God Bless Your Hands, Ali

Dear reader: If you are still unfamiliar with the art of Ali Farzat, you are doing yourself an injustice. The Syrian artist is one of the most important cartoonists in the Arab world and is also prominent internationally. As an Arab, I was proud to see Ali Farzat’s drawings in big international newspapers such as the Guardian and Le Monde. Ali Farzat was born in the city of Hama in 1951 and he showed extraordinary talent from childhood. At the age of 12 he sent a cartoon to the Syrian newspaper al-Ayyam and was surprised the next week to see the drawing published on the front page. He received a letter of thanks and appreciation from the editor in chief, who had never imagined that the cartoon was the work of a young boy. Thanks to his effort and his commitment to art, Ali Farzat has been able to develop his talent as he rises to the ranks of the giants of Arab cartoon art, along with Salah Jaheen, Hegazi, Naji al-Ali, Mustafa Hussein, Toughan, and others. Farzat believes that to be a cartoonist a talent for satire is more important than the ability to draw. This is true because cartoon art depends on exposing the contradiction between what is and what should be, and because this truth is evident to Ali Farzat, his drawings are always sparse, honest, and straightforward, free of clutter, ambiguity, or idle embellishment. With surprising simplicity, Farzat can sum up the world in a drawing that makes us think of and feel the ugliness that surrounds us and yearn for the beauty of truth and justice.

Farzat’s drawings convey their meaning directly, as if he were shooting a perfectly calibrated gun; he presses the trigger and the bullet heads straight for the target. Ali Farzat’s drawings confront you with the bare truth, no more and no less. For Ali Farzat, cartoons are not just an art form that pleases and he never aims to amuse or make people laugh. Cartoons are a very sensitive and effective weapon in the struggle for humanity. Ali Farzat’s primary cause is freedom, and he defends human rights and human dignity whatever the consequences and whatever the price.

An artist with Ali Farzat’s ability and international appeal could have lived honored and esteemed in London or Paris, become a famous freedom fighter safe in exile, as many others have done, but he insisted on staying in his own country, saying simply that he could not imagine drawing people when he lived far from them. Ali Farzat could have taken office as Syrian minister of culture long ago if he had wanted to. He wouldn’t have been required to be very sycophantic, just not to talk about injustice and oppression, to keep within the limits of the permissible. When he drew he would have had to make compromises such that his cartoons dealt with approved subjects, and he would have had to say half the truth. But Ali Farzat believes that the truth must be complete and that half-truths are a cheat and a fraud.

The strange thing is that there was once a real friendship between Ali Farzat and Bashar al-Assad. At that time, Bashar was studying ophthalmology in London and a lover of the arts. He started to visit Farzat’s exhibitions and admired his work. They became so friendly that Farzat invited Bashar to his house. Before he came to power, Bashar was perhaps enthusiastic about making real democratic reforms in Syria and maybe that was what led the Syrian regime, at that start of Bashar’s presidency, to let Farzat publish his famous magazine al-Domari, the first privately owned magazine in Syria since the 1960s (a domari was someone who carried a lantern to light the way for people at night in Ottoman times, before the introduction of electricity). The magazine was a unique phenomenon, firstly because the biting satire of its articles and cartoons made it similar to the French newspaper Le Canard enchaîné; secondly because it relied on straight talk rather than allusion and was remarkable for its overt criticism of tyranny and corruption; and thirdly because with its modest means it was able to achieve massive circulation figures unattainable by the Syrian government newspapers on which the Baath Party spent millions and which emerged in the end as mere propaganda sheets full of lies and stupidities that no one would read.

Farzat put up with every kind of harassment and prosecution by the authorities but he continued to put out al-Domari without bowing his head, compromising, or making deals with the regime. Little by little, al-Domari became such a problem for the Baath regime and the mukhabarat (the intelligence ministries) that in the end they had no option but to close it down and withdraw its licence.

