Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ali Ferzat: Cartooning for freedom

Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat (photo by AFP)
The world tipped its hat twice this month in honor of Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat.
The first time was on December 8 at the Le Monde auditorium in Paris. The second was on December 14 at the European Union Parliament in Strasbourg.
In Paris, Reporters Without Borders and Le Monde, with the support of TV5MONDE, awarded Ferzat the 2011 Press Freedom Prize, naming him the 2011 Journalist of the year. The 2011 Media of the Year prize went to the Burmese publication, Weekly Eleven News.
The second was on December 14, when at a formal sitting in Strasbourg the European Union Parliament conferred the 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on Ferzat and four other Arab Spring activists – two men and two women.
The two men are Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia, whose death in January helped spark the Arab Spring, and Libyan dissident Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Senussi who spent 31 years in prison for opposing the Gaddafi regime.
The two women are Egypt's Asma Mahfouz, a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, and Razan Zeitouneh, a lawyer, writer and human rights activist who documented human rights abuses on her website “Syrian Human Rights Information Link.”
Pen and paper have been Ali Ferzat’s armory since his teens. A political satirist and head of the Arab Cartoonists' Association, his works have been published in countless Syrian, Arab and international publications. His more than 15,000 comic strips have been reviling injustice, repression, despotism, violence, and corruption for decades. Arab governments, including in his native country, repeatedly banned his creations, which are typically without captions. But Ferzat never stopped censuring the abuse of power or championing freedom and democracy in Arab countries and at home. So when the Arab Spring reached Syria last March, he quickly put his shoulder to its wheel.
Ferzat after his August 25 beating
Five months into the Arab Spring in Syria, masked men seized Ferzat in Umayyad Square in Old Damascus while he was heading home in the early hours of August 25. The “spooks” beat him up badly, breaking two of his left fingers and maiming his right arm and one of his eyes. They then bundled him out of their van by the side of the airport road and drove off with his attaché case.
The attack came days after Ferzat published a cartoon depicting Bashar Assad thumbing a ride with Moammar Gaddafi, who is shown driving a getaway car.
When working as a journalist alongside two renowned Arab cartoonists -- the late Imad Shehadeh and the late Mahmoud Kahil – I realized that, much as a picture, a cartoon is worth a thousand words.
To me, breaking a cartoonist’s fingers or hand is like smashing a runner’s legs or impairing a surgeon’s vision.

The 60-year-old Syrian cartoonist rose to prominence in the 1980s with his satirical yet nondescript images of bureaucrats, bullies and Big Brother. His first professional drawings appeared, when he was 14, on the front pages of al-Ayyam newspaper, shortly before the ruling Baath Party banned it. In 1969, he started drawing comic strips for the state-run daily al-Thawra. In the mid-1970s he moved to another government-controlled newspaper, Tishreen.

International recognition followed in 1980, when Ferzat won the first prize at the Intergraphic International Festival in Berlin and his caricatures started featuring in France’s prestigious Le Monde. His 1989 exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris set off a death threat from Saddam Hussein.
Ferzat launched his own satirical newspaper – al-Domari or the Lamplighter – in 2000. Styled like the French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, it was the first independent publication in Syria since the Baath Party takeover in 1963. The 50,000 copies of the first print run of its first edition in February 2001 sold out in less than four hours. By 2003, however, frequent government restrictions, censorship and lack of funds forced Ferzat to close down al-Domari.

Presenting the 2011 Journalist of the Year award in absentia to Ferzat at the Le Monde auditorium in Paris on December 8, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said:
“This year we are honoring a courageous journalist who has been the victim of brutal repression by an obsolete government. Ali Ferzat fully deserves this award. His cartoons target the abuses of a desperate regime with its back to the wall and encourage Syrians to demand their rights and to express themselves freely.”
“I would have liked to have been with you this evening to take part in this beautiful event,” Ferzat said in a letter read out by the French cartoonist Plantu. “I dedicate this award to the martyrs, to those who have been injured and to those who struggle for freedom. May thanks be given to all those who have turned the Arab Spring into a victory over darkness and repression… I salute all those who take to the streets, everywhere in the world, searching for freedom, democracy and dignity.”
The European Parliament in turn honored the five Arab Spring recipients of its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought at an award ceremony held in Strasburg six days later, on December 14.
The Sakharov Prize is named after Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. The European Parliament established it in December 1988 to honor individuals or organizations committed to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought. Past winners include South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela, and former UN chief Kofi Annan.
Speaker Jerzy Buzek told lawmakers, “2011 will go down in history as the year of the Arab Spring. The European Parliament recognizes the efforts of all those who struggle for dignity, basic freedoms and political change in the Arab world.”
Ferzat thanked the EU parliamentarians for his Sakharov Prize through a video message, saying he felt “extremely bitter and very sad” about the mounting death toll in Syria. “People are demonstrating in the streets at the moment. They don’t fear death... They are telling us liberty is beyond price.”
Syrian lawyer and blogger Razan Zeitouneh was also honored, but could not attend the award ceremony because she had gone into hiding after being accused by the regime of being a foreign agent.
“It is not possible to stop the march of this people to freedom and dignity,” Zeitouneh wrote in a letter to the EU lawmakers, dedicating the prize to “Little Ghiyath,” the newborn son of an activist who was killed by Syrian security forces in September.
You can view the jam-packed archive of Ferzat’s cartoons on his website.