The cartoonist and the president. Ali Ferzat and Bashar al-Asad.
Theo de Feyter
In August 2011, Ali Ferzat, the well-known Syrian cartoonist, was molested in Damascus. Returning home from work in the middle of the night, he was dragged from his car, beaten up and dumped along the airport road outside of town. His attackers especially targeted his head, eyes and hands. On YouTube one could see photographs of a bandaged Ferzat in bed. The international outcry in reaction to the attack on the laurelled and respected artist was great. What was it that turned Ferzat from a celebrated national artist and personal friend of Bashar al-Asad, the present Syrian president, into a target for the Schabiha, the notorious militia, used by the Syrian regime to intimidate opponents and settle accounts?
Ali Ferzat in hospital
Ferzat’s career as a cartoonist mirrors Syrian history of the last fifty years. He was born in 1951 in Homs, an industrial center and the fourth largest city in Syria. Sometimes his professional life runs in parallel to the present’s regime; at other times it deviates or even collides with it. When he was twelve, Ferzat’s drawings were published for the first time in the magazine Al-Ayyaam (The Days). Shortly after his début, the magazine was forbidden by the Baath regime. In 1963 the Baath Party, a movement with a pan-Arabic and socialist ideology, had staged a coup and seized power in Syria. The party pursued the resurrection (‘Baath’), awakening and socialist development of the Arab people after the disastrous interference of the Western powers from World War I until the late forties, when the Arab countries and Israel became independent. It was an ideology for which many Syrians felt sympathy at the time. This might have been the background for Ferzat’s decision in 1969 to work for Al-Thawra (The Revolution), a daily founded by the Baath Party shortly after the coup. In 1970 he started his studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Damascus.
In the same year, an important event took place that would strongly influence Ferzat’s life and the life of all Syrians for that matter: Hafez al-Asad, the father of the current president, seized power within the Baath Party. To a large extent he left the official ideology of the party intact, while at the same time seeing to it that he, his family and an intimate circle formed the center of power. He made some economic changes against the stringent socialist policies of his predecessors, providing a new opening to the commercial middle class which through the revolution of 1963 was ruled out completely.
As a student, Ferzat continued publishing his drawings, and it is therefore not surprising that he left the Faculty of Fine Arts after a few years without graduating. From 1975 on, his cartoons were published in the newly founded daily Tishreen (October), yet another mouthpiece of the regime. The paper was named after the October or Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Syrian and Egyptian military surprised the Israeli occupation armies in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. Although only a small part of the Golan was reconquered, the October War was seen as a great victory by the Arab countries: the Israeli army appeared to be not as invincible as everybody had thought.
Ali Ferzat:The Game (www.ali-ferzat.com)
In the seventies and eighties, Ferzat continued to publish his cartoons in both Al-Thawra and Tishreen. His criticism was not directed straight at the Syrian powers that be, but more at politicians and leaders in general. Since he published in the Arab media, this criticism very often hit the leaders of other Arab nations. Especially after countries such as Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority concluded peace deals with Israel, and Syria, as a consequence, became more isolated in the Arab world, it must have given a certain satisfaction to the Syrian regime that several leaders of those countries took offence at Ferzat’s cartoons. His cartoons were successively forbidden in Libya, Jordan and Iraq. Nevertheless, Ferzat was very successful in this period internationally, at first in the former Eastern bloc and Russia, later also in Western Europe and the USA. An exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in 1989 played a crucial role in this. He started publishing in Le Monde and won many prizes and awards.
The characters in his cartoons in this period are more general types than recognizable individuals. The power-addicted dictator wearing an opulent military outfit, richly decorated and at a great distance to his subjects, for instance, is a popular figure. The baroque seats of these dictators are always a striking feat. As a symbol of their power, they seem to adore and almost caress them. (On his website where the cartoons are presented by theme and category, one can click a special link to ‘seats’.) In spite of the fact that none of the cartoons contained portraits of actually existing leaders, they very often caused trouble. Colonel Khadaffi of Libya, for instance, took offence at one of those lusty characters published in an Egyptian magazine and prevented it from being imported to his country. Ferzat in an interview in Newsweek in 2007: ‘Whenever I draw the dictator-type, hundred dictators think that I criticize and ridicule them personally.’ King Hussein of Jordan and Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, got angry because of a drawing of the impending war between Iraq and a coalition under the leadership of the USA in 1990. The two opponents were depicted as two enormous cannons, aimed at each other, vomiting human bodies. King and president were of the opinion that all Arab citizens, including artists, had to back the Arab side in the conflict, neglecting the fact that even Syria was a member of the anti-Iraq coalition at the time. Anyway, Ferzat’s drawings were forbidden in their respective countries.
Ali Ferzat:Applause (www.ali-ferzat.com)
At the end of the nineties, a friendship developed with Bashar, the son of Syrian president Hafez al Asad. After the sudden death of his older brother in 1994, he was the poised successor to the ‘throne’ of his father, although one was not officially allowed to see it that way, Syria being a republic with a so-called parliament, a multi-party system and presidential elections. From 1994 on, Bashar was mainly occupied with military and political issues. He nevertheless found time to attend cultural events as well. He visited exhibitions where cartoons of Ferzat were shown – even cartoons not allowed to be published in Syria – and was a regular guest in his studio. On various occasions, Ferzat has said that Bashar stated his annoyance about the publication ban. Bashar is known for his interest in modern media. He was educated partly in Britain (as an ophthalmologist), is acquainted with Western music and cinema and in an early stage also with the internet. The introduction of the internet in Syria would be a spearhead action of his policies as a president. Just recently he visited the presentation of graduates’ artworks of the Department of Visual Communication of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, an honor not reserved for other departments. It was felt as an important support for students and professionals in the field of graphic design, film and television.
