From the Arab Spring, to the Charlie Hebdo attack and the refugee crisis, Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih is turning heads across the world with his viral cartoons. In an interview with CairoScene, he discusses censorship, stereotypes, and what it’s like to do post-Arab Spring political commentary.
A symbol of a generation of cartoonists that gave the Arab Spring a poignant cynical voice, Khalid Albaih has seen his 'Khartoons' go viral and turned his name into an icon of Arab political commentary. This year, after his first presentation in the USA, he toured across Portugal, Italy, Spain, France, and Sweden, where his exhibition entitled Sad Jokes is raising eyebrows as he puts social commentary in a different perspective.
“The problem with the world today is language - that’s why most of my cartoons have no comments. The Arab world cannot get to the other side. You cannot understand because we do things that are local for us, as much as the French do things that are local to them. But there is nothing local anymore, everybody knows everybody’s business now. They say the world is a global village, so we need to act like it is a village! It’s like you and me gossiping about someone who is standing there, as if he could not hear us. But he can hear us!” he says.
Born to a family of politicians and surrounded by art as he works at the Qatar Museum, the Sudanese artist tells CairoScene what it’s like to counter Western prejudice while keeping a critical voice in a politically tangled Middle East.
Given the censorship that followed the Arab Spring uprisings, do you visualise there is any space for a critical voice?
I don’t think the Arab Spring is fading away; it is getting bloody, but it has just started. We are not the same as we were, we found a way the first time, and we will find it again. The whole Arab spring exploded with graffiti and cartoons as the first things. People wanted to express how they felt and broke the fear. Now we know it is possible, which is the nightmare for rulers.
I always say the French revolution took 90 years to settle down, so you can’t expect people who have been ruled for centuries, first by colonial powers and then by military dictatorships to change that in a couple of years. But saying the Arab Spring was a mistake is blaming the wrong people - the people who were struggling for change, not the dictators. It doesn’t make sense. This is what the people in power are betting on, by saying: “It’s either us or chaos, Are you happy now?” So they put you between two evils. So I think media should stop saying the revolutions failed and democracy or social justice was not achieved. This comes from Western media, because saying that they can’t handle democracy is imperialist and looking down on the region, again, after years of colonialism and occupation.
How are your cartoons received in Arab countries?
The problem in the Arab world is that we do not have a space to talk. We don’t have a free press, or a place where we can actually have a conversation. So, because I exist online, at least you get people talking.
Did you ever feel threatened?
You get threats all the time, but you get over it. In this part of the world, you feel threatened just because you are different, because thinking differently is a problem. I’ve received threats from governments to individuals, but it doesn’t matter. You have to keep doing what you are doing. I am just asking questions that a lot of people don’t like the answer to. I am careful, but people die in the streets trying to make change; I am drawing cartoons.
What is your ultimate aim?
Starting a dialogue. Getting young, talented people to do something, trying to get out of the box that was constructed for us. We were always taught that we can’t do this and we can’t do that; so there are a lot of closed doors all the time. After the Arab Spring, a lot of talent began to show, and now unfortunately, most of that talent has to leave their countries in order to survive.
I come from a political family: my father was a diplomat, I have an uncle who was the transition president, and another uncle who was executed for attempting a failed communist coup in the 1980s. Politics were always there in my family, but it was never a problem, they were always talking to each other.
To me, politics is the reason why I don’t have a home. I was born in Romania, I come from Sudan, but was brought up in Qatar, and the only place I can call home is the internet, where I belong together with all these kids who don’t have a place to call home.
After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there was a debate on freedom of speech and whether it should have its limits. What is your stance on that?
Charlie Hebdo are doing cartoons for the opposite reasons I am doing cartoons. They are making fun of people just because they can. Here, if you do a cartoon about anything, your life is suddenly in danger. It’s a totally different world. But when you are privileged, and you are so ignorant and so arrogant that you feel you can do whatever you want just because you can, I don’t respect it.
There is a quote from a Spiderman comic, where his uncle died and tells him that with great power comes great responsibility. This is what is happening. You have something that people in this part of the world are dying to have: a voice. And you insist on using it to say whatever you want just because you can? What do you want to prove?
If you want to do cartoons that bring people together and help fix the situation, I will respect you. For this part of the world, the white man, imperialism and colonization took away everything: their pride, their oil; and they put dictatorships in place. What does that leave them? Nothing but religion; whatever you think of it, but it’s the only thing they have. And the only hero they have is Prophet Mohammed, because we are a generation and a nation without heroes in the Arab world; we don’t have a founding father. So if you want to do these cartoons, of course you can. I risk my life every single day to do this, and I talk about religion, and about politics, but I don’t do it for me, I don’t do it because I can. I do it because I want to change something, ask questions, and bring people together. What are they doing it for? Do you think this is what life needs right now, that ISIS will stop and go home because you drew the prophet? There are really issues to tackle, and they do not understand that because they don’t live in the real world. When they do these cartoons, do they think about the large population of Muslims in France and their already tensed situation, as they live in ghettos? They didn’t think about them, because they don’t have to. It’s just privileged imperialism feeding the stereotype of Muslims.
In your cartoons, you are both critical of Western prejudice and the treatment of women in some countries.
I’m not responding to Western prejudice; I’m talking about my own problems, this is happening, and I am talking about it, but not with the attitude of saying: “you are dumb and you come from the 10th century”.
The media says that every Arab rich guy has four wives, and they are all wearing niqab, and they hate him, and he smells bad. This is everywhere, in every movie. And nobody bothers to research stuff. I’m not saying everybody should be a researcher, but nowadays with the click of a button, you can find a million other views about what’s happening. So there’s no excuse for being dumb today, and what happens with the show Homeland proves this perception. They don’t make an effort to even think about why this is happening.
As a cartoonist, of course you need stereotypes because everybody recognises them. But the challenge is to use them in a smart way. I am talking about women's issues, because there are women's issues, because there is a mix between religion, and tribalism, and lack of education. There is a lot of things that we need to change, and I tackle that, but I talk about it in a way that people will listen to me.
So how do you think cartoons can help work towards peace instead of prejudice?
I think cartoons are powerful because they reach everyone, from an intellectual, to a kid in the street. The problem is that fictions like Homeland become the truth to a lot of westerners. And we watch this stuff, and we know what they think of us. Like I am standing there saying ‘I can hear you saying I’m stupid,’ but you don’t listen to me because you think I am stupid enough to hear you. That’s why I don’t want to use language, it is a barrier. Across the Arab world, we speak English, and in some countries French. So we understand you, but you don’t understand us, and this is what I am trying to break.
I’m trying to talk to everyone because I am trying to say we are all the same at the end, we all want social justice. But the Western world is so obsessed with the postcolonial feel of ‘we are better than these people’, that for them Africa is a country and it’s dying, Arabs are killing each other because they are Muslims, and everyone wearing a niqab is oppressed, and every Nigerian is trying to sell you something. Yes, these things are funny, and we have to use them, but in a way that does not make them the truth.