Amplifying the Voice of Arab Cartoons

A news junkie like myself is constantly on the look for new and fresh voices to allay my exasperation in the face of today's sobering reality in the Arab world. Most recently, I find relief and hope in political cartoons. No! Not in Charlie Hebdo. Brave youthful artivists (activist artists) from the region are raising their voices through still illustrations. They are witty and steadfastly unconstrained by editorial shackles.

The wave of terrorist attacks and ongoing conflict the world is witnessing are amplifying voices of divisiveness. They are also muffling Arab and Muslim voices that condemn and give context to these heinous acts, perpetrated in the name of Islam. Perhaps they get lost in translation. Political cartoons, however, seem to transcend these barriers in simple yet powerful sketches, sometimes in color, other times in binary images of black and white.

"Cartoons are approachable, breaking language barriers just like silent films, everybody understands Charlie Chaplain" says Khalid Wad AlBaih, an independent Sudanese cartoonist. Khalid embraced caricatures as a medium of expression out of passion for art and comics, but also a penchant to be part of an Arab movement for change and to "ask questions" in a culture of absolutism. Osama Hajaj, another prolific cartoonist from Jordan also sees cartoons as an "important tool to express the voice of people" through "satirical images; obviating the need for pages of mere talk."

A new Golden Age of Cartoonists

What makes it challenging for Khalid, Osama and other artivist cartoonists to emerge more forcefully is the freedom deficit that has historically been characterized with the region. According to the Arab Federation of Journalists' recent report, press freedoms have been severely restrained in comparison to the two years prior to the Arab revolutions, due, in large part to political instability and the threat of violent extremism.

However, "The 'Arab Spring' also galvanized more artists" who were already working in cartoons before the revolutions, notes Jonathan Guyer, a Cairo-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, ushering in a "new golden age of cartoonists" akin to the 1950's and 60's in Egypt, where the first Arab political cartoon was published in 1877.

After the 'square' revolution unleashed more than a million people protesting oppression, Egyptian cartoonists such as Andeel, Anwar and Doaa ElAdl reemerged, sharpening their pens with punchy creativity. In one English titled cartoon, Andeel has a crumbling ballot box at the shrink's office bemoaning how it cannot "live with the guilt;" of the 'fixed' democratic process in Egypt.

Silencing Extremism

The new wave of Arab political cartoons is also transcending global borders in condemning violent extremism. Osama's depiction of the Brussels attack depicted the yellow and red colors of the Belgium flag as an embracing couple, weeping drops of blood next to a mysterious hovering shadow in black. "I fight terrorism and extremism in all its forms with my cartoons. I also try to capture the voices of the innocent and victims of political gamesenship," notes Osama.

Where extremism reigns, "cartoons allow us to start a conversation" in a global public sphere and resuscitate a much needed dialogue," says Khaled. This conversation is even more pertinent for the region today given the seemingly unstoppable political turmoil that is pushing people to the brink. Having studied Arab cartoonists since 2012, Guyer notes there are "hundreds of cartoonists who are trying to capture local audiences," who, in turn, "find solace in cartoons" after terror attacks in their locale.

Doaa Al Adl's "Evolution of IS" (Islamic State) shows a reversed Darwinian evolution of man where a short bearded harpy-looking man leading a flock of three other men, each representing a more civilized looking man in descending order. Akin to Doaa, other cartoonists from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere are expressing anger at ISIS and violent extremist groups, mocking them with a local sarcastic flavor.

In this new golden age of Arab cartoons, these artivists are creating an arena for relief and laughter in a distressed region. The way forward is to support them to continue to pique curiosities, provoke Arab imagination and widen this arena of relief. Supporting them starts with a simple click; like, follow and share.