The unbeatable art of Ali Farzat
Osama Kamal visits an exhibition in honour of a man for whom the violence he depicted in his cartoons became a frightening reality
As a cartoonist par excellence, Ali Farzat is not just an exceptionally talented artist but also a fighter and someone with firm beliefs. When he was assaulted last month by a gang of masked men the attack was, perversely, a testimony to his immense popularity in Syria: it was planned by a faction that wanted to punish Farzat for posting satirical drawings of Bashar Al-Assad on his website and Facebook page.
Farzat was driving from his office to his home in the Mazza district of Damascus on 25 August was he was intercepted by the masked gang, who dragged him out of his car and beat him. They threatened him with phrases such as, "How dare you insult your masters?"
The men put a sack over Farzat's head, bound his hands with wire and beat him senseless, breaking his hands. He lay unconscious on the side of the road for an hour before being found by workmen and taken home. He was later admitted to the Razi Hospital.
Once word of the attack got out, there were calls across the Arab world for solidarity with Farzat. In Egypt, cartoonists launched a week of homage to the Syrian artist in the Cairo Atelier. The event was launched on 13 September by Mohamed Abla, who is the board chairman of the Atelier, and Ahmad Toghan, chairman of the Egyptian Cartoon Association.
Farzat began his career in 1963 at the age of 12 when he sent one of his sketches to the daily Al-Ayyam. The editor ran it on the front page and asked him to send more. Once he finished high school Farzat started working for various newspapers, eventually making a name for himself as the country's top cartoonist. He was helped in his new career by his satirical talents and his extensive knowledge of the country's landscapes, a knowledge he gained from frequent travels with his father, who was a land surveyor.
The Cairo Atelier event featured about 60 works of Farzat's work, as well as 20 or so works by Egyptian cartoonists in which they reacted to the August assault.
There was also a collective mural for which artists contributed illustrations and texts in support of the Syrian artist. The organisers plan to send a copy of the mural to Farzat, who is still undergoing treatment.
Farzat's work is sharp-witted and relentlessly sarcastic. In his cartoons, one sees a dictator in full military regalia crushing his people without mercy. In one cartoon Farzat abandons his usual caution and draws the dictator in the likeness of Assad, carrying a bag and hurrying to catch up with Muammar Gaddafi.
Interestingly enough, Farzat and Assad used to be close friends. When Assad was a mere ophthalmologist he often went to art exhibitions, including those of Farzat. On one occasion, Assad went to visit Farzat in his house. When Assad became president he allowed Farzat to publish a magazine called Al-Dumari (The Lamplighter). The magazine, which came out in 2001, it was the first independent publication Syria had seen since 1963. However, Al-Dumari was closed down in 2003 after Farzat went too far in criticising the regime, and since then Farzat has been publishing much of his satire exclusively on the Internet. Al-Dumari was reborn in the virtual world.
Farzat, who continued to draw dictatorial figures, was by then banned from entering certain Arab countries including Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, whose leaders felt threatened by his art. Until recently he would draw dictators without facial features, while stressing their military paraphernalia: the boots, throne and overbearing postures. In one of the cartoons shown in the Cairo Atelier, we see only the hand of the dictator, his body having drowned in his seat of power.
Farzat had come to international fame in 1988 when a cartoon showing a dictator handing out medals and decorations to a hungry man became immensely popular. The Iraqi ambassador to France at the time tried to remove the drawing from an exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris on the assumption that the intended dictator was Saddam Hussein. It was even rumored that the ambassador threatened to kill Farzat.
One of Farzat's works in the Cairo Atelier shows members of the Syrian parliament fleeing from a man threatening them with a stick. In another, a policeman searches the pockets of a thief, but overlooks the large box of stolen money the thief is carrying. A third illustration is a double one and shows a government employee at the start of his career looking poor and disheveled, and then leaving the office looking ridiculously rich.
The absence of democracy is one of Farzat's favourite themes. In one cartoon a man tells another that, "Dialogue means dialogue." All around them are signs of physical struggle suggesting the manner in which their "dialogue" was taking place. Another cartoon features a man speaking on a podium to a crowd of men who are all dressed and look exactly like him, plurality apparently failing to scratch the surface.
Another of Farzat's familiar themes is the way dictatorship changes people. In one famous cartoon is a writer whose head has turned into a typewriter on which the authorities can write anything they wish. In another, a writer has taken the shape of a pen wielded by the men in power. In a third, a writer has become a beast of burden, offering his back to the powers that be. In a fourth, we encounter the hired philosopher, the ideologue who roams television stations offering endless views on every subject that comes to mind.
Farzat has won several prestigious international awards, including the first prizes at the Intergraphic International Festival in Berlin in 1980 and the Sofia Festival in 1987. In 1990 he was voted the best Arab cartoonist.
Paying tribute to Farzat, Samir Abdel-Ghani depicted him with a crowd of people in the cartoonist's likeness, calling the work, "We Are All Ali Farzat". In another evocative illustration by Abdel-Ghani, Farzat appears in the shape of a gun shooting paint brushes while Syrian President Assad runs away in fear.
George Bahgouri, the well established artist and cartoonist for Al-Ahram Weekly, contributed an illustration in which Farzat is carrying a bright white pen and is surrounded by top Egyptian cartoonists carrying the same type of pen. At the bottom of the drawing, Bahgouri wrote, "My dear Ali Farzat, we write together with our blood." The gory theme is echoed by Abdel Abdel-Naim, who draws Farzat as a giant towering over Assad. In another drawing by the same artist we see Farzat reading in a book entitled Freedom, while Assad hides behind a curtain, his hands dripping with blood.
Mohamed Abla produced a four-stage cartoon for the occasion. In the first Farzat lifts his injured fingers; in the next he makes a victory sign; then he listens to his pen which is speaking words of encouragement; and finally he regains his power in full.
In one of the illustrations by Hani Tolba, Assad takes the form of a lion in Syria but becomes a domestic cat in the Golan Heights. In another drawing a policeman appears plays the flute like a snake charmer and making outlaws dance like serpents -- a hint of the police control of the so-called thugs who are attacking protestors across the country.
Amr Abdel-Ati produced two illustrations, one showing the Syrian flag held aloft by severed hands, and one showing a bloodied hand holding a paint brush.
Mostafa El-Sheikh also entered two illustrations, one a portrait of Farzat himself and the other showing Farzat holding a torch aloft.
Mohamed El-Sabbagh depicts Assad skewered on a paint brush, while Gomaah shows the Syrian president hanging at the end of a rope painted by Farzat's brush.
This exhibition is one of the fruits of the revolutionary wave called the Arab Spring. In other words: the solidarity and support for Farzat shown by Egyptian cartoonists is the shining face of the malicious attacks on the pioneer Syrian cartoonist.