Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Sultan of sarcasm

On the first anniversary of his death, Rania Khallaf remembers Ahmed Hegazi

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 21 October, a year to the day after his departure, Ahmed Hegazi was the subject of an exhibition at the Khan Al Maghraby Gallery in Zamalek. The large showcase was an adequate celebration of his unique style, which had long enriched cultural life -- entertaining millions. Hegazy was a true example of the popular artist, recognised by all classes of society, and enjoyed by all ages. He was born in 1936 in Alexandria to a train driver, and raised in a big working-class family in a small village near Tanta called Kafr El-Egeezy, overlooking the railway station.
As a child he would accompany his father on his railway routes, and had the unique chance to observe millions of passengers, poor villagers crossing from and to different parts of Egypt, which gave him unlimited experience and honed his sense of compassion.
Hegazi came to Cairo in 1954, in the aftermath of the July 1952 Revolution. He soon joined the staff illustrators of the widely popular Sabah El Kheir magazine, working with his seniors Salah Jahine, George Bahgory and Ragaay. He became one of the stars of the magazine; his work reflected the principles of July and offered a hilarious critique of the harsh social and political life of the time, taking the side of poor and the disinherited, who represent the majority of Egyptians. The exhibition, which runs until 10 November, includes some 150 of his unique works.
On the inauguration ceremony, Salwa Al-Maghraby, the gallery owner and ex-wife of the artist, was there to welcome the guests with a beam. “It was not easy to collect these works. So, I had to contact his old friends, because even in the Sabah El Kheir archives his works have disappeared. Hegazi never kept his works, you know,” she explained. Some of the exhibits are original works, some reprints; the good news is that all are on sale. “The most endearing collections are those that date back to the 1960s and 1980s, the years when we used to live together,” Al-Maghraby added in a romantic tone. Al-Maghraby, who rarely speaks to the media, expressed her desire to for sponsorship from a respected cultural organisation to publish an art book of works by Hegazi classified into phases and accompanied by a study of his life and work.
Hegazi’s interest in social injustice as a deep rooted problem in all of Egypt was so strong it shows in every one of his drawings. Irony and contradiction reveal a deep intelligence that is not only funny but acutely committed to the conflict between rich and poor. His revolutionary caricature criticised corrupt governments, and went on to illustrate the psychological games such governments play with poor citizens such as the suggestion that Egyptians are but an inherited load on the rulers’ shoulders.
A good section of Hegazi’s works, also exhibited in the gallery, is made up of a collection of graphic paintings without a single word, each perfect enough to be a great painting in its own right. A funny example of this is a young couple, sitting opposite to each others in a romantic situation, riding a bus with two drivers going in opposite directions.
Hegazi worked also for children’s magazines namely: Mickey, Samir and Maged. One of his famous series of caricatures is Tanablet El Sultan, or “The Sultan’s Sloths”, which was published in the 1960s in Samir magazine and contributed to his excellent reputation among other caricaturists. This series was loaded with political themes and raised children’s awareness of political corruption and how to confront it with intelligence.
In the 1990s, Hegazi decided to give up his career in protest of unchanging reality and his inability to confront the increasing corruption in Egypt. It was the 1967 defeat, followed by President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, that compounded his depression. He left his apartment in Manyal, a middle class district in Cairo, and returned to his hometown in Tanta, a sort of forced exile. Yet he continued his caricature series for Maged, which is published in Kuwait but popular throughout the Arab world, till the last days of his life.
As a child I could not help falling in love with his small-sized characters. They were perfectly matched to a child to see the world through the eyes of such tiny figures. Love for his caricatures grew in time as I grew older, but the question remained: Why did the great artist opt for such tiny characters? My own interpretation now that I am old enough to analyse is that it was a unique way of showing his objection to the cruelties of reality, the huge gap between rich and poor, injustice and discrimination, the contradiction between the simple truth and complex lies.
The irony is that Hieazy started his career in the aftermath of the July Revolution and departed life just few months after the 25 January 2011 Revolution. Is that a mere coincidence? This admirer of Hegazi’s could instantly see that the harsh reality of the 1960s continues to persist to this day.

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