The silence runs deeper than the silence itself. Because there is no actual silence. There’s a gentle rustle as trees, as old as god knows what, are gently brushed by a very light wind. There is the lapping of waves… like lovers, waters kissing rocks, gently rocking over them, making love in ways that are only known to nature that has been untouched by the artifical hand of what we laughingly refer to as civilisation.
No, there is no actual silence, but yet, it is a silence deeper than any I’ve felt in vacuum, because silence is not the absence of noise, it is the intense pleasure of the lack of the humdrum familiar… the abject hum of everyday outside the window… the massive, overwhelming roar of life as it happens anywhere on my island home.
This too is an island, but so far removed from the familiar world of home as to be virtually another world. A world of green, and blue, and quiet red rooftops that feel like they’ve been lifted out of a northern crib. A world of rocks that love the waters that surround them, and in which even old boathouses enrich, rather than blemish the landscape.
Yes, it’s lifted out of a postcard, but there’s no printing, no paper… just the reality of the deep silence of the soul, an eternity of gentle sussuration as thoughts slowly drift out into puffs of non-existence. A disarming debilitating of the need to work… an antidote to tension and stress.
And it’s a permeating silence that creates a lethargic energy that dissipates softly into thoughtlessness, as the spirit hums gently to itself and eases the burden of life.
Noun: A line or sequence of people or vehicles awaiting their turn to be attended to or to proceed.
Large crowds irritate me, so I didn’t go to see the Valletta 2018 European City of Culture launch on Saturday. Because I stayed home, I did not have first hand experience of the crowds climbing over each other to get the first available bus back home. I just heard about it. Many pointed an accusing finger at the bus service (they’re not exactly virginal when it comes to organisation), but many talked of unruly crowds who were totally incapable of keeping a line. And I believe the latter.
Once a week I go to my favourite Qormi bakery to buy bread. It’s a popular bakery and there’s usually a crowd there waiting to be served. That’s right. A crowd. Not a queue. Definitely not, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, “a line or sequence of people… awaiting their turn to be attended…”.
I, stupidly, stay in my place behind the person who came in ahead of me. But the people who come in after me spread out, and when the shop assistants say the magic word “next”, three or four voices pipe up. From directly behind me, behind me to my left, behind me to my right, even two or three thick behind me, not to mention the little voice from below me (we teach them when they’re young).
And the shop attendants do not really care, or have not been told or instructed to care, and they serve the one with the loudest voice, the owner of which then pushes through to the front of the line.
Idiotically I stay in place. I look angry and irritated, yes, and often try to figure out how to (literally) put the offenders in their place as I (ineffectually) scowl at them, but they’re usually served and gone before I can put my anger and irritation into words. And if I wait a split second too long, the next one behind me will be served before I can elbow my way into the scrum.
Why are we like this? No, it’s not just us Maltese, I know. I’ve suffered the same indemnities in Greece and southern Italy (to name just a couple of many). But that does not make it any better.
It’s rudeness, selfishness and that horrendous sense of entitlement that is so ruinous of who we are as a people of a tiny, overcrowded country who should know better than to trample all over each other. Because we’re so overcrowded, we should value organisation before all else, so things fall into place and each person’s small space is not encroached upon. But we go for the opposite. Me first, me second, me third, and so on.
I often mention Scandinavia in these blogs, because it’s my other home. And they’re far from perfect, but they have structures in place that actually work. They have a number system there that (at times, to the Mediterranean mind) almost turns them into automatons. Any shop you enter, if you require the attention of an attendant, will have a number machine at the door. You take a ticket with a number. You wait for the number to come up on screen. You get served. No pushing. No shoving. No shouting over the heads of others. No swearing and (at times) actual fighting. No jostling. No elbowing. No scrum. Just calm, civilised, effective. Impersonal, yes… but I’ll take impersonal over savage egoism any day.
We’re from the south. We’re Mediterranean. We do everything with passion. That’s what I’m told when I comment in this way. And in many of the things we do, those are traits that serve us in good stead. They enhance our product. They put life and verve in what we create. But not in this and in so many other things in which what comes out instead is how rude we are to each other. How self-serving and indifferent to the feelings of those with whom we share an extremely tiny patch of land.
This is symptomatic of a deeper trait that scares me.
But I’ll go into that in a future blog, because it’s my turn in the queue to be served.
