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Volume 27, Number 2March/April 1976

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Sharper Than the Sword

Written by Joseph Fitchett

At a recent annual international salon of political cartoons at Montreal's Terre des Hommes festival, one cartoonist singled out for recognition was an artist who has worked all his life in Egypt: Alexander Saroukhan, a cartoonist for newspapers in Alexandria and Cairo from 1925 until the present. Born in Constantinople and educated in Europe, Saroukhan was a pioneer in what today in the Middle East is an increasingly important contribution to the Arab press: the editorial cartoon.

Humor is a revealing national characteristic and the perceptions of cartoonists say much about the attitudes of their readers. Arab cartoonists, for example, reflect not only the predominance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Arab thinking but also changes in attitude and approach that have emerged in the last two years: a new and refreshing willingness to poke fun at shortcomings and incongruities in Arab societies. In doing so they have arrived at a self-critical wryness that is healthy and important and proves still again that the pen is sharper than the sword.

Political cartooning has a solid tradition in Arab publishing, one going back to the European invasions of Egypt in the 19th century. Some Egyptian cartoonists even claim that it goes back to drawings in the tombs of the Pharaohs. But the new hard hitting style really flowered in the 1950's, when Egypt took back the Suez Canal. A handful of newspaper cartoonists, emboldened by Suez, began to experiment with the forthright styles of America's Herblock and Mauldin.

The cartoonists' topics are the familiar ones—the contradictions of all bureaucracies, the "little man" facing business and government, the blind enthusiasm for fashions and fads, the eternal skirmishes between men and women. But all these situations have the special features of an Arab setting. Egyptian bureaucrats wonder why Cairenes complain about the inadequate bus service while in the background thousands of Egyptians can be seen riding on the roofs of jammed buses complete with street vendors. A wife rings the local television station to ask that a well-known star be restored to the TV screen so her husband will stay home at night.

The techniques are also familiar. Caricature is a favorite device and most Arab cartoonists have whole rosters of recognizable stock characters—the old pasha, the new bureaucrat, the man in the street, the emancipated Arab woman, the ambitious army officer—whom they use to comment on the latest developments.

Frequently those comments must be muted; as in the West editorial humor is not always appreciated in government circles. But even that is changing. Egypt's foremost cartoonist recently won wide support when he successfully stood up to an offended official who tried, and failed, to have him arrested for irreverent cartoons querying government failure to cope with municipal water supply problems.

Arab cartooning talent and enthusiasm, gradually spreading in wider circles, still flourish best in the cosmopolitan centers where it started—and above all, in Cairo. In these centers, the state of the art is already two generations old. For example, the doyen of Egyptian cartoonists, Abdul la Abdul Samih, published his first cartoons in 1945. Then, most Cairo cartoonists were frankly willing to pirate drawings and ideas from American and European magazines. They don't any more.

In those early days, Abdul Samih says, many cartoonists uncritically glorified government achievements. But, he adds, the strong political passions aroused by events then also fostered Egypt's first generation of indigenous cartoonists by creating a ready market for new talent.

On the debit side, the same passions encouraged unpleasantly crude cartoons about Arab enemies. But this too is absent from increasingly subtle Arab cartooning, in which a new generation is making itself felt. (Abdul Samih's own son already cartoons on one of Egypt's widely circulated, professional-standard student newspapers produced by journalism majors at Cairo University.)

Cartoonists are also becoming more conscious of their collective influence. In Beirut, the 14 Lebanese who made their living entirely from political cartoons met regularly at a mountain hotel to discuss professional problems and ideas. And in Egypt cartoonists are an important part of the influential Cairo milieu of journalists and artists. Some are even consulted by political editors who, like the Chinese before them, believe that one picture is worth a thousand editorials.

Joseph Fitchett contributes frequently to the Christian Science Monitor, broadcasts for ABC, edits Near East Business and is Middle East correspondent of the London Observer

"Jalul" is the professional name of the Lebanese cartoonist Niazi Jalul, who draws for Al-Hawadess, a Beirut-based weekly magazine that in 1975 had a circulation of nearly 250,000 throughout the Arab world. Born in Buenos Aires of Lebanese parents, Jalul moved to the Middle East as a child and eventually studied at the School of Fine Arts in Beirut. He joined Al-Hawadess nearly a decade ago and became, by 1975, the best paid of the 14 full-time cartoonists working in the Lebanese capital. At Al-Hawadess, he has been responsible for four cartoons a week: two on Lebanese affairs, one on Arab affairs and one on international news. The cartoons were planned at an editorial conference with the news editors, after which Jalul worked up the ideas into finished form for publication. One of Jalul's favorite devices is to mix photographs of actual people and places with original drawings.

Al-Hawadess may have seemed ambitious in believing cartoons could succeed in a magazine circulating in a dozen different countries with quite different social and political preoccupations. But Al-Hawadess was convinced, said Jalul, that Arab readers enjoy cartoons immensely.

Imad Shehadeh, a 35-year-old Palestinian, became a cartoonist by accident. "When I worked on a Beirut daily," he said, "I had an office reputation for doodling. So one day, when the cartoonist failed to deliver, the editor roped me into supplying a cartoon. After that, they wouldn't let me stop and I got to like it. Even when I became editor, I decided to order myself, as cartoonist, to stay on the job despite my other duties."

