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Jerusalem Diary: 16 March

(Palestinian cartoonists) Amr Shomali and Basel Nasser
Censorship and tradition mean there is no great history of political cartoons in the Middle East

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem


How do you say the unspeakable? The refuge, in many places, at many times, has been the cartoon.

But in the Middle East, there has not been much of that tradition.

It is partly censorship. It is partly, also, the religious tradition: Islamic tradition has discouraged figurative depiction of human beings; in Judaism, pictures are used only sparingly.

Now, an exhibition which is currently touring the West Bank, aims to spread the word about the power of cartoons.

Lighting Lamps is sponsored by the British Council, and has just opened at the Duheishe refugee camp, close to Bethlehem.

It features cartoons from across the Middle East, as well as a smattering from the British cartoonist, Steve Bell.

There is a strip from the Palestinians, Amr Shomali and Basel Nasser (pictured above). Two men are talking.

Man A: "Are you Fatah or Hamas?"

Man B: "I'm Palestinian."

A: "Habibi (matey)… don't be clever. We're all Palestinian. Who are you with in the civil war?"

B: "I'm against the civil war."

A: "We're all against it, but it happened… who are you with?"

B: "I'm against both."

A: "Don't drive me crazy. You have to choose between Fatah and Hamas."

B: "Between Fatah and Hamas, I choose Canada."

One of the contributors is Emad Hajjaj, from Jordan. Despite a thin history of figurative drawing, cartoons have, he says, become very popular in Arabic newspapers over the last 50 or 60 years. "It's one of the few things that make you laugh about your problems."

Freedom is, still, curtailed. Being a cartoonist is, says Mr Hajjaj, "unfortunately a very tough job in our region".

(Jordanian cartoonist) Emad Hajjaj
Emad Hajjaj is says being a cartoonist "unfortunately a very tough job in our region"

"But we use symbolism to say many things that we cannot say directly: like criticising our political regimes, like criticising religious issues," Mr Hajjaj says.

Next to us, at the exhibition, there was an unflattering depiction of Tony Blair and the former British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, erupting from George W Bush's backside, in a Steve Bell cartoon which was published in the Guardian newspaper.

"I won't hide that I wish I could have the situation that Steve Bell has," Emad Hajjaj confessed. "I did draw my king once… it was the first time that our king had been portrayed in a cartoon."

That was nine years ago. Emad Hajjaj said that the drawing was not a "hard" one. "But there were many, many problems afterwards."

At least, he said, Jordan is in a "much, much better situation" than Syria, among other Middle Eastern countries.


You might think that Israel, given the often scabrous nature of its press, would have a vibrant tradition of cartoons, to rival the ferocity of anything in Britain. Not so. The cartoons in Israel are not vicious, certainly in comparison to some of the comments on the op-ed pages.

(Israeli cartoonist) Michel Kichka
Tzipi Livni: "Do you accept the principle of 2 countries for 2 people?"
Binyamin Netanyahu: "Yes: with Likud in power in one, and Kadima in opposition in the other."

Michel Kichka is a cartoonist who came to Israel 35 years ago from Belgium, a country with a rich history of cartoons and illustrated books. (You can see his work here: )

He says history and technology have left Israeli cartoons softer than they might otherwise have been.

The history is partly that of a lack of illustration in religious texts; more recently, that "there is a residue of trauma" about the cartoons which were part of the Nazis' anti-Semitic propaganda.

And it so happened that the cartoonists who emigrated to the new Jewish state came from central Europe where the tradition was less biting.

Now, though, Michel Kichka says "it is like walking on a minefield".

Since the enormous controversy over the publication, first in a Danish newspaper, of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Mr Kichka says "you can't draw what you write".

There were moments, he says, when the cartoons were savage: for example, when David Ben-Gurion (Israel's first Prime Minister) and Menachem Begin were arguing over whether Jews should accept reparations from Germany.

"But today, you publish in your country, and it can go anywhere in the world. When I criticise my government's policy, I don't want my cartoon used in a country which only wants to destroy my country."

