Political Cartooning in the Middle East
December 11th, 2019
How often do you look at Political Cartoons?
Maybe you start your day by reading through the news and scanning the latest political cartoon from your favorite newspaper. Or maybe you haven’t looked at a political cartoon since your high school history teacher assigned it as homework. Regardless, political cartoons are unique ways to interpret political events and can provide visual representations of complex issues.
Last month, I had the opportunity to accompany a group of talented political cartoonists from six Middle Eastern countries as they visited Seattle’s best cartoonists and visual artists through the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. The international cartoonists were from prominent newspapers and magazines, or freelancers from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. Prior to visiting Seattle, they traveled to Ohio, Washington D.C., and New York to connect with artists at the American Editorial Cartoonist Festival, Washington Post, and the New York Times.
In Seattle, they met political cartoonists, high school students, and a graphic novel cartoonist to get a better understanding of how press freedom gives American cartoonists the ability to influence public opinion and government policies. In their first meeting with David Horsey, the political cartoonist for the Seattle Times, they discussed how censorship affects their work, as well as different levels of censorship they experience working in their respective countries. In America, political cartoonists are free to express their opinions and draw almost anything they want so long as it agrees with the beliefs of the newspaper or magazine they are hoping will publish their work. While American cartoonists express frustration that their work cannot be published due to marketing censorship, they still experience the freedom to post on personal accounts or through other means if they choose. In contrast, the artists in the Middle East face even higher censorship in what they can share in both professional and personal settings. Every drawing is a risk for political cartoonists in the Middle East, but a risk most are willing to take.
As a cartoonist for a prominent newspaper in Bahrain, Nawaf AlMulla has illustrated numerous cartoons about relevant issues in Bahrain. While he focuses on relevant, current topics, censorship has limited his ability to create art freely. To get around some censorship issues, he uses hidden meanings and metaphors to appear neutral while presenting controversial topics. Another way he gets around censorship is to avoid drawing cartoons about issues that provoke problems with their international neighbors. Bahrain is a small country surrounded by big Middle Eastern powers--like Saudi Arabia and Qatar--and relies heavily upon their neighbors to prevent conflict in regional disputes. Remaining neutral in regional politics and by drawing cartoons with hidden meanings allows him to present his opinion while at the same time mitigating risks of conflict between neighboring countries.
The cartoonists also had the opportunity to visit an AP Comparative Government and Politics class at Glacier Peak High School, where they shared how their work affects their communities, and encouraged students to stay engaged in civic activities. Sameh Gaid, a cartoonist and animator from Egypt jokingly told the high schoolers not to become a political cartoonist and move to the Middle East, because it is very difficult to find work with strong opinions. In Egypt, as well as many other Middle Eastern countries, sharing opinions contrary to the government carries risks and dangers. If cartoonists or journalists share messages that go against the government or political figures they risk imprisonment, unemployment, and/or even violence towards themselves and their families. Despite the difficulties, Sameh reaffirmed his love of being a cartoonist and believes there is power in sharing cartoons.
Safaa Abuaathra, a freelance cartoonist from Palestine, continued the trend by sharing some advice she had learned from being a cartoonist in a strict press environment. Unlike typical political cartoons, she has to use unrecognizable people that could be interpreted to be anyone so she isn’t arrested by the state. While it is still possible to get her message across, she has to be highly strategic, using subtle methods to express her opinions and observations, creating visual stories that don’t target individuals.
After the cartoonists had a chance to share some of their work and advice with the students, the students showcased their latest political cartoons they produced for an assignment. The cartoonists left inspired and were amazed and impressed with their young talent.
Lastly, the cartoonist met with Ellen Forney, a Seattle cartoonist and professor known for her massive murals located in the Capitol Hill Link Station. In addition, Ellen has written numerous graphic novels including the bestselling graphic memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me. Through her talented graphic novels she uses art to shed light on mental health and inequality to build community and dispel stereotypes.
Also working on topics of inequality, Zineb El Fasiki, a freelance cartoonist from Morocco, uses her work to address gender violence, discrimination, and inequality. She is a self-taught cartoonist, and has conducted cartooning workshops for multiple youth groups throughout Morocco. Recently, she released a book titled Omor which tackles gender equality in the Arab world.
Through all of the meetings in Seattle, it was apparent that despite the many differences these cartoonists faced, they agreed on one important thing: the work they do matters. Political cartoons offer opportunities to engage in difficult political topics, and get people talking about important issues. Whether you are a political cartoon fanatic or read them once in a while - I encourage you to check out the work these cartoonists are doing every day.
About the author: Julia Wygant is an intern with the International Visitor Program and a recent graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a B.A. in International Relations.