See the Pyramids Along the Nile
The Egyptian Society for Caricature, along with the Minister of Culture and other official bodies, inaugurated the First International Cartoon Gathering last night. At the Cairo Opera House’s spacious Palace of the Arts, five large galleries displayed 500 cartoons from Egyptian and international artists.
That the launch was on April 6, the anniversary of iconic labor protests against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2008, was either an oversight or a slight. “There will be problems in the country,” Akhbar Al-Youm cartoonist Hany Shams had warned the organizers beforehand. But the Ministry of Culture said that April 6 was the only available date.
Tahrir Square was closed for much of the day, and hundreds of protesters instead demonstrated in front of the Journalists and Lawyers Syndicates, a throwback to the pre-uprising days.
Upon entering the Palace of Arts, dozens of examples of Egyptomania were given prime billing, though the illustrations looked tiny compared to the high-ceiling. On the caricature-steeped walls, works of European, Arab and Egyptian cartoonists commingled. Over a hundred guests, including distinguished cartoonists, trailed by video cameras and SLRs, strolled through the sprawling galleries.
Egypt was depicted as pharaohs and sphinxes, hieroglyphs and sand dunes; stuff about politics was relegated to the back galleries.
Ukrainian cartoonist Vladimir Kazanevsky’s pyramid homage was the gathering’s centerpiece. Surrounded by clicking cameras, Hany Shams asked his Ukrainian colleague what drew him to Egyptian imagery. Kazanevsky explained that very origins of cartooning could be traced to the walls of pharaohs’ tombs. The facial expressions of ancient cats and dogs inspire him.
As for the ongoing revolution in back home, Kazanevsky said that his countrymen had learned from the Egyptian protesters—“We took [the idea of] burning tires from Cairo.” As for his impressions of Egyptian caricaturists, the Ukrainian said that in all countries, “there is a growth of cartooning after revolutions,” citing Japan and Iran.
So why are cartoonists from 64 countries drawing Egypt’s pharaonic past while overseeing its turbulent present? Egyptomania reinforces the idea of an Egypt that is incomprehensible and astonishing—a country that was once ahead of its time but is now backward. Such cartoons perpetuate these fantasies without questioning their relevance. There is no attempt to comprehend how this past relates to the present. It’s ahistorical and thus needn’t engage with today’s politics.
To be sure, Egyptians should be proud of their rich history, its stunning and complex art and architecture. But Egyptians must also be proud of today’s state of flux. That’s the material cartoonists must address.
Dozens lingered in the foyer, taking selfies in front of the scarabs and papyrus pastiches. I searched for a cartoon among the 500 that depicted the police or the military. There was only one gag: a robber (in cartoonish striped jail clothes) being chased by an officer, because the former had tried to steal a pyramid.
The walls were over-saturated. Tucked away in upstairs galleries, there were plenty of political cartoons, and I’ll have to go back to read them more closely. (500 cartoons! That could take days.)
But on April 6, 2014, a five-minute walk from Tahrir Square, there was no space to discuss politics.