Drawing conclusions in Malta


IN THE United States, editorial cartooning is a dangerous profession -- for politicians. They suffer relentlessly at the sharp end of the cartoonist's pen. They see their faces distorted and their words ridiculed.

Image consultants and spin doctors carefully construct a positive view of a politician, but a successful cartoonist can puncture that image with a few well-placed jabs of the nib. The American cartoonist enjoys a respected place in the local community. In much of the rest of the world, however, it is quite a different story.

Political cartooning is a high-risk profession in many countries. Some cartoonist have been killed over their work.

Twelve years ago, a Palestinian cartoonist, Naj Al-Ali, was assassinated on the streets of London by an extremist Palestinian group. Ali, one of the most well-known cartoonists in the Arab world, had committed a crime -- drawing cartoons that dared to criticize Arab leaders.

In August, Kurdish cartoonist Dogan Guzal was sentenced to 16 months in a high-security Turkish prison for the crime of describing the government of Ankara, Turkey, as "weak" in his cartoons.

Recently, I heard first-hand accounts of the challenging lives of some of my fellow political cartoonists from the Middle East, during a summit for cartoonists held on the Mediterranean island of Malta.

Cartoon summit

The summit, also billed as a master class, was sponsored by Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based nonprofit group dedicated to conflict resolution, the Swiss government and Jemstone, a media relations company based in Jordan.

Some 20 editorial cartoonists gathered for the four-day event, which drew participants from eight Middle Eastern countries, France, Ireland, Malta and the United States. This gathering was the first time editorial cartoonists from the Middle East had met to compare work experiences and discuss the impact of their work on their respective societies.

The meeting, dubbed the "cartoon summit," had another important agenda: to address the delicate issue of ethnic stereotyping by cartoonists in the region. Derogatory depictions of Arabs as devious hooked-nosed terrorists and Jews as vultures and rats (ironically festooned with swastikas) have proliferated in Middle Eastern newspapers.

These vicious images serve only to inflame passions and hinder the Middle East peace process. Sensing the power of these cartoons, Anti-Defamation League leaders greeted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, on his recent visit to New York, with a booklet of anti-Semitic cartoons that had appeared in the Egyptian press.

The League challenged him in a New York Times ad to denounce and prohibit the publication of such damaging depictions in his country's government-controlled media. Mr. Mubarak responded by producing an almost identical booklet containing anti-Arab cartoons that had been published in the Israeli press.

The issue was addressed at the master class, but not immediately. Initially, it was important to establish a sense of camaraderie and trust. Hours were spent discussing everything from local politics to pen nibs. We compared cartoons, swapped books and drew caricatures of one another.

After two days, the time seemed right. A roundtable discussion started with the placement of two easels in the center of the room. Each cartoonist was asked in turn to create a cartoon on the easels about the escalating crisis between the United States and Iraq. The challenge for each cartoonist was to create a drawing from the perspective of a different country.

The Israeli had to draw as an Iraqi, the American as an Iranian, the Egyptian as an Israeli, and so on. A lively debate ensued.

An Egyptian cartoonist noted that in the Western press, Arabs are often drawn in an offensive stereotypical way, wearing beards, kaffias, robes and holding daggers, implying a barbaric and violent nature.

Semitic features

Israeli cartoonist Yaakov "Dry Bones" Kirschen responded with a brilliant exhibition of how with a few strokes of the pen, stereotypical Arabs can be turned into stereotypical Jews. The drawings showed that the two sides share some of the same features since they're both of Semitic origin.

Of course, that simple exercise won't bring an end to stereotyping in cartoons, but it did raise awareness among the members of the group about how such depictions needlessly anger people.

Other hot topics at the meeting were censorship and repression. Censorship was seen to have two sides. On one hand, it imposed restrictions, but on the other, it forced cartoonists to be more creative and subtle in getting their messages across.

Several cartoonists told of experiences where their newspapers were reprimanded or closed down for publishing cartoons that were unsympathetic to the government. To be effective (and stay out of jail) the cartoonists learned to be resourceful.

The authorities are more likely to censor words rather than pictures, which can be more open to interpretation. So many cartoonists at the summit said they rely on symbolism in their work. For example, some might interpret a cartoon of a tank crushing a flower as a comment on an authoritarian regime crushing freedom.

Iranian cartoonist Javad Alizadeh cannot directly criticize his country's restrictive policies, so he makes universal statements of human suffering. He said that he hopes his readers understand the lessons of tolerance and freedom he expresses in his cartoons and can apply them to their lives.

Mr. Alizadeh's experience was like many at the conference. To be too outspoken in their cartoons was to tempt fate. When American cartoonists gather, there is no discussion of colleagues in jail, police harassment or dangerous nationalistic stereotyping. Much of the freedom we enjoy is taken for granted.

The spirit and dedication of the cartoonists I met in Malta were enlightening and inspiring. Confronted with tight restrictions, and in fear of retaliation, they persevere to express their opinions within their limited and often precarious confines.

Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher has been a political cartoonist for The Sun for 11 years.

Pub Date: 1/08/99

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