Oh, wait a minute. No, it’s not… it’s the guy behind me whose turn it, apparently, is…!
The massive tower crane across the street hums incessantly. Rising and falling like a siren that whistles and screams, as the metal at the end of its cables clatters and scrapes along the roof of the monster block being built right in front of my windows.
They’ve already started tiling the lower floors. There’s the whine of the chaser they cut the tiles with, screaming like a demented banshee. Stopping and starting. Incessantly.
The workers shout at each other across the block. They’re directing the guy who has just brought a truck full of sand, and the high-up arm on the truck clatters and grinds its way up to one of the storeys, while workers shovel sand noisily into the bucket, the crunch of the shovel not lost, but providing a backdrop to the shouted instructions that seem never-ending.
There’s the persistent loud clippity-clopp of the machine that smooths the stone blocks before they’re laid. It’s left on all the time, in between the sharp wail and screech it makes when each block of stone is passed through it. Then the clippity-clopp returns, accompanied by the clanking of the large chisel used to pat the blocks in place on the cement.
Ah, the jackhammer down the street is at it again. The workers must have broken for lunch. It’s back now, full tilt. Easily the most horrendous noise in existence, vibrating my mind and thoughts with its jiggedy-jig, loud and head-shattering. They must have found some other two-storey house to knock down and transform into a charmless monolith of concrete. It will soon be followed by the horrendous clackity-clack of the earth digger. Those were horrible months, those were, just before the building started on the monstrosity across the way. What fun to look forward to.
One of the neighbours’ daughter’s boyfriend, in his souped up Escort Mark 2 has come to collect her again. The growl of the engine gives him away. It’s left on, of course, as he sits on the horn to call her out. The horn is a loud parp. Pressed twenty times (I counted) before her shrill voice, presumably from a window, tells him she’s coming.
They’re playing the radio full on in the block being built behind us. I know when the workers turn up at half past six in the morning. That’s when the radio is switched on. And it stays on till they leave around five in the afternoon. They must be ready to roof one of the floors. There’s an awful crashing of metal on stone. The net to be used? Possibly. They’re using an angle grinder, that drones, then screeches loudly as it cuts through the steel. Feels like a stiletto of sound, sharp and pointed, piercing my ear drums.
Ah, the neighbour’s daughter did not stay true to her promise to come down. It’s the parp-parp-parp of the Escort’s (undoubtedly customized) horn again. OK. Only fifteen times this time. Her shrill voice silences it. She screams at him. He shouts back, and swears to high heaven, and slams the door of the car. No, the doors. OK, he seems to be slamming doors instead of sitting on the horn, venting his frustration at her tardiness.
A rather large woman who drives a tiny Subaru and has five young kids (all packed into it whenever I see them) has just arrived. She has a voice that would shame the roar of a bull being taunted in Pampalona. And the kids, it seems, who whine and cry and scream and shout and argue loudly, can do no right. She bawls at them, and slams the doors of her Subaru (what is it with slamming doors in frustration in my street?). Good, they’re moving away, the roar of their interaction slowly fading and being drowned out now by the hum of the high-up arm, lifting up the bucket of sand as the scraping shovel perpares more for when it lands.
The sudden elevated growl of the Escort signals the arrival of the prodigal girlfriend, and for nearly a minute it masks the sound of the tower crane and the stone machine, though not the chaser and the angle grinder. Nor the jackhammer. Nothing masks the jackhammer.
They’re hammering next door, and drilling. Both sounds compete with each other, but the drilling actually wins. I get the impression of a meters high drill, twisting holes out of tiny walls. The whir is massive and drones for long minutes. It stops for seconds at a time, but then the hammering (must be more than one hammer… has to be…) takes over with gusto. Occassionaly there’s a symphony, the drill providing the wind and string instruments, and the hammer the percussion. The composer, though, must have been insane and produced a discordant overture to madness.