Here are a selection of your thoughts on Tim Franks' diary:

I find the caption about "no great history of political cartoons in the Middle East" odd. I also agree with Itsik's comment. Alas, Tim Franks forgets names such as Naji Al-Ali, Ali Farzat, Bahgouri, and many others in the Middle East, who have produced plenty of political or social cartoons. If anything, the murder of Naji Al-Ali and the problems which Farzat ran into indicate that cartoonists in the Middle East were censored by regimes, not by religion. Nor is there evidence that religions or their representatives tried to discourage cartoons as "figurative" (with one exception may be - Saudi Arabia.) Generally, satirical cartoonists in the Middle East are still there, alive and kicking.
Gottfried Stutz, Paris - France

I saw the "Are you Fatah or Hamas?" exchange and immediately thought of Naji Al-Ali's famous cartoon where someone asks: "Are you Muslim or Christian? Sunni or Shiite? Druze or Alawite? Coptic or Maronite? Greek Catholic or Greek Orthodox" only to receive the reply "I am Arab, you imbecile!". And this dude doesn't even mention him...
Marcus, London

I'm not sure on what basis it is argued that "Censorship and tradition mean there is no great history of political cartoons in the Middle East." The political cartoon has been a mainstay of Arabic publications - both newspapers and magazines - for quite some time, offering some of the most pointed critiques of the situation in the region and daring to comment on matters from which commentators in other media would shy away. The Palestinian cartoonist, Naji al-Ali is but the most well-known Arab political cartoonist, offering trenchant criticisms of American and Israeli policies, and Arab regimes alike. His daylight assassination in the streets of London has not deterred subsequent political cartoonists in the Arab world from taking to task their own leaders as well as others.
Joseph Farag, Cairo, Egypt

I do not know where you got that there's no cartoon tradition in the Middle East. I find Palestinian cartoonists much more humorous and blunt than Western ones. Check out Naji al-Ali, probably the best cartoonist in history, and artist and a visionary. He's Palestinian It's nice to write about this exhibitions, but don't rush to assumptions.
Wissam, Dubai

"It is partly censorship. It is partly, also, the religious tradition: Islamic tradition has discouraged figurative depiction of human beings"

Nonsense! Whoever wrote this has a superficial understanding of Islam and the region. Plus, caricature does have a history in the Middle East, and particularly in Palestine. Naji Al-Ali anyone? Hanthala lives on...
Inad, Qatar

This looks like the writer wrote this with pre-drawn conclusions before he looked into the matter. Maybe that's the BBC's version of investigative journalism. Anyone who has spent time in Israel has seen a plethora of cartoons coming from Israelis and from Arab cartoonists. While it is true that Jewish tradition discourages images of people, even some religious literature dating back hundreds of years has immaculate illustrations. As the others who have posted here, I don't know why this piece was written or published. It does not depict truth by local standards.
Jerry Waxman, Sderot, Israel

I grew up with the cartoons of Salah Jaheen in the daily al-Ahram. Cartoonists in the Arab world consider themselves intelligentsia and their talent is saying the unspoken despite censorship. Check the Algerian Khalil Bendib. He's excellent. The examples above are poor samples.
Mona, USA

I'm surprised there's no mention of Naji Al-Ali, the prominent Palestinian political cartoonist who created the famous Handala character. The religious prohibition against images seems overstated here, and used as a replacement for actual historical research.
Inmi, Seattle, WA, USA

It is a pity that the writer knows so little about the history of Arab cartoons. What about Naji Ali - the greatest cartoonists who was assassinated in UK of all places by a Fatah squad run by Israeli Mossad (so it is still not clear whether his murder is Fatah, Israel's responsibility or a co-production). Franks could go no further than BBC to learn about Naji's work (
Yuri, Jerusalem

I am glad cartoons and the like are covered here. I was very surprised, especially from the BBC, because Naji Al-Ali's cartoons had no limits, not Islam or Jesus Christ. He was a very sharp and vicious artist. Interestingly, his cartoons were what got him shot in London 1987. It seems the article has little research background behind it.
Ahmed A. , US

I don't know what planet Franks is living on or what 'countries' he's describing without that tradition. I am an Egyptian cartoonist and I know for a fact that the cartoon business has been thriving in Egypt for more than 100 years. Check this link:
Flummoxed, Cairo, Egypt

The translation of the last cartoon is wrong. It should read:

Livni: Can you say 'Two countries for two people?'

Netanyahu: Yes. Likud to power, Kadima to opposition!'

It is about the Likud's lack of willingness to engage with Kadima.

