As'ad Abu Khalil
The physical attack on Syrian Cartoonist Ali Farzat last week was an important moment in the history of the Syrian uprising. Farzat is not any cartoonist: He is probably one of the most gifted contemporary cartoonists in the Arab world and beyond. Farzat has always reminded me of Michel Foucault: Both study power not in its centralization or as a formal structure but in its diffusion and emanations. Farzat studies and mocks power in all aspects of our lives. People who think that Farzat attacks only the state or government have not seen his work. One of his most memorable works is a sketch of a man behind bars. But the bars are broken and the man does not leap to freedom. Farzat uses a few strokes and few words: yet the message is powerful and unmistakable. Farzat has worked for Kuwaiti newspapers and his mockery of Saddam’s regime were widely circulated although he was criticized by Syrian regime media, and even accused of “preparing” for the American invasion of Iraq.
Politically speaking, Farzat belongs to the liberal wing of the Syrian uprising: a wing that I have never been fond off. But the talent of Farzat is undeniable, and the cruelty of the attack on him by regime goons is also unmistakable. Farzat’s story was told by Sami Kulayb in a special episode of Aljazeerah Arabic TV show Ziyarah Khassah. Farzat’s work was largely banned in Syria until he met Bashar Assad in 1999 and the two befriended each other. His cartoons started to appear in Tishrin (a daily mouthpiece of the regime) but the security apparatus and the ministers could not put up with his sarcasm and mockery. The same newspaper later verbally attacked him and tried to implicate him with the worst conspiracies of Zionism. They called him conceited and arrogant, as if that diminishes his artistic talent.
Farzat was encouraged by the Bashar regime to publish one of the first independent publications during the short-lived Damascus Spring, a brief period of political and social debate encouraged by Assad the son when he assumed the presidency in 2000. I remember that I was eager to obtain the few available copies of Dumari: it was a satirical publication modeled after similar French publications. It was not sharp or effective or original, but it had the work of Farzat. Supporters of the regime spread rumors about him and point out some political positions he has taken (included some statements that were attributed to him in which he seemed to justify the American invasion of Iraq).
But the fact remains: Farzat’s work is most original. Unlike the work of Lebanese cartoonist, Pierre Sadiq (formerly of An-Nahar newspaper), Farzat is never direct or vulgar or obvious. He is deep in an art form that rarely knows depth. It can be said that Farzat’s work is dedicated to the demolishment of the dictator’s persona, and to the ways in which media are used to the benefit of the dictator. The picture of Farzat in his hospital bed will live and will be seen as one of those moments in revolutionary times (maybe like “The Death of Marat” by Jean-Louis David for the French Revolution). That the attackers targeted his fingers indicates how powerful those fingers are. It is possible that the regime is settling scores: there are no talents to speak of on the side of the regime (singers `Ali Ad-Dik or Muhammad Iskandar, the notorious Lebanese misogynistic singer, are on the side of the regime), while Farzat and the splendid singer, Asalah, represent the Syrian uprising. Years from now, people will still be talking about the art work of `Ali Farzat, while the Baath Party will be relegated to the footnotes of Syrian history.