Ali Ferzat is one of the most celebrated political cartoonists in the Arab World. Born and raised in Syria, he built his career caricaturing the political elite. In 2000, during a period of relative freedom of the press, Ferzat launched the satirical magazine al-Domari (The Lampalighter), the first independent publication in Syria since 1963. But Ferzat's references to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, always remained within the realms of the allegorical.
His work was once admired by the Syrian president - until last year, when he broke the law that prohibits caricatures of the country's leader. Like thousands of Syrians Ferzat found a new, more daring voice as the demonstrations spread. As demonstrators in Syria went to the streeets waving Ferzat's cartoons, the Assad regime found a reason to silence him. In August 2011, Ferzat was kidnapped by Syrian security forces. He was later found on the roadside, head bleeding, hands broken: images which spread online, gaining global attention and artists' solidarity.
The attack left both of his hands shattered, his pen had been stilled, his voice muted. But Ferzat survived and he is now living in exile in Kuwait. Listening Post's Richard Gizbert met Ferzat in London.
Richard Gizbert: Ali Ferzat, thanks for joining us here at the Listening Post. Your hands, how are they?
Ali Ferzat: Thank god they are better now. Nearly completely healed and I can draw again. During the attack - when they were beating me they said “We’re going to break your hands so that you can’t draw again and dishonour your masters.”
What did you tell them?
I did not say anything! Nothing you say to these people has any effect on them whatsoever. What shocked me the most was that I was being beaten in public - in one of the most important squares in Damascus - and there was no one to help me! After the attack, it was announced on state TV that the Interior Ministry would conduct an investigation into the attack on the artist Ali Ferzat. No one contacted me! I guess I am not an important part of the investigation.
Obviously you are interested in politics. I am wondering why you did not become a journalist, why you took the cartoonist route? Is that because you were an artist or was there something about cartooning that appealed to you?
I did not choose to become a cartoonist. It is not an institution or a course that you can enrol into. I was born an artist, a critic - and even as a child I used to write cynical stories. It just so happens that my medium is art. The real motivation – the real message is my cynicism.
Your cartoons were seen on the streets of Syria during those demonstrations. I have seen those pictures where people are carrying your cartoons on a sign. I am wondering how that made you feel? Were you flattered or did you realise then that you were moving into some dangerous territory?
Of course I was proud and delighted to see my cartoons raised up in the streets amongst the protestors. There is a strong relationship between my art and the Syrian street, and the connection became stronger when I broke the barrier of fear.
And is there something about cartooning that perhaps puts the artists in an even more dangerous position than perhaps the journalist – no matter how opinionated he is – because of the art form and the way it influences people?
When there is an artistic or intellectual work that carries humanitarian value, it undoubtedly puts you at risk. The artist is using his freedom to convey his thoughts to others. That is a big risk.
I want to take a look at a few of your cartoons now and tell us what we are looking at and what you’re trying to convey.
The caption on this train says ‘reform’ and you can see President Bashar Assad painting rails on the ground instead of actually constructing solid steel rails to enable the train – to enable reform – to ride smoothly. In Syria there is a lot of talk of reform, but in this cartoon I am criticising all that talk because it’s not followed by action! It is a lot of hot air.
Let us take a look at another one here.
In this cartoon you can see Gaddafi as I imagined him - much before he died as he did. I imagined him leaving Libya in a Jeep and there are other presidents waiting to hitch a ride - like our own President Assad. Through this cartoon I wanted to show that Syria is a democratic country where cartoonists can criticise their president and politicians - just like the cartoonists in Europe and America do.
Let us take a look at another one now. Alright so who are we looking at here?
This cartoon shows a process of balance - when you kill someone, your victim is not the only casualty. There is an impact on you as well.
And the person who is having the gun pointed at him – that looks a little bit like you.
Yes maybe that is possible. I am artist, but I am also with those on the streets. My features meld with their features.
I was surprised to hear that for sometime President Assad actually liked your work. He thought you were funny. What changed?
You will have to ask him, not me!
He is not available!
I cannot speak on his behalf.
You met President Assad more than once, what was he like when you dealt with him? Why do you think he liked what you were doing before things changed?
Our relationship was based on art and ideology and we thought we could channel its benefits for the country - expand freedom of expression, freedom of intellect and art. With his encouragement I started Al Domari - a newspaper featuring cartoons and critical analysis. But a few months after the paper started, things changed and the doors of hell opened for me. I was not protected by any sort of press law and the paper was shut down. Freedom of expression and the hopes for reform were just ideas - not reality. There was no real press law. I do not know why things changed - we were in spring and suddenly entered winter!
Do you think you will end up back in Syria when all of this is over?
Of course! Maybe before it is all over!
You are living in Kuwait now. You are living at a safe distance. Where do you think this Syria story is going? How will it end?
I should clarify that I came to Kuwait for treatment. I have almost completed my recovery and it never occurred to me not to go back. I did not think of being a refugee, asking for asylum. I have to be present where the developments are taking place.
Well you are now living in Kuwait city. You are still drawing cartoons about the Syrian situation, but have done any cartoons that depict the Kuwaiti royal family and do you plan to?
Well, I am not Kuwaiti national, I am a Syrian national, so it is a different situation. This is probably a question for a Kuwaiti cartoonist!