Satire: Mocking News, Lampooning Power
I spoke to Listening Post about the 24-hour news cycle and how it has influenced political jokes.
The three-part documentary covers Egypt’s celebrity comedian Bassem Youssef, South Africa’s risk-taking illustrator Zapiro, Spanish TV satire, cartooning in the United Kingdom, and more.
In 2010, South African cartoonist Zapiro (left) illustrated President Zuma raping Lady Liberty. Listening Post interviews the cartoonist about the ensuing lawsuit and the evolving red lines of caricature. See more of Zapiro’s cartoons here.
"The Arab Whodunnit"—a piece I’ve just published in The Guardian.
From Baghdad to Cairo, a neo-noir revolution has been creeping across the Middle East. The revival of crime fiction since the upheavals started in 2011 should not come as a surprise. Noir offers an alternative form of justice: the novelist is the ombudsman; the bad guys are taken to court.
“Police repression is an experience that binds people throughout the Arab world,” writes Dartmouth professor Jonathan Smolin in Moroccan Noir: Police, Crime and Politics in Popular Culture. That experience of repression did not simply pre-date the 2011 uprisings; it stimulated the revolts themselves.
The genre has long been popular in the Middle East though often considered too lowbrow for local and international scholarship. Mid-century paperbacks – shelves of unexamined pulp, from Arabic translations to locally produced serials, along with contemporary reprints of Agatha Christie – languish in Cairo’s book markets. Writer Ursula Lindsay quips: “Cairo is the perfect setting for noir: sleaze, glitz, inequality, corruption, lawlessness. It’s got it all.”
Spies, Gamblers, and Brutes
Today I left Cairo’s Ezbekiyya book market without a piaster in my pocket. I spent all my dough on paperbacks—good ones, too.
Among today’s finds:
—Several undated novels with film-noir inspired covers, mostly from the Novels of the World series. Highlights include Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and little-known thrillers like The Brute and The Ideal Crime.
—The Spy, published anonymously. The inside cover reads: “I worked as a spy for the CIA, the American spy agency.”
—A 1993 Arabic translation of Raymond Chandler’s 1943 novel The Lady in the Lake. Weighing in at a hefty 430 pages, this is the first translation of Chandler I’ve been able to dig up after a year of sleuthing. The cover is a nostalgic noir pastiche, as lovely and simple as the author’s prose. ( I wonder how he reads in Arabic!)
—A skeleton carrying Alfred Hitchcock’s head on the cover of his Terrible Revenge. In fact, I came across dozens of Hitchcock dime novels today, fodder for an entire blog post.
—The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a 1936 edition from the Pocket Books imprint, which happens to be in quite excellent condition and cost less than a dollar.
If you’re not familiar with the Egyptian capital’s best trove of treasures, the Ezbekiyya book market, Elliott Colla dishes out the facts:
When Napoleon tried to conquer Egypt, this was the site of a man-made lake surrounded by the ornate palaces of Turkish Pashas and high-ranking officials of the late Mameluke state. A century later, during British rule, the lake had been filled in and the area converted into a vast entertainment district. Bars and theatres, cabarets and brothels catered to Cairo’s elites who met in this border zone located between the medieval casbah and the new colonial downtown. By the time I get to Cairo, most of this history has disappeared under flyovers and Soviet-era concrete projects. Still, a few sordid belly-dance clubs still hold out over near the decrepit old fire station and post office.
Continue reading Elliott’s post, "Buying Books in Cairo."
"Portfolio: An Encounter with Andeel"
San Francisco had Robert Crumb and counterculture comix. Cairo has Tok Tok—"the street level satirical magazine," in scholar Paul Gravett’s words. Tok Tok is more Crumb than Crumb. It’s Krazy Kat and Mad Magazine and Paul Conrad and Spiegelman wrapped into one—with a large, young fan base eager for the next issue.
In the book Comic Art, Gravett places Egypt’s premier comic zine in the category of “Unheard Voices,” dissenting illustrations that regimes fear. He quotes Tok Tok co-founder Mohammed Shennawy as saying, “Even if an artist in Tok Tok has his own point of view and his way of telling a story, we’re all trying to document the current period in drawings, words and comics…” Documentation: that is the key to understanding the varied and vast content of Tok Tok’s twelve issues since January 2011.
Whether their narratives are real or unreal, the artists are documenting a Cairo of their experience. More than an experiment in political activism or comic journalism, Tok Tok is the mingling of myriad artists’ divergent visions, a scrapbook that avoids the traps of nostalgia.