Oh, it’s the front door neighbour’s son. I had not seen him for the first few years I lived here. But I recognised him from his voice. A fog-horn of a voice, but with the edge of nails scraping on a blackboard. I have only ever heard him shouting and swearing at the top of his lungs. I’ve never heard him laugh, nor have I heard him speak softly (I very much doubt he can). He is shouting at his mother to open the door. He has rung the doorbell twice, and is now impatient to go in. Ah, he’s kicking the door now. And the voice again. Rasping like a bad actor’s in a horror movie. When once I caught a glimpse of him, his bulk fit right in with his voice. Most of it was round the tummy, true, but the chest from where the fog-horn emanated was wide and barrel-like, and might even, with training, turn up the decibels one day. I worry about earthquakes if that were to be the case. Good. She’s let him in. And he’s giving her a lashing of his tongue (it’s a rasping roar that reverberates and echoes till it fades in the innards of the house).
Good lord, it’s Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up” blaring from the street. High. Incredibly high. Let’s see what my phone app says. Hmm… it’s fluctuating between 102 and 107 decibels. And I’m five floors up. Must be as high as a jet-engine where it’s coming from. But who…? A quick look out the window. A 1990’s BMW across the way with its front doors open. Its owner has a blue bucket and a chamois and sponge. He must have decided he wanted entertainment as he washed his car. Oh, he’s opened the back doors. Rick Astley’s heavenly voice gives me hell. I close all windows, my double glazing knocking ten or so decibels off the din.
But the jackhammer is magic. It’s jiggedy-jig seems to cut right through double glazing and creates a soundtrack to life.
Right now I’m happy to be part of a very well attended conference on digital literacies, organised by the indefatigable Alex Grech. There are a lot of high-flying educators and instructional technologists telling us about the future. Well, the present, which sounds a lot like the future defined by science fiction writers. We live in a time when there is no definition of the future that can amaze us. We are already there.
It is taken for granted, this late in the day, many years after Michael Moore and the rest of the pioneers dared to go distant with their courses, eventually moving online as the natural progression of all things digital, that this is the way to go. Speakers are talking about digital strategies, MOOCS, online course development, VLEs and all those other buzz words so staple to the world of technologically aided education. All massively interesting. All reiterating the fact that the classroom is potentially over-rated as the arena in which teaching and learning happen. Many years ago I had been hotly contended by educators when I presented my paper called “Tolling Bell for Institutions” at a conference (expanded and published later as “Hypertextual Processing and Institutional Change”) in which I discussed the change happening to students because of immersion in technologies that are growing much faster than we can map them. And definitely much faster than the traditionally slow moving education sector can keep up with and counter… or at least work with, understanding, adopting, adapting and moving in directions that are more in tune with the spiral of incidental acquisition that omnipresent, and particularly mobile, technologies offer.
I don’t think it’s even a question whether we should use online channels to teach our courses. Of course we should. There are tricks to e-learning, of course, and anybody who tries to teach online in the same way that he or she teaches in class will come a cropper. It’s a different methodology altogether, specialist and needing the understanding of all the tools available in virtual learning environments. The method allows students geographical and time flexibility. It permits them access to minds that would otherwise have been denied them. It gives the possibility of synchronous and asynchronous resources that permit interaction… often more liberated in context than the daunting one permitted by actual presence… and that can be accessed at all times.
I did rock the boat a little during the first session of the conference yesterday, and was probably considered a retrograde by many in the hall when I suggested we can’t abandon the face-to-face approach in a country that is a sea-locked minuscule enclave in which people bump into each other whether they want to or not. That research needs to be done within this unique context to understand which is the better way to actually teach our students. Or at least to understand to what degree each is effective with regards to teaching outcome results. I was not being UNtechnological when I said that. Anybody who knows me knows where my mind lies in this domain (firmly IN the technological… for those who don’t know me). I was actually reacting to the fact that it seems to be the fashion to go the digital technological way, ignoring the fact that a more rudimentary approach to education might actually be a useful alternative within the special context of students able to congregate in person after a short bus ride.
Yes, face-to-face does not take into consideration all the ramifications of the international context. Yes, that eliminates their exposure to different takes instigated by cultures present through online facilitation. Yes, that restricts the input to what is available locally. So if that were to be what is to be considered, then there is nothing that beats online courses. But I do sometimes think back to the time an uncle of mine… a bit of a self-professed handyman… who had bought an extremely elaborate tool onlne and because he had it he wanted to use it all the time. It took him ages to hammer in a nail with that tool, but he had it and of course that was what was best for this, forgetting that a simple, traditional hammer could have done the job better and in half the time.
