Palestinian cartoonist sketches inspiration

Despite political and financial hurdles, Mohammad Sabaaneh hopes cartooning will be therapeutic for Palestinian youth.

Sabaaneh hopes cartoons can help relieve the stress felt among Palestinian youth [Courtesy/Mohammad Sabaaneh]

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – When Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh began his class on June 9, 2006 – the same day that Israel’s military shelled Gaza’s shores and killed all seven members of seven-year-old Huda Ghalieh’s immediate family – he had hoped to take his students’ minds off the news.

Instead, when the group of fourth- and fifth-graders arrived, he was shocked by what he saw: “Every single one of the kids drew a different caricature about Huda Ghalieh: different before-and-after pictures of her standing on the beach playing with her parents and then playing by herself,” Sabaaneh recalled.

Sabaaneh’s cartoons criticise Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian land as well as mainstream Palestinian political parties [Courtesy/Mohammad Sabaaneh]

“I understood that drawing caricatures can be about more than sports, economics, society or politics,” the 35-year-old explained. “It is also about critical thinking and is art therapy for our reality – and there is a shortage of art therapy in Palestine.”

While Sabaaneh is renowned in many countries in the Arab world – his highly critical political cartoons are published in several Arabic-language websites and newspapers, such as the Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida and the Jordanian Al-Ghad –  far fewer know about his efforts to teach cartooning to Palestinian children across the West Bank.

Though he goes to any school that asks for his help, he told Al Jazeera: “I feel that putting on workshops in the camps is the most important … with the overcrowding and lack of opportunities, kids in the refugee camps get the most from [the cartoon] lessons and critical thinking skills exercises”.

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Cartooning has always been an integral outlet for political and social criticism in the Arab world. While dozens of influential Palestinian cartoonists live in the diaspora, only a handful of cartoonists are based in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“I actually started drawing cartoons a lot when I was very young,” Sabaaneh said. “I didn’t have anyone to teach me the technicalities or exactly how to package ideas into cartoon format.”

Sabaaneh comes from the village of Qabatiya in the Jenin area of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. After marrying in 2010, he moved to Ramallah, where he hosts workshops in schools and refugee camps in the area.

In his office in the West Bank city of al-Bireh, Sabaaneh draws at his desk across from a wall with a picture of Naji al-Ali, a famed Palestinian cartoonist who was assassinated in 1987. “It has never been easy, but it was especially difficult in the beginning stages,” said Sabaaneh, about his efforts to teach children.

In 2006, after a Stockholm-based NGO published a book of his cartoons, Sabaaneh used the profits to establish a children’s art centre to teach youth in Jenin and the surrounding areas.

“Because there were not many summer camps or cultural centres for kids in the area, many parents started to bring their children for lessons,” he said. “We tried to focus on their daily lives because children don’t need to always think about politics.”

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Both aspiring and established Palestinian cartoonists face a number of social, political and financial barriers.

Sabaaneh’s own cartoons criticise Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian land as well as mainstream Palestinian political parties, such as Fatah and Hamas. In 2008, after drawing a picture that criticised Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s close ties to Iran, Sabaaneh says he had to disconnect his phone line because he was receiving dozens of threatening phone calls a day.

His work also landed him in an Israeli prison for five months. He was charged with “collaboration with a banned political party” after publishing caricatures in a book his brother, a member of Hamas, an Islamist political party banned by Israel, wrote about Palestinian prisoners.

Economic problems linked to the Israeli occupation often discourage Palestinians from pursuing art [Reuters]

When it comes to art education, however, there are also challenges less directly tied to Israel’s occupation or the fragile Palestinian political landscape.

Funding has proven to be the biggest challenge for Sabaaneh, who works on a strictly volunteer basis and often pays for art materials on his own tab. While trying to obtain NIS 1,500 (about $435) in 2012 to put on a caricature exhibition for a group of deaf students he taught, Sabaaneh “went to dozens of Palestinian and international NGOs in Ramallah and found nothing”.

According to Tina Sherwell, the director of the International Academy of Art-Palestine, the only art academy in the occupied Palestinian territories, these challenges are also present for children trying to pursue institutionalised artistic training or careers.

In public schools, she told Al Jazeera, “the implementation [of art courses] has drawbacks because you don’t have specialised teachers teaching, very little time is dedicated to it and often the classes get used up for other academic material if other teachers are running behind in the coursework”.

“Art, drama, sports, even music … are all considered by teachers a way for students to release energy,” she added. “That’s important, but in these creative subjects there are whole series of skill sets that children can acquire that are really important for their own personal development for expressing themselves and life skills, but these are not focused on.”

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Sherwell nonetheless believes that interest in art studies programmes are increasing. “What I find is that students with life experiences tend to come and benefit from our programmes the most,” she said. 

It's important to learn about other ways for expressing our opinions in a critical way. We need more projects like this to let out steam.

by - Shayma Nader, 23, student at International Academy of Art-Palestine

The International Academy of Art-Palestine develops contemporary art studies curriculum around each individual student’s artistic interests through a combination of one-to-one tutorials and small classes. Although there aren’t any courses dedicated specifically to cartoon art, three of the 25 students focus on drawing, while many others focus on animation.

“The hardest thing for students here is finding work, which makes people think of learning art as less of a priority,” Shayma Nader, 23, a third-year student at the International Academy of Art-Palestine, told Al Jazeera.The Palestinian economy in the West Bank suffers from a wealth of Israeli restrictions, internal political instability and increasing dependency on international donor aid. Many potential artists are discouraged due to these economic considerations.

Sabaaneh says that students are taking well to his workshops and training requests are becoming more frequent. “Before the workshop I didn’t read the comics in the newspaper much,” said Layali Awwad, 17, who attended one of Sabaaneh’s workshops at Friends School in Ramallah in May. “But now I always check for comics so that I can understand more about current events.”

“Here we cannot always express our thoughts about many different social and political issues,” she explained, adding that she also started drawing her own cartoons after the workshop.

“It’s important to learn about other ways for expressing our opinions in a critical way. We need more projects like this to let out steam … look at what happened with Nadim Nuwara,” she said, referring to a 17-year-old Palestinian boy who was shot and killed last month.

Sabaaneh echoed these sentiments, adding that he hopes to see an accredited cartoon art programme in a Palestinian university one day. “My dream is that kids won’t have to go to America, Europe or Japan to study cartoons. Art shouldn’t only be for those who can afford to lead a ‘bourgeoisie’ life.”

Source: Al Jazeera