Like the other Israelis, I'm perplexed at the idea that political cartoons are not a major feature in Israeli journalism. True, they are different to Steve Bell's cartoons, but then, you're not going to find the likes of his cartoons in the US or France either. It's a question of cultural style.
Oron, Edinburgh, Scotland

I find this article troubling and uninformed. There is a large tradition of cartoon images and political satire. Why is this idea of secularism within Arab countries so bizarre to the writer here? Certainly he lacks the historical knowledge of the cinema of Adel Imam, the mini jalabas of the 1960 and the very democratic--if not probematic-- reforms in many Arab countries which democratized society more radically than in the West (ie. Bourghiba's reforms in Tunisia). Bouzid and of M'Quidech by Algerian cartoonist Menouar Merebtene, El-Labbad for Cairo's al-Karaoun newspaper, Ahmad al-Higazi, Sha'ban 'Abd al-Rahim are just some of the many cartoonists from the Muslim world who have been prominent since the mid twentieth century.
Julian Vigo, New York

How can you talk about political cartoons in Israel, without mentioning 'Dry Bones', an English language satirical cartoon strip in the Jerusalem Post that's been running for 36 years by Jacob Kirschen. Some of them have been turned into posters, especially the Passover during the First Gulf War. They can also be seen, for free, from the Dry Bones blog by Kirschen.
Osher Kazarnovsky, London, England

No collection of Middle East cartoons would be complete without mentioning the late great Mahmoud Kahil who drew for the Saudi "Arab News" newspaper for over 20 years before his death in 2003. For years I would buy the paper and eagerly flip straight to the opinion page, and rarely would Kahil's insightful and often hilarious wit disappoint. He will be missed.
Mohamed H, State College, USA and Dhahran, KSA

Political cartoons have been around in the Middle East since the time of the Pharaohs (plenty of ancient tombs with stick figures in unfinished tombs poking fun at Pharaoh, to name just one type). Also, in the Arab world, newspapers have traditionally been the realm of the secularists, who don't feel the same need as their religious co-nationals might feel to refrain from drawing people. In Israel, an ethnocracy (not a theocracy or a democracy), political cartoons are plentiful, mostly in attack of the rest of the Middle East.
Sherif, New York, USA

The translation of the Hebrew cartoon is as wrong as the statements about 'softness' of Israeli cartoons. I have seen Israeli cartoons making very provocative and biting anti-government stance even during wars, in mainstream newspapers. The author should probably learn a bit more on the subject than just one exhibition.
Victor, Berkeley, USA

An article that discusses Middle Eastern cartoonists is incomplete without mentioning Naji al-Ali, who was the most influential cartoonist in the Arab world. His drawings were critical of anything - including Arab regimes - that has ever hindered the future of a Palestinian child. If only the media today looked at the world from the same perspective.
Ibrahim, London

There are thousands of smaller publications and bits of printed AgitProp that swirl all over the Islamic/near-Islamic world, replete with visuals/cartoons from the clever and scathing to the merely obscene, derivative and hateful. There have been for decades (I edited some of them back in the 1970s). And as usual, the Beeb forgets Turkey, land of the printed word, where political cartoons often reach a level that makes Steve Bell look like the uninformed NW3 poser he is...
MercThrasher, Brno, Czech Republic

The comments below are correct. There is actually quite a long history of political satire, including cartoons, throughout the Middle East - despite and *because* of censorship and other forms of political repression. Iran, for example, witnessed tons of very influential cartoon satire during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1909 as well as the 1940s and early 1950s.
Arta, New York, USA

Well due to the fact that the author of this article lives in Jerusalem, not the Arab world, he does not really have the clear view of the Arab cartoonist world. The author has forgotten to mention Palestinian Naji al-Ali, who was the most prominent cartoonist in the Arab world, who openly satirized Arab governments (probably why he was shot in London).
A.A., Jordan

You should read the 'Dry Bones' cartoons. They've been a prominent part of Israeli cartoonship for many years and are quite apposite a reflection of what goes on in Israel.
Ros Morris, London, UK

"Islamic tradition has discouraged figurative depiction of human beings; in Judaism, pictures are used only sparingly."

Yes, but Israel is a democracy not a theocracy. In addition it has a free uncensored press, unlike the nations that surround it. Also as an Israeli, I would like to point out there has long been appreciation of satirical cartoons both political and simply humorous in Israel. I am really not quite sure what point of view you are trying to convey... But please don't confuse Israeli society with the rest in the region. Thank you!
John Bookbinder, UK

Tim Franks translation of the Hebrew cartoon is not accurate, what Tzipi Livni actually says is:

"Let's see if you can say: 'Two States for two Peoples' ", which is a little different in tone from the translation offered.

The Arabic cartoon obviously has only one phrase in Arabic script included in the clip - But the sentiment is one I hear from my Arab contacts (expressed more forcefully!)
Meira, Israel

As an Israeli I find this diary a little strange. I grew up on cartoons which dated way back to the 50's. Nasser and Arafat as well Begin and Sharon all had their fare share of coverage with "Dosh" (Israeli cartoonist). The Arab world is full of cartoons and was full of them for a while now. Secular Arab world was around for a long long time.
Itsik, London

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