But Ali Farzat the fighter never despairs, and when the Baath regime closed down his magazine, he discovered the wide open spaces of the Internet. He set up a website in his name to publish his cartoons, and as soon as they appeared they became the talk of Syria. Bashar al-Assad was furious with his former friend and said several times, “Ali Farzat was a friend of mine but he stabbed me in the back.” So Bashar the ophthalmologist turned into another despot who thinks that defending the truth is a stab in the back, and like other despots he understood friendship to be just submission and absolute loyalty. In fact he considered himself to be the whole country, no more and no less. Anyone who supported and flattered him was patriotic and anyone who defended human rights was, in his view, a traitor and a foreign agent. Anyone who advocated freedom was, in his opinion, a conspirator carrying out foreign agendas. The strange thing here is the similarity, if not congruence, between Bashar’s thinking and that of Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ben Ali, and all the other despots—the same lies, the same criminal behavior, the same abandonment of principles and ethics, all in order to hold on to power by any means and at any price. The great Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo described this congruence when he said, “If you know one dictator, you know all dictators, because they are all the same.”

With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution and the barbaric repression by the Syrian regime of unarmed citizens, simply because they demanded some of their human rights, Ali Farzat could not stand helplessly aside. He unsheathed his weapon and created cartoons that I think will last forever in the history of Arab art: we see an enormous soldier, representing the Syrian regime, about to open fire on a blindfolded detainee, but the two of them—the soldier and the victim—are standing at opposite ends of a wooden plank that will tumble at the slightest shake. When Bashar al-Assad announced he would repeal emergency law, Farzat drew a burly officer, representing the regime, casting a shadow on the wall behind him while Bashar al-Assad tries to paint the wall to hide the shadow, while the officer remains.

So far, the regime’s brutal repression has killed more than 2,000 people, and injured or detained thousands of others, but the government continues to lie and hold conferences to endorse spurious reforms with which it tries to deceive the people. So Farzat draws someone sitting on the toilet and pulling on a toilet roll on which the conference resolutions are written. As Syrians insist on freedom and the revolution spreads across Syria, security personnel and thugs associated with the regime have committed more horrendous crimes. They have started storming mosques and shooting with live ammunition people who are praying. Then a popular singer called Ibrahim Qashoush emerged, taking part in the protests and improvising songs calling on Bashar to step down. A few days ago, regime thugs abducted Qashoush, killed him, then brutally ripped out his throat and threw his body in the middle of a road so that when people found him he would be a lesson to anyone who dares demand that Bashar al-Assad give up power.

But the regime’s brutality has made Syrians only more insistent on revolution, and Ali Farzat has stood with them in the front line, continuing with rare courage to lob his own bombs against despotism. So there was no alternative to disciplining him and extinguishing his voice by any means possible. Last Thursday, Ali Farzat finished work and got into his car to drive home from his office. A a white car followed him, then cut him off and made him stop. Four big thugs forced him out of his car and brutally assaulted him. They beat him till his blood soaked his clothes and flowed on the ground, concentrating in their assault on his head and his hands. They beat his head until his brain was concussed and crushed his fingers.

This barbaric attack is full of meaning. Despite its massive apparatus of repression, the Syrian regime, which is armed to the teeth and has killed thousands of its own people, cannot tolerate a frail, gentle artist who has only his talents and his paint brush. They hit him on the head and crushed his hands because they are afraid of the truth he puts into his amazing drawings. At the feast of Eid al-Fitr, instead of being at home among his family and loved ones, Ali Farzat will be lying in a hospital, his body battered and his magical fingers—the fingers that created drawings that will remain forever in our minds and hearts—crushed. I hope my words reach Ali Farzat so that he knows how much we Egyptians love him and love all of Syria, and to what extent we feel for the suffering of our brothers and sisters there. The situation for Egyptians is not perfect—after deposing Hosni Mubarak, we were surprised to find the Mubarak regime still in power. But despite Egypt’s troubles, we have not forgotten our brothers and sisters in Syria, not for one moment.

Dear reader, I urge you to go to Ali Farzat’s website to see his wonderful drawings and understand what a world-class artist he is, and understand also what a crime Bashar al-Assad has committed, as the one primarily responsible for the brutal attack on one of the most important artists in the Arab world. Ali Farzat, you are an individual but when the time comes to take the measure of men you represent a nation. You have paid the price for your honor and your courage in a country ruled by an oppressive and tyrannical regime. They committed the crime of assaulting you because they are afraid of you. They have a massive apparatus of oppression and you have only your ink, but you are stronger then them because you represent truth while they represent falsehood and corruption. You are the future, Ali Farzat, and they are the dark past. You are coming, Ali, inevitably, while they are going to the place they deserve in the trash bin of history. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is finished. All that remains of it is the cudgel of repression and that will soon break and Syria will obtain its freedom. My friend Ali Farzat, God bless your hands.

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