or Lebanon.”