Drawing dangerously: Arab comics push the boundaries

Comics are meant to be cheeky and insubordinate, but in parts of the Arab world cartoonists can easily get into trouble.

Arab comics
In this TokTok cartoon, a man directs traffic, saying: 'Lower your barrel, come here. Raise it. Lower it. There is an empty space for you to park here' [Courtesy of Shennawy]

A young man in Beirut travels through the puff of his cigarette smoke to the Syrian border, where a tsunami carrying refugees from the other side of the mountains rings in his ears. On his way, he comes across a child washed up on a beach, with his face to the ground. Then he encounters a Lebanese man, who claims an American conspiracy is behind the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. When he returns home, he finds a mountain of rubbish on his balcony.

Joseph Kai, a 27-year-old Lebanese cartoonist, drew this story – which is both political and personal to him – for a recent issue of Samandal, a Lebanese comic book for adults.

In recent years, comic publications throughout the Arab world have provided cartoonists with a much-needed space to express themselves. Kai, who is also Samandal’s publication director, wrote in the issue’s editorial that “comics are no longer just a form of expression. They can also have a political role, or even in extreme cases, they can be a tool to shape history and the map of the world.”

READ MORE: The rise of the comic book in the Middle East

Created in 2007, Samandal (“salamander” in Arabic) has tried to bridge words and aesthetics. “In the first editorial, the cofounder, Fadi Baki, explains that Samandal is an amphibian, living between the sea and the earth, in the same way that comic books are an art form that is between words and images. We want our comic to combine experimental and traditional aspects, both high culture and popular culture,” said Lena Merhej, another cofounder of the comic.

After the Arab Spring: A Tunisian artist’s view

In December 2009, the comic’s seventh edition was financed by Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture as part of the Beirut World Capital of Books campaign. But this issue nearly killed the publication: Three of its editors were accused by the state prosecutor of inciting religious hatred, blasphemy, publishing false information and defamation.

The censorship office within Lebanese General Security particularly found fault with Ecce Homo by Valfret, an artist who goes by a single name, and Recipes for Lebanese Revenge by Merhej. In the first story, a centurion kills a legionary with whom he had homosexual relations, and then puts the blame on Christians. In the second, Merhej illustrates the burning of a priest and an imam. For these two stories, Samandal – which accused the court of “committing several legal violations” – was fined $20,000 last April.    

Saved by an online support campaign launched late last year, the team decided to take precautions for their 2016 edition, which “will deal with the themes of youth, sexuality and poetry. So we decided to print in France first, and then to bring some copies here, in order to avoid more pesky lawsuits”, Merhej told Al Jazeera.

Shennawy, who also goes by a single name, is one of the Egyptian authors frequently published in  Samandal. Bolstered by the success of the publication in spite of state censorship, he was inspired to launch his own comic magazine in Cairo.


“Samandal was the first completed project of its kind, and that gave us hope,” Shennawy, 38, told Al Jazeera. “In Egypt, we were a group of cartoonists, but with nowhere to express ourselves.”

So in 2011, he created TokTok, named after the black-and-yellow rickshaws that noisily cross the rougher parts of Cairo. Two weeks later, the popular January 25 uprising began.

“We were at Tahrir Square all that time,” Shennawy recalled. “I lived nearby, and my house became a refuge for my cartoonist friends. When Mubarak was deposed, