Syrian cartoonist touches a raw nerve

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2003, 12:00am

Ali Farzan has spent his adult life highlighting contentious political issues through his drawings.

Now he himself has become one after two newspapers triggered a firestorm after publishing a series of cartoons highly critical of Saddam Hussein's regime drawn by the outspoken 52-year old back in 1991 along with two newer ones.

They appeared in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan and Syria's first and only private newspaper, Al Domari - which just happens to be owned by Farzan.

'No human being can accept any war anywhere in the world and I feel pain for every bomb that falls, for every child that dies,' Farzan says emotionally.

'But I hate all dictatorships, all injustice, wherever they exist and we have a duty to look at these things, we have to try to find solutions.'

Farzan's politically charged drawings have entertained and informed Syrians for almost three decades. The Middle East's best known cartoonist, his work has appeared over the years in international media like Newsweek.

In 1991, the Syrian government supported the American-led coalition to force Iraq out of Kuwait, and Farzan, like many Syrians, was harshly critical of Mr Hussein's regime. While he still feels much the same, the situation is different. Syria is now one of the world's loudest opponents of the war, and there is virtually no criticism of Mr Hussein's regime tolerated by the state-controlled press or on the Syrian streets.

In one of Farzan's cartoons, an incredibly fat Iraqi army general is seen addressing a group of skinny, hungry Iraqis telling them to resist as the incoming forces want to 'take away your oil, your livelihoods, and your land'.

In another, people's arms are seen on television news holding signs that say 'Saddam is popular', while in an adjacent drawing outside the television camera's frame, policemen are holding up the arms of the civilians.

The government-owned newspaper Teshrin responded by publishing an editorial and copies of the cartoons two days in a row, attacking Farzan for his lack of support for Iraq and shaming him for making fun of the nation's army and regime when they are trying to stand bravely against a superpower.

Hundreds of protesters, many of them artists, have picketed Al Domari 's offices in central Damascus, circulating petitions against Farzan.

'The people of Syria and Iraq have never had any problems, we have always supported them, and it is wrong to demoralise them now,' argued Fatima Al Shahbi, a Syrian journalist.

Shahbi joined other Syrian journalists at an emotional press briefing called by Farzan on Wednesday to defend his position. Local journalists appeared equally divided over the issue of criticising Mr Hussein.

'I don't think Farzan did anything wrong,' said Hassan Naseef, a Damascus-based freelancer. 'But the Syrian public has no stomach for criticism or making jokes when every day the news is filled with the pictures of innocent people dying.'

Despite this, Farzan is still smiling. 'At least this is making people think and talk and argue,' he says lightly.

There was great hope among Syrians that their country would open up and modernise when Basher al-Assad took over as president three years ago.

Farzan sought, and gained, permission to start Al Domari.

But it has not been any easy ride. After a brief period of increased press and political freedom, reform efforts have stalled - a situation many blame on Mr Basher's dependence on his father's ageing conservative support base.

'I don't know who precisely is behind all this, but we've felt pressure against the newspaper. The Ministry of Information bears some responsibility in my mind because it was Teshrin that wrote against me in the first place,' Farzan said.

'A privately owned newspaper - an independent press - is simply not acceptable to many powerful people here. They've closed us down three times, demanded we remove certain articles, and stay away from certain subjects.'

Publicly, government officials have been largely quiet on the subject of Farzan's work, but one said: 'Journalists can write or draw anything they like, but they should not provide disinformation to the public. We can see the public doesn't like that.'

Despite the pressure, Farzan has no plans to stop working, and is considering ways to artistically express the irony of his situation to the public.

'When we all used to work for the government-owned papers, we had to use symbols and the public could think or believe or interpret what they wanted from our work,' he says.

'Now we're more direct and the impact is stronger, but I have not expressed anything that others have not done before.'