No, not decrying in any way digital literacies infusing online education. That’s a revolution that has left enormous effect world wide. An enormous movement that has been studied and mapped, evaluated, modified and honed to almost perfection. I just refute that they are the only future.
For one, I often think in terms of motivation. That is at the core of success in anything, really, but definitely in education. Unmotivated students are sluggish and only get to the finishing line limping and crawling. This is very true in traditional, face-to-face teaching and learning. We were told, way back at the beginning, that interacting online would change all that. It would generate the motivation that might have been lacking in the lethargic student. Because young people, particularly, like computers and will, of course, like learning using computers.
Only that didn’t happen. The allure of the technology sort of falls by the wayside when courses are formalised and, at least in spirit if not in form, simulate those same courses given in the classroom. When there is a rigid, summative accreditation imposed (because that seems to be the only way universities can give grades) and a time frame within which a course needs to be followed.
This is were (the so-called disruptive) MOOCS excel. They can be followed informally. They can move to the rhythm of the student’s own life. There is little to no accreditation on offer (just enough to motivate the lazier), and the incredible number of takers gives ample possibility for peer interaction across the board. Wonderful that they were taken on board by so many institutions.
But courses duly delivered on the institutionally adopted VLE leave me quite cold. Yes, the blended sort create an element of excitement because of diversity, though the concept also limits participation. I’m referring to straight, online delivery. Formalised modules. Using the tools available because they’re there. In many cases unimaginatively created by instructional technologists whose onus is technical, not creative. Of course there are exceptions. Of course there are brilliant units that are cutting edge in creativity, that go the extra mile and really engage. But, I might be going on a limb when I say that I believe that this is not the norm. The norm is often unmotivated, done because it’s expected. Because it’s “the way forward”.
Cynical? Maybe. But if you’re making do without the style that good lecturers bring to face-to-face, then creativity in the style adopted online is indispensable. And, no… I’m not ignoring that there are also dud face-to-face lecturers. They exist in abundance. I’m not going tit-for-tat, here. I’m talking about the reality that in both modes of delivery there are the flops, and the fact that one of those is delivered through digital technology does not save it. I know I’m squeezing the massive reach of digital technologies online to simple form, but for me that is indispensable and can easily be damning! I find clunkiness in navigation daunting. I get quickly impatient with long paths created by rote till the crunch of the pedagogy is reached.
And I’m not the only one going that route. There can be no doubt that immersed users of the internet have become progressively more economical in their attention span. Only bytes do. A news item needs to be two hundred words or less, preferably constricting the inverted pyramid to the gist into the title, not even in the intro paragraph. Hypertextual surfing has become manic. Linearity has, of course, long gone out the window, even in linear hypertext clicking. With surfing often happening on the small screen of a mobile, with websites becoming responsive (or dying) and content losing ground to monitor space, wherefore the VLE interfaces used extensively by so many institutions?
I have always been fascinated by the way the information generation absorbs random snippets of information, often latticed into a web of seemingly unconnected, difficult to retrieve mass of “knowledge” that is quite useless in application. It’s incidental acquisition facilitated by the ease with which information can be accessed and fueled by the natural curiosity of the young. It is predominantly useless because the skills for synthesis are missing, and education tends to ignore the need for such skill giving… the finding of ways to get to the nodes of knowledge and to create a kernel of synopsis.
This ever-growing core of young people is often disenchanted with all forms of formal education, online and off. They thrive on social media. They chat in abbreviative language and live in the internet fast lane. I have missed this really interesting, massively well informed conference touching on the role social media can play in educational practice (for example) – on how what has essentially been social can be rerouted to delivery of informal educational processes (both procedural and declarative). Embracing a form that is motivational per se, retaining the social underpinning and voluntary uptake that makes for that motivation, and take it from there.
Along with, I have no doubt, many others, I see incidental, informal acquisition as one of the ways forward. Educators need to understand the tools available to them (even if they are not essentially made for that) to access this massive group that could easily become part of a lost generation.
And the world was never the same again. Well… not the popular cultural world, anyway. That world I grew up in… beginning with the twelve year old me interacting with a white plastic and blue “leather” transistor radio, emoting with the fantasies created by a singer who pushed himself out of the norm. I even remember requesting “Life on Mars” on the BBC World Service Pop Club a couple of years later (and got the badge to prove it).