Shennawy convened Cairo comic fans on Thursday, launching the latest issue in a conversation with cartoonist Andeel. The event packed Townhouse gallery’s factory space, in downtown, a block from the cafe where the cartoonists hang out. The new issue features tales of a silly sultan, talking fish, boxers, mermaids, terrorists, and clowns—all in vivid color, handsomely arranged by Shennawy who has a speculator eye for lay out. In Shennawy’s strip on the inside cover of the new issue. ISIS militants behead an Egyptian protagonist.
Andeel sat in the red spotlight. Over a hundred fans waited patiently for the “encounter,” notepads and iPhone cameras ready. Shennawy skipped the honorifics and jumped into an informal chat with the 27-year-old cartoonist. It was like sitting on the couch at his apartment, clicking through his portfolio of strips and panels. Shennawy paused to grab a cigarette.
Andeel talked bluntly about censorship, giving examples of before and after a newspaper editor had taken a pen to the artist’s naughty language. Andeel was warm, irreverent, and jovial. When he employed a swear word, his mother, who sat in the front row, laughed along with the rest of the audience.
Tok Tok #12’s centerfold is a poster of President Abdelfattah El-Sisi, drawn by Andeel, who was one of the first cartoonists to lampoon the fearless leader. In the poster, a yes-man loses his cool with the distant leader who dreams of a simpler country. That image of the aloof president also graces the back cover.
Tok Tok #12, Back and Front, Drawn by Andeel
For the front, Andeel drew two very different young Egyptians engaging in conversation: a traditional guy and a hipster actually seem to be listening to one another. In a country that far too many commentators have called “polarized,” the issue’s front is just as subversive as its back.
Political comics in Egypt are only getting bolder, even as difficult red lines dictate what’s published in the mainstream Egyptian press. Cartoonists have responded by publishing incredibly popular comic books that are now on sale in bookstores across Egypt’s capital. Rather than simply relying on Facebook as their outlet, Andeel, Shenawwy and others have created something new. Tok Tok is a singular, independent voice in a cacophonous publishing world of vapid content. I’m almost certain that the Arabic zine will have a “radicalizing effect,” much like Mad had fifty years ago.
"Pardon me, chief… has my head rolled through here?"
You might find this cartoon distasteful. The Egyptian cartoonist Abdallah drew the gag for Sunday’s edition of the privately-owned Al-Masry Al-Youm. He emphasizes the absurdity of ISIS executions, with the irreverence that befits the trouble-making art form. Many illustrators have lampooned the Islamic State in their daily frames, but this cartoon goes much farther.
Is the cartoonist saying that beheadings are so ubiquitous that heads are rolling in the streets? Would a Western newspaper publish this cartoon? Should gruesome topics, like beheadings, be off limits for artists?
Is the deployment of symbolic violence against ISIS the most effective method of countering the extremist group’s ideology?
"I’m married to two women… Can you cut off this head… and fix it to this body?"
Abdallah / Al-Masry Al-Youm / 7 September 2014
—Joking about Syria: Are there topics that mustn’t be joked about?
—Good Morning, Iraq: Selection of new cartoons from Iraq
—Iraq’s Tug of War: Vintage cartoons from Iraq
The American University of Beirut is launching a new comics studies initiative.
Comics strips have arrived at the American University of Beirut, thanks to the Mu’taz and Rada Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative, which will provide opportunities for the academic research and promotion of Arabic comics.
With a five-year pledge from the Sawwaf family, the initiative, which will be under the direct authority of the University Provost, will help AUB promote the research, teaching, and production of Arabic comics, and develop and maintain a repository of Arabic comics literature.
Associate Professor Lina Ghaibeh will direct the new initiative. An animator herself, Ghaibeh has taught courses on 3D modeling, illustration, urban graffiti, and more. Her recent lecture, “Propaganda in Comics in the Arab World,” is worth watching:
"September" by Hefnawy, from Tok Tok's 2014 calendar.
For those who aren’t familiar with Tok Tok:
In the tumultuous three years since the Tahrir Square uprising, a number of young Egyptian cartoonists have persevered to defend a crack of space for free expression and dissent. Among their favorite slings: Tok Tok, an alt-comic magazine.
Tok Tok is more preoccupied with the country’s social issues than with the politicians of the day. Its narratives range from wordless strips on corrupt government officials and businessmen, to the misadventures of an antihero combating sexual harassment. The quarterly’s illustrations depict an Egypt largely absent in the mainstream press—downtown street corners, packed minibuses, cramped apartments, and daily addictions such as coffee or hashish. The artists challenge readers to attune themselves to the city life around them. Variously drawing on the aesthetics of Mad Magazine and Walt Disney, noir film and street art, Tok Tok captures Cairo’s grit, and is always penned in colloquial dialects. Mohammed Andeel, one of the magazine’s five co-founders, who goes only by his last name in the tradition of Egyptian cartoonists, calls Tok Tok “an answer to censorship.”
