Cartoonist Ali Farzat: Fear defeated in Syria

Ali Farzat's comical yet sinister depictions of authority figures in a police state has made an icon of freedom in the Arab world. (AFP)

CAIRO: Cartoonist Ali Farzat’s hand glides over the paper, once more creating the images of defiance he says have helped mobilize Syrians to revolt against President Bashar Assad.

Just over 12 months ago, the Syrian artist was kidnapped, beaten and burned in an attack he blamed on security police trying to silence him and stop him drawing the caricatures that protesters had waved aloft as they took to the streets.

His hands were smashed and he suffered facial burns, temporary loss of his eyesight and multiple broken bones.

One of Syria’s most famous artists, Farzat earned recognition in the Arab world and beyond for stinging cartoons of Arab leaders such as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and, finally, Assad.

Farzat, 60, escaped to Kuwait to recuperate. Now in Egypt, Farzat said he was determined to continue his work and support those still seeking to topple Assad 19 months after they began.

“Every day the revolution inches a step forward. I am very optimistic. Do you see anyone turning back?” he said, proudly gesturing with his hands to show they were back in action. “Fear has been defeated in Syria when the people marched 19 months ago against tyranny.

“I began to directly draw people in power including Assad and his government officials, to break the barrier of fear, that chronic fear that Syrians suffered from for 50 years.”

One of his first cartoons portraying Assad – long a taboo in Syria – showed the president reluctantly ripping a page off a calendar Thursday, knowing that Friday would bring another wave of popular protests to the streets of Syria.

In another, Assad tries to hitch a lift with Gadhafi, and a third shows Assad beside a large armchair, unable to sit down because the springs have broken.

Demonstrators carried banners of his work as newfound expressions of resistance. Farzat, who works for Kuwait’s Al-Watan newspaper, has been denied entry into Iraq, Libya, Jordan and Oman because of his work.

The uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, began as a peaceful protest but now has degenerated into civil war. More than 32,000 Syrians have been killed.

Farzat said Assad initially tried to get him and other Syrian artists on his side, promising reforms to all – setting up a system of patronage to win the loyalty of some and exclude those who resisted him.

“On a personal level we found Assad contradictory. One day, we would speak and agree on a specific issue. The next day we would find out he had changed his mind,” Farzat said, recalling the day he decided to take on Assad in his work.

“Satirizing a dictator empowers the masses,” he continued. “It strengthens them and undermines their enemy.”

Sitting on his desk in a building overlooking Tahrir Square, the heart of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, Farzat sketches on white paper. A tiny bird emerges, chipping and breaking off the head of an axe that sticks out of Syrian military fatigues, a symbol of Assad’s power.

He quickly draws a tank unable to roll over a flower, blocking the tank from moving forward. These sketches and others will be showcased in his independent magazine “Al-Domari,” (The Lamp Lighter), which he plans to relaunch in Egypt.

The magazine, which was founded in 2000 during a brief period of media freedom, was forced to shut in 2003.

“The magazine’s purpose,” said Farzat, “is to gradually remove the darkness that befell our Arab world.”

He hopes to form a symposium with young artists and cartoonists in Egypt to support the art movement that grew out of Egypt’s uprising.

“These cartoons stem from the sorrows of people,” Farzat said. “They give them courage and determination.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 30, 2012, on page 16.




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