It’s been a year since his death, but I’ve been struggling to answer a very simple question. Why did the death of David Bowie affect me so much? I’ve asked myself that over and over again, and up to a bit ago had no solid answer. I mean, I liked his work, sure… one hell of a lot, but I was prog while he was glam. My friend Joe used to rave about his work. I was luke warm. Loved some of it to bits, was left quite cold by others. But a few years later it grew on me. In my late twenties, when I started being a lot more discerning about the music that affected me, Bowie crept under my skin and, true to the chameleon that he was, fit into every nook and cranny of my existence.
I’ve just finished watching the excellent documentary shown for the first time a few days ago on BBC 2, “David Bowie – the last five years”… an in-depth look at what made him go back to music, and his frenetic rush to the all-too-sad finishing post, creating feverishly every step of the way. And the question I’d been asking started answering itself.
It’s all in the art. Bowie wasn’t pop. He wasn’t even rock. He was an artist. Full stop. Yes, an artist whose prime matter was rock (and at times even pop), but he lived life manifesting an intelligent passion into crafted artworks that we bought, back then, on vinyl, and which we can even now play over and over and still be thrilled.
It’s a thrill that permeats the being. An intrinsic feeling of oneness with the artist and his many personas. But how the hell can one emote with a fictional alien guitarist with a red and blue lightning bolt on his face? Obviously, we could, and still do. Those early riffs play at the back of our heads even when they’re not being listened to. That introduction to Ziggy Stardust is as memorable to my generation as the first few notes of Beethoven’s fifth are to those whose music is richer in tradition. Up there with Blackmore’s base in Smoke, and Page’s solo on Stairway. Yet, more raucous… less virtuous, but nonetheless a digger… deep into the very heart and soul of a young man who’s mind was often beset by struggles with existential angst.
Bowie was a showman. He was an actor and a writer. He was a musician and a philosopher. He understood the times he lived in and indelibly ingrained them in his productions. From the recurring Major Tom, lost in a dream of space, to suffragete city and drive-ins. He rocked the house with howling diamond dogs, and cried from sorrow, while postulating the significance of fame and of being a hero (just for one day).
And he changed. Every time. He moved from one persona to another, shifting his music to the tempo of the era and the generation, his image projecting him into the lives of one more group of music lovers for whom he provided a sound track for growing up.
His assertion that fame was a means to achieving artistic ends… a facilitator, rather than as a means in itself, as it is for so many who have very little to contribute to culture, says a lot about the man.
He is a lazarus, as his last great feat in music will have us believe… but he’s that in all but one very essential trait. Lazarus died to rise again. Bowie never died. His poetry and song still live and are a continuous manifestation of his artistic greatness. The sadness lies in that there will be no more of those. That this is all we’ve got.
In which case we are indeed lucky that what we’ve got is brilliant.
The horrendous story of how Sakharov Prize laureate Ali Ferzat was beaten up and had his hands broken by thugs working on behalf of the Al Assad regime is very well known, as are his outstanding cartoons. The man himself potentially less so.
I was honoured to get to know him on his short visit to our islands in November, organised by the European Parliament Information Office in Malta, and what I got to know of him was wonderful. A man who laughs out loud at jokes that tickle his fancy, loves life, but does not fear death if it means compromising on his beliefs. A man who believes in the power of satirical images, and how they can bring people together.
I was invited by the organisers of his visit to meet with Ali Ferzat up close a number of times while he was in Malta, and we had time for some long conversations. In the main, the talk was about Syria and the dire situation there, with political powers from around the world contributing directly to the nature of the war that is destroying the lives of the common Syrians. This was also the main topic of the well received talk he gave at University on November 19.
Because I had been introduced to him as a cartoonist, we also talked about the techniques he uses for his cartoons. I asked him if he uses a computer to draw, colour or enhance his witty, satirical takes on the tyranny he despises, but he was aghast at the thought.
“You cannot get the passion across if you use a computer,” he said vehemently. And then added, with a smile: “It’s like kissing a woman through a pane of glass.”
An apt image indeed, and it sums up what Ali Ferzat is all about. He is hands-on, passion incarnate. It is little wonder that it was those same hands that were broken by those who wanted him silenced. But his belief in being present, right there, signing his name and saying it directly (ironically, by means of the inference that is at the base of socio-political cartoons) got him through that, and through all other threats (not least from ISIS themselves).
