Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat retrains his fingers

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"Once my fingers have healed, I'll go back," says the renowned Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat. In a physical attack in August his hands were severely injured, making it temporarily impossible to draw cartoons. Earlier this month Mr Ferzat won the European Sakharov Prize for freedom of speech.

Born in 1951, Ferzat Ali has been working for thirty years as a cartoonist in Syria. He has won several prizes for his work, including the Dutch Prince Claus Award in 2003. Until early 2011 his cartoons used symbols to represent the powerful. But since April, he has drawn recognizable caricatures of the president and other leaders.

"Times have changed," says Mr Ferzat by telephone from Kuwait. "Before, people had time at home to think about the symbols that we used. Since the people have taken to the streets, we should be more direct."

Wall of fear
''Fear dominated the people, including me, "continues Mr Ferzat. However, a year ago he decided, 'to break the wall of fear.' "I was the first person who had drawn caricatures of the president, security officers and ministers since 1963."

That courage nearly cost him his life on 25 August 2011. Mr Ferzat left his office as usual and got into his car. On his way home, a car with tinted windows blocked the road. He knew that type of car was used by the security services. The men kidnapped and assaulted him, aiming specifically at his face and hands. According to Mr Ferzat they had batons with them "like the police use."

Eventually he was thrown out of a moving car on the way to the airport, about fifty miles from his home in Damascus. "Nobody stopped to pick me up because I looked so gruesome and bloody." When a truckload of workers stopped with a flat tyre, he was able to get back into town. At the moment Ali Ferzat is still recovering in Kuwait.

Old friends
Mr Ferzat and Bashar al-Assad are old friends. The cartoonist has worked for various state media and knows the president personally. "Before Bashar al-Assad came to power, he had discussions with intellectuals and artists. We could propose solutions to the problems we encountered."

When Bashar took over the reins from his deceased father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, according to Mr Ferzat he talked about freedom and modernization. Encouraged by the president, the cartoonist started the independent magazine Al-Domari (the lamp igniter), which is considered as the first independent magazine since the Baath Party came to power.

Censorship
But the fun was soon over. "The same president who had encouraged me to tackle the economic mafia in the country, was absent when they declared war on me." When the regime realised after a few months that Al-Domari was not afraid of publishing sharp criticism, the censorship got worse.

"Sometimes we published white pages instead of the censored articles," says Mr Ferzat. With some irony, he adds: "The white copies sold better than the printed ones." The distribution was taken over by the regime, "so that they had the freedom not to publish the magazine." After two years Al-Domari came to an end.

Mr Ferzat is convinced that the insurgents in Syria will win. "The response of repression and security that the regime has chosen, has failed. Now, people face the deadly weapons with bare chests."

Return to Syria
Mr Ferzat is busy retraining his fingers. Once he has recovered, the cartoonist will return to Syria. That's not a choice, he says. "I don't own a supermarket that I can freely open and close. Drawing cartoons is my only profession. The art is a gift from God, and I must continue to bring my message."

This article is a co-production with PRI's The World.

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