Continue reading my profile of the comic revolutionaries in the Winter 2014 issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.
From my recent essay in The Paris Review Daily, in which I uncover links between vintage Arabic noirs and contemporary graphic novels in Egypt:
[A] modern-day equivalent of pulp is the graphic novel—an emerging medium that illustrates the divey corners that sleuths and skirts frequented a half century ago. Metro, by Magdy El-Shafee, is known as the original Arabic adult comic book, and it’s a kind of Cairo noir: on the first page, a beleaguered young computer programmer decides to rob a bank. When it was first published in 2007, Egyptian authorities seized all copies from the publisher, though the reason remains a mystery. Was it the narrator’s harsh antiregime attitude, his use of nudity and expletives, or the publisher’s activist reputation? The book was republished in Cairo after Hosni Mubarak took a fall, but it’s still hard to find in Arabic. (It’s on sale worldwide in translation.)
Whatever the reason for the comic’s censorship, its notoriety provoked other young artists to engage with noir aesthetics in telling contemporary stories of depravity. Ganzeer, the pseudonym of a thirty-two-year-old graphic artist whose art installations and graffiti are landmarks in Cairo and elsewhere, is inspired by Metro’s antihero. “Of course you could relate to someone opposing the government, opposing the police, more so than you can relate to this idea of a noble police officer who has to solve crimes for the greater good,” Ganzeer has said. This is the common thread between the new graphic novels and noirs of old: don’t trust the law.
Detail from Ganzeer’s illustration / The Apartment in Bab El-Louk, by Donia Maher, Ganzeer, Ahmed Nady, 2014.
Each year, the Cartoonists Rights Network International honors artists that persevere in the face of danger and censorship. This year’s awardees are in…
Some background, via Al-Monitor:
A controversy erupted Jan. 22 when artist Majida Shaheen drew and published a cartoon on her Facebook page depicting Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh trying to tame an angry dog with the name “Al-Quds Brigades” — the military wing of Islamic Jihad — written on its collar. The cartoon is an allusion to the attempts of the Gaza government to prevent resistance factions from launching rockets against Israel.
Majda Shaheen’s cartoon of of Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The devilish dog is labeled “Al-Quds Brigades.” Facebook / Jan. 23, 2014
“This is the common thread between the new graphic novels and noirs of old: don’t trust the law.”
A New History and a Timeless Debate
Last night I attended a launch for a new book by Egyptian scholar Rania Saleh, The Political Cartoon: From the Al-Orabi Revolution to the January 25 Revolution. Saleh, who has published widely on the history of Egyptian caricature, introduces her book with an interesting argument: comics can be traced to hieroglyphics.
This volume represents the first attempt to narrate a comprehensive history of the trouble-making art form in Egypt. Dozens and dozens of Arabic cartoon monographs are out there. But Saleh has conducted extensive interviews and archival work in order to trace the medium’s development.
The event itself was—dare I say—comic. As the 69-year-old cartoonist Tag, pictured second from the right above, offered a personal account of cartoon history, the power went out. Even the upmarket bookstore, Al-Kotob Khan, is not immune from the country’s rampant power outs. Thirty of us continued sitting in the hot darkness, as the nedwa (or salon, in English) proceeded.
"I don’t like cartoonists these days," said Tag. He lambasted the new generation for producing work that’s irrelevant to the country.
In particular, Tag criticized young Egyptians for not drawing the new Suez Canal project, President Al-Sisi’s major infrastructure scheme. “This is something big in the history of Egypt,” emphasized Tag. “But where are the cartoons?” Gomaa Ferhat, 73, chimed in, saying that he had drawn a cartoon on Suez for the state newspaper Al-Ahram.
This raises a major question that has been front and center since the 2011 uprising: Should cartoonists follow their editors’ visions and draw what they’re told? Or should they be fully independent?
In fact, this has been an ongoing debate in the world of Egyptian caricature for nearly a century. Roz El-Yusef newspaper, which started publishing cartoons in 1925, has provided the space for independent illustrators. Al-Akhbar, a state-owned newspaper, has tended to pair cartoonists with writers, who act as scriptwriters. Both schools of caricature persist in Egypt. Though Tag comes from the Roz El-Yusef school, where cartoonists were given free reign, he seems to have migrated to the other camp.
I’m excited to read through Saleh’s book and see how she addresses this great debate—though the book is 521 pages and contains scores of comics, so I will be back to you with a review in due time.
The Political Cartoon: From the Al-Orabi Revolution to the January 25 Revolution, by Rania Saleh, 2014.