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.