At one point he took out two felt markers from his jacket pocket, one medium, one thick. “I use these,” he said. “And whatever else comes to hand.” And went on to show me by making a quick sketch, there and then, standing up and resting a blank piece of paper on a copy of The Times.
Basically, what he was saying was that the tools do not entirely matter. The skill of the cartoonist does. His ability to suss out a situation that can then be ridiculed by means of his razor wit, or portrayed in ways that will definitely stick in the mind of whoever sees it.
The objective of this piece is to select a few random Ali Ferzat cartoons and look at them with the intention of understanding how he works technically, and what his wit dictates, all of this against the background of what he said to me personally and in public during his Malta visit.
I’m beginning with one that’s close to home, and has nothing to do with the war in Syria. Lots of tall buildings in the background, and cut trees bundled in a trash can in the foreground. The juxtaposition of both is where the crux of the comment is. The “trees” are actually branches, and what we see would barely fit in a fraction of the ground on which just one of the buildings is built, but the branches symbolise the whole, and their presence in the foreground, destroyed and discarded, overwhelms the senses, with the backdrop providing cause and suggesting disgust at the artificial replacing the natural. The line work is rough and even untidy at times, but the portrayal of the elements is perfect. His feathering on the branches and the tight crosshatch on the dustbin provide the necessary shading that makes the elements in the foreground stand out, pointing out the death of beauty, replaced by the ugliness of man-made things.
In his talk at the University of Malta, Ali Ferzat stated an unequivocal opinion that Russia was aiding and abetting Syrian President Bassar al-Assad, and he went on to accuse Russia of a number of oppressive actions of war. So a despotic Russia figures quite often in his cartoons.
Ferzat’s ability to portray the human figure, morphed into whatever strikes his fancy, can be seen throughout the thousands of images he has produced. Russia is a dour-faced general, wearing a military hat, striding forward holding up a delicate olive branch. But the military figure is also a bomb, the fins substituting for pant legs, with shoes indicating a marching soldier, and the sleek body of the bomb replaces the dark-coated body of the soldier. The bomb/body is huge and dominates the mid-ground of the cartoon, framed contrastively against white and a light orange (the smoke of war?). It overwhelms entirely the olive branch, which, though held up front, is contradicted and negated by the rest of the image. An incredible denouncement of the hypocrisy of international politics that are used as an excuse for oppression. The pen stroke is clean for the face, olive branch and hand, but necessarily harsh and rough for the bomb, though the yellow-green-blue of the outline provides a sheen that emphasises the sleekness of the weapon, its intended use, and its ramifications.
Another of Ali Ferzat’s attacks was on the media and the way they pervert the truth about Syria and what is causing the war there. A brilliant cartoon defines the media as he sees it… a dark forest made of microphones instead of trees, all of them pointing the same way, while multicoloured arrows all point in different directions, as a small man with a large question mark over his head crawls among them, lost and unable to find his way out. I’m not sure whether the word “Syria” was added for the English dissemination of the cartoon, but it adds clarity regarding who the figure is. Syria is lost in a jungle of media comments, all of which point away from it, but which communicate conflicting messages about it. The portrayal of the microphones as each being different from the other infers that not just one media outlet spreads the misinformation, but many and they come from different countries and institutions. The roughness of the feathering on the microphone stems, the darkness portrayed as a cloud on which they rest, and the hulking silhouettes that provide a backdrop of more microphones, make for a denseness that conjectures impossibility of penetration. It is little wonder that the figure lost among the “stalks” has the question mark over his head.
The United Nations’ plan of peace for Syria and the way it has been ignored irritates Ferzat massively. It is clear from the cartoon where a soldier is using the lift while the man brokering peace is taking the stairs that outright war has been given an advantage over the possibility of any sort of peace agreement. The visual allegory that is at the core of all the best socio-political cartoons is clearly evident in this one. The soldier and the lift are centred in the foreground, the peace broker sidelined on the right, the stairs disappearing behind the lift that will obviously get to the destination a lot quicker. The soldier is in full combat gear, drawn in Ferzat’s signature economy of line style which, however, is heavily toned with dark blocks and feathered softeners. The peace broker looks at the soldier, but still walks slowly up the stairs (one can tell from the position of the legs and the posture of the whole figure). The image continues to stand out because all the action happens in the lower half of the drawing, with the rest taken up by (at least part of) the distance to be travelled… fast by one and very slowly by the other.