When Bashar took power in 2000, expectations were high. In the beginning he seemed to be inclined to carry through reforms and allow more political freedom. All sorts of civil society groups sprung up, in which discussions took place on important issues such as a multi-party system and the problem of corruption. The so-called ‘Damascene Spring’ is a fact. Bearing in mind Bashar’s remarks about the undeserved publication ban, Ferzat successfully applied for the permission to found a new satirical magazine. It was the first independent magazine in Syria since the Baath revolution of 1963. In February 2001, the first issue of Al-Domari (The Lamplighter) appeared in a print run of 50.000 copies. It was sold out within a couple of hours. The explanation for this success is twofold. It was a well-made and well-designed magazine with a variety of articles and cartoons – based on the model of Le Canard Enchaîné in France – and it struck a different tone than the regime’s media with subjects of direct interest to the readers: stagnation, abuse of power and the necessity of reform.
Ali Ferzat: I will reform (www.ali-ferzat.com)
Why the regime initially allowed the magazine, but subsequently choked it to death, remains enigmatic. It perhaps suggests that Bashar had other priorities than civil society and it surely points to the fact that he, although called a dictator, is not in power alone. At first the magazine did not encounter a straightforward prohibition. Ferzat, however, was forced to distribute it through the designated regime channels. Not surprisingly this resulted in many problems and delays. Other delays were caused by ‘paper shortage’. The production and supply of paper is a government monopoly as well. In 2003 Al-Domari was finally banned. Also citizens attending the political salons encountered harsh measures by the regime, followed by arrests. The newly acquired feeling of freedom vanished.
In the end, Ferzat’s magazine appeared not to be viable because of regime obstruction even in a period of relative permissiveness. This is very revealing about the character of Bashar’s rule. From his first year 2000 until now, Bashar’s reform program was mainly virtual. Many changes occurred on the economic level. A small group around the president’s family, however, pocketed the main profits. A middle class was formed only reluctantly, being wholly dependent on the same inner circle. Numerous are the interviews in which high-ranking regime and government figures stress that reforms should be carried out carefully and not too fast. On balance, nothing much happened. Because the outer appearance of Syria changed dramatically in the new century (modern cars due to new import regulations, billboards, cell phones and the internet), the lack of political reform and the fact that the security services kept controlling every aspect of life was not always apparent to the foreign visitor. Nevertheless the seeds for the present uprising were sown in this same period. The answer Ferzat gave to a question about the future of the Syrian regime during the same interview in Newsweek in 2007 is therefore foresighted: ‘If they don't recognize the dangers and if they continue to deprive other national parties of true and effective participation, I foresee a monumental crisis. The regime is in need of total reform and change. Free elections are a must, as is the formation of national parties and the peaceful sharing of power. Not one member of the current People's Assembly truly represents the people. We the Syrian people are now mature, yet we are still fed, given drink and clothed by the Baath Party as the party sees fit, as if we were children.’
After Al-Domari was banned, Ferzat was vilified in the same journals, Al-Thawra and Tishreen, for which he once worked. He supposedly smeared the reputation of Syria. In an interview for the television station Al-Arabiya, only a few weeks before he was molested, Ferzat remembered that he was told ‘not to wash the dirty linen in public’. ‘But the linen shouldn’t be dirty in the first place, should it?’ was his dry remark. In the period after the ban, Ferzat published his drawings in a journal in Kuwait, but also on his own website. In the last few months it has been blocked in Syria.
Ali Ferzat: The hike (www.ali-ferzat.com)
Since the start of the uprising in March, the character of Ferzat’s cartoons has changed. Colonel Khadaffi can be easily recognized now, as can the president of the Republic of Syria. Next to Bashar one can often see a bloated little man with a bundle of papers or a briefcase under his arm: a clear portrait of Walid al-Muallem, the Syrian Foreign Secretary. The cartoon in which all three are depicted (Bashar and Al-Muallem trying to hitch a ride with the fleeing Khadaffi) was almost certainly the immediate cause for the assault on Ferzat in August of 2011. The fascination for baroque seats stays the same. In one recent drawing, Bashar is balancing on the edge of a pompous seat, because the springs are broken and sticking through the plush.
A peak in his production was reached, cynically enough, in the drawing in which Ferzat depicted himself as the victim of the assault. One sees a man lying all swathed in bed. Between the bandages there is just enough room for his middle finger to stick up in the well-known gesture of contempt.
Theo de Feyter, 2011
Ali Ferzat: self-portrait (www.ali-ferzat.com)
Book with cartoons of Ali Ferzat, published on account of the granting of the Dutch Prince Claus Award in 2004.
A pen of Damascus steel. Cune Press, Seattle 2004 ISBN 9781885942395