Arab cartoonists have always frightened authority and often paid a high price for doing so. When the famous Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali was gunned down in 1987, suspicion was raised against everyone he had satirized, from Israeli political figures to the PLO leadership. Syrian satirist Ali Farzat had his fingers broken by pro-Assad gunmen who kidnapped him in 2011 in retaliation for his caricatures lampooning Bashar al Assad.
None of that surprises Hani Abbas, 35, a Palestininian-Syrian cartoonist who has made authority’s fear of art one of the main themes of his cartoons. “This is not a game,” he says. “In fighting for the rights of others, you can lose your freedom or even your life.”
While cartoons are no longer the main vessel for satire in the West, they remain central to political expression in the Middle East. Limits on press freedom have bred a rich tradition of subtle political satire through caricature. Abbas has followed in the footsteps of this tradition, playing on themes of exile, isolation, family, war, and Arab identity while emphasizing the enormous impact of social media on lives and events in the region.
As a classical satirist for the post-modern Middle East, Abbas attributes his artistic style to his experience as a Palestinian-Syrian in the digital diaspora. Despite the challenges of being born in the Yarmouk refugee camp in 1977 and living as a refugee, Abbas always envisioned himself as an artist.
“I used to love to draw as a child. I won competitions in high school.” It was largely through art that he was able to make a place for himself in Syrian society. However, he initially experienced much difficulty publishing his works. He was warned against caricature because “in the Middle East, it is like walking into a minefield.” However, Abbas could not be dissuaded. “I ignored the advice to stay away from caricature and continued my art … opening galleries at universities.”
Abbas uses potent symbols to explore censorship. One of his illustrations depicts two erasers arresting a pencil, and another shows a security man attempting to intimidate a caged bird into singing a specific song. “When you have a cause, the best way to express yourself is artistically,” he says, against “the scissor of the oppressor.”
Social media has emphatically empowered dissent in the Arab world, and caricature has found new life in this online world. Abbas’s work plays heavily to the online nature of the Palestinian and Syrian diasporas. “We’re all linked by our right to a homeland, where once, our only choice was guerrilla resistance,” he says. “We now have the advances of the digital age to give voice to our cause on social networks.”
One of Abbas’s cartoons features a house-key, the symbol of the Palestinian diaspora, attached to a keyboard. The symbolism is not immediately apparent to Western audiences, but according to Abbas, “I have great hope for the E-revolution … Twitter and Facebook are marvelous inventions and I use them to spread my work. I hope Palestinians will use these tools to gain their right of return.”
His work is groundbreaking, not only as a timely satire of the online world, but also for the candid humor he uses to denounce atrocities in Syria. Perhaps his most poignant works are the heartbreaking cartoons he published in response to the chemical attacks in Ghouta on August 21. “This attack was not surprising. The tools of oppression have evolved over two years of warfare, from the police baton to gas.”
One recent cartoon features sperm wearing gasmasks; another a young girl being poisoned while clutching a doll wearing a gasmask. Portraying violence against children is taboo in Western art, but according to Abbas, “I’m only showing the harsh reality of the situation. I would love to show happy kids playing but this is not what is happening. At moments like these as I draw I am also crying.”
When it comes to authority, Abbas has a great deal of contempt. “Do you know that most world leaders are living caricatures? It’s not a big leap.” He believes that the Palestinian cause is exploited on the international level. “All the regimes in the world have taken advantage of the Palestinian situation. The Arabs have exploited it to cement their authority and the West has taken advantage economically. Everyone has played around with us. When you’re a card, you can never fully know who’s holding you.”
Abbas pulls no punches. His work is harshly critical of the Syrian and Israeli governments, but he also relentlessly mocks those who use terrorism against them. “There is a big difference between revolution against oppression and terrorist activity. Revolution is among the most honorable things to sacrifice for. It doesn’t thrive on oppression and the murders of innocents. Whoever does this is preventing progress in their community.”
One of Abbas’s most famous cartoons features the hand of a puppeteer being blown off by the suicide bomber he is holding. “The silence of the international community in these situations allows terror to thrive … as educated people we have a duty to stand against this type of terror and those who support it.”
On the question of his own national identity, Abbas sees blurred lines. “Firstly, I’m a human being. There’s no massive difference between a Syrian and a Palestinian in Syria. This is why I’m not surprised to see Palestinians fighting on both sides—most have tried to stay neutral, but all have been affected by the cycle of war.”
Abbas’s contempt for authority does not make him particularly confident in the prospect for peace between Israel and Palestine. “The expansion of [Israeli] settlement and the arrest of activists does not make me optimistic about real peace anytime soon. Everyone suffers from this political stupidity.” Hani adds, “The problem in these situations is never the people—it’s always the leaders who guide policy.”
Abbas currently lives with his wife and young son in Lebanon, from which he continues to monitor—and cartoon about—the situation in Syria. “The future is mysterious,” he says. “Now we’re seeing an entire generation lost to war. My hopes for the future are not personal; they’re for my people. My hopes are for peace, and only for peace. I’m married to a Syrian girl and our son carries two nations in his heart.”
Patrick Hilsman is a correspondent in the Middle East.