Ali Ferzat’s former friend and, eventually, most bitter enemy, Bassar al-Assad, is often the butt of his savage, visual jabs. He thinks of al-Assad as a traitor to the intellectual class, and, of course, to the whole of Syria and its people. Al-Assad is almost always drawn as a thin, tall figure, with jutting out ears and an elongated neck that includes a non-existent chin area (“He’s ugly!”, said Ali Ferzat about him during his University talk). Ferzat draws him in contexts that indicate what al-Assad thinks of himself, for example framed in an ornate, baroque casing that shows he considers himself to be great. The podium to the right tells us the General is about to give a talk, but the audience is being assembled from cutouts, brainless, opinion less, and with no character at all. Al-Assad wants only his voice to be heard, and for it to be heard only by those who will say yes to him (or in any case, not “no”). Ferzat uses a tight cross-hatching to create contrast between the floor and the cutouts, that are all the same and lie in a muddled heap on each other. The army official putting them on the chairs has only placed one so far, but the inference is that the whole hall will be taken up by the cutouts. The fact that they are in a box (nicely labeled and with a “this side up” indicator) shows that they’re stored away in between speeches, and brought out for the occasion. This is Ferzat’s denouncement of all those who support al-Assad, and, even more than that, it is clearly his denigration of a man who had once hypocritically given the impression that he supported intelligent dissent, only to then brutally suppress it.
In fact, the “grandeur” with which al-Assad perceives himself is spelt out in the cartoon where his tiny, caricatured figure is being reflected in a gigantic mirror, arms bent upwards to indicate mighty muscles. The detail on the General’s uniform and on the actual mirror itself, along with the black blocking and feathering that give a rounded, three-dimensionality to the figure, are all signature elements of Ferzat’s drawing styles, as is the roughness of the cross hatching, intended solely to create depth and illusion of size.
The need of the regime in Syria for brainless support and stopping at source dissenting ideas, can be seen clearly depicted in the cartoon in which a customs officer not only checks the traveller’s bag as it lies on the conveyor belt, but also makes sure that there is nothing in the brain of its owner. Again, Ali Ferzat resorts to one of the staple weapons of cartoon art, a visual, metaphoric interpretation of an abstract concept – the realistic portrayal of the skull being lifted like the lid off an empty box, and the sheepish look on the “brainless” man’s face, countered by the stern look on that of the official, pretty much speak for themselves. The traveller is stooped forward in an abject servile posture, while the official is rigidly bent, showing him to be the superior of the two. The simplicity of what is shown in the image, and the fact that only what is needed is there and in the foreground, along with the black blocking of the figures for the sake of contrast (there is no drawn background) make the full figures pop and the message all the more poignant.
One final cartoon I’ve chosen from the almost 15,000 produced by Ali Ferzat to date defines the man’s anger at how the majority of people are being used by the few who have the money and the power to manipulate everybody else. The two, well dressed, grimly smiling men shaking hands with each other, sit on the shoulders of tattily dressed, barefoot figures who fight each other brutally. Wars are being fought on behalf of prime-movers who sit back as destruction ensues. The sheer dynamism created by the white, dotted and dashed lines indicating movement, the clear representation of status by means of clothes worn, and the brutality in the facial expression of the fighting men, make this an incredibly powerful cartoon. There are only the four full figures, up front and in the face of the reader, heavily rendered in black against a stark white backdrop. The men on top ignore the figures they are piggy-backing, and just look at each other and smile, knowing that in the end, whatever happens to the fighters, they will both win.
Ali Ferzat knows well the power of cartoons, and his is the skill to portray visually what can only be described as a spitting in the face of despotic authority. This is done both in those cartoons that symbolically refer to figures that represent stereotypes, predominantly used before his fall-out with al-Assad, and after that, even more so in his direct attack on those who were and are destroying his native land. It is fair to say that not even broken hands can stop this man from using his images to inspire dissent, underscore injustice, but at the same time spread his message of love as a weapon against hate. It is little wonder he has been named as one of the most influential figures in the world. The medium of cartooning deserves that. As does the man who masterfully uses the medium in this best of all ways.
This article was published in The Sunday Times‘s cultural supplement Escape on November 27, 2016.