Shehadeh's cartoons once included a series published in the USA under the title "David and Goliath," ridiculing American beliefs about the comparative strength of the Arab countries and Israel. Taking off from the American belief that an Arab giant was trying to crush a tiny David, Shehadeh's drawings pointed out that standing firmly behind the tiny David was an immense American.

As a cartoonist and editor of The Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Beirut, Shehadeh sharpened his work for readers accustomed to American and British cartoons. That meant drawings that stood on their own and eliminated the wordy captions which are often the bane of Arab cartoons elsewhere.

When he became co-editor of the Beirut English-language weekly Monday Morning, Shehadeh no longer considered himself primarily a cartoonist, even though he continued to spice the pages of the magazine with his often biting illustrations. Shehadeh was also a skilled satirist with words and his column "Kritikos," when it hit its mark, was probably the closest thing to Art Buchwald on this side of the Atlantic.

Saleh Jaheen's five-days-a-week cartoons in Al-Ahram are an Egyptian national institution.

His familiar cast of characters—stock figures like the short-sleeved, open-faced average Egyptian, the fez-topped old pasha, the bland bureaucrat—touch a responsive chord of wry humor in weary Egyptians and make their problems endurable. A recent Jaheen drawing, for example, showed a crammed Cairo bus with an enterprising street vendor peddling fresh-baked ears of roast corn to passengers on the roof. Two bureaucrats, presumably from the Transport Ministry, disdainfully regarded the familiar spectacle, and one commented: "Why do they want more buses when they have such comfortable roofs?"

Jaheen's stature is measured by his unique status at Al-Ahram. Jaheen, who started drawing there in 1961, is the only cartoonist ever published by the staid Egyptian daily, which is often called the New York Times of Arab newspapers.

Jaheen's genius far capturing current Egyptian moods, as well as apt angles on daily events, reflects his own deep involvement in popular Egyptian culture. The only son of an itinerant magistrate, Jaheen spent much of his childhood moving around Egypt, passing many hours in the company of his mother, an educated woman and musician who encouraged his interest in poetry based on local folklore.

Jaheen's instinctive grasp of public moods and his imaginative ability to marry recognizable scenes and gestures with pungent Egyptian aphorisms has enabled him to capture the doubts, exasperations and emotions of the little man with whom he is allied against the establishment.

George Bahgory, an Egyptian artist who has acquired an immense following as a cartoonist—and is published frequently in European magazines—is a leader in the second generation of Arab cartoonists to push for change through laughter. In his drawings—which run regularly in Rose El-Yussef, a Cairo weekly newsmagazine—Bahgory dramatizes his own reactions to daily life in the Egyptian capital. Bahgory fans instantly identify with the central character—unaggressive but irrepressibly curious, dutiful but hedonistic, patriotic but unfanatic, romantic but henpecked. He is a latter-day, more politically conscious James Thurber. Bahgory's tiny, recognizable self-portrait appears in all his drawings, even if only as a commentator. His wry caricature of author Joseph Fitchett appears on the contents page of this issue of Aramco World.

Bahgory's interest in cartoons dates back to his art-school days in Cairo just after the Egyptian revolution. Fascinated by the power of caricature to illuminate reality, Bahgory became the first cartoonist in Egypt to move into sophisticated commentary.

Cartooning in Saudi Arabia is still in its first generation, but already there are two or three cartoonists of note. Ali-al-Kharji of Al-Riyadh newspaper often takes the suppliers of utilities to task and zeroes in on such human foibles as weight-watching. Al-Kharji, a native-born Saudi, has studied in Iraq, England and Egypt, including a stint as a student of sculpture at the Fine Arts Academy in Cairo. He knows the bureaucracy from the inside, having worked in the Department of Roads and Bridges, the Meteorology Department and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. His book Abu Salih and the World takes a look at the birth and development of the art of caricature.

Another is Batrawi, who draws for the Jiddah daily Al-Bilad, and is of Egyptian origin. His satire is extremely gentle, but his draftsmanship is superb.

A third cartoonist is Muhammad al-Khunaifar of the Riyadh daily Al-Jazirah, who also directs his shafts at the bureaucracy and the utility companies—likely targets in any country.

Beirut's An-Nahar has traditionally been a brash, outspoken newspaper and Pierre Sadek, its regular cartoonist, fitted the mold. An "independent spirit," as he himself would say, Pierre Sadek has been a columnist who uses pictures instead of prose.

Sadek has drawn a daily cartoon for An-Nahar for more than a decade. His usual approach has been to read widely and talk constantly with his colleagues and, two hours every afternoon, lock himself in to draw his cartoon for the next day's paper.

In Sadek's French-furnished office on the editorial floor of An-Nahar, certain volumes on the bookshelves offered clues to his models: "A History of Punch," and a collection of New Yorker cartoons. There were also samples of such colleagues as Herblock and Oliphant, whom he knows from international congresses of cartoonists, envies for their independence and sometimes imitates.

Sadek has a solid artistic background; he attended art school in Beirut. But he soon turned to cartooning and began to focus on the cartoonist's permanent themes : the desire for peace, the impact of war, skepticism about the rhetoric of politicians and the common sense of the man in the street when given a chance to express himself.

This article appeared on pages 26-29 of the March/April 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1976 images.