Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Lightweight power

Ahmed Abdel-Tawwab Sharafeddin, The Political Cartoon at Home and Abroad: Language, Humour and Pragmatic Theory, Cairo: Arab Nile Group, 2017. pp240 - Reviewed by Nahed Nasr

Lightweight power

It may be that cartoons date back to Stone Age cave paintings, but in its present form as a social-political force the cartoon emerged in the 18th century. This book, an academic study that remains approachable to the lay reader, explores the nature of caricature as a visual language and a political intervention from a theoretical and analytical perspective. According to the author few studies have dealt with the cartoon as a language in context, a task he attempts by going back to various points in history and identifying common features. 

“This art could be the most suitable tool for political criticism in the Arab world,” Ahmed Abdel-Tawwab Sharafeddin writes, “where freedom of expression is limited.” Indeed, the principal concern of The Political Cartoon at Home and Abroad seems to be with the methods by which cartoonists sidestep censorship and other social barriers, relying on context to create a strong relationship with the reader without recourse to language as such. Sharafeddin explores the development of the form in the first chapter, going all the way back to prehistoric times and dwelling on a BC1360 drawing mocking Tutankhamen’s father during his reign — the oldest known piece of political cartoon. 


Lightweight power

He moves onto the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828) and the French artist Honoré Daumier (1879-1808); the latter was jailed for political reasons. As the author explains, however, “Political cartoon was used in every European country as a means of rallying the people to the cause of the war. Germany was the first country to realise the importance of the political cartoon as a weapon in conflicts — so much so that the German government was the first in Europe to establish a satirical magazine.” 

The American cartoon was born with the Join or Die map by Benjamin Franklin, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754 in the form of a chopped-up snake consisting of the different colonies. “The drawing had a great impact on American revolutionaries like Paul Revere to rally the masses against the British.” Another famous cartoon figure is Uncle Sam, who became the most popular mascot of America. According to legend, Uncle Sam came into use during the 1812 War and was supposedly named for Samuel Wilson. 


Lightweight power

The Arab world caught on in the mid-19th century, with cartoons contributing to the revolutionary national movement and the revolt against the Ottomans. The first Ottoman cartoon appeared in 1867 in Istanbul, but Yaqoub Sannou championed caricature in Egypt starting in 1887, and the cartoon has since become an essential element of the Arab press. In Iraq, Syria and Tunisia satirical magazines were founded by Michael Tais, Khaled Kahhala and Bayram Al-Tonsi, respectively: Kannas Al-Shawari in 1925, Al-Mudhik Al-Mubki in 1929 and Al-Shabab in 1932. Here as elsewhere in the history of the form the political cartoon was always a context-specific method of communication, never universal as such.


Lightweight power

It relies on exaggeration, emphasis and humour. But it must also remain realistic enough for the audience to instantly identify characters and themes, and deal in the most direct and pragmatic way with the issue at hand, summarising and pronouncing without oversimplifying. It should always use a moderate rather than an aggressive language, and it should tackle issues of broad relevance, encouraging people to rethink local and international topics. 

These qualities are more closely studied in “the translated political cartoon”, the subject of the second chapter, which analyses cartoons by prominent Egyptian cartoonists — Ezzeddin, Amr Selim, Gomaa, Mustafa Hussein, Amr Okasha — originally published in Arabic but translated for Al-Ahram Weekly’s readers in 2004-2006. In the fourth chapter the author analyses portrait cartoons by Georges Bahgory to show how a cartoon can reflect the artist’s attitude towards their subject. He also showcases “silent cartoons” that feature very few or no words at all, illustrating his main points in one more way.


Lightweight power

Sharafeddin calls for further efforts by journalists, philosophers and historians to explore the political cartoon, tackling techniques and approaches in detail. For the “political cartoon is not humour or entertainment,” he concludes. “It is the science of how to make the most social impact in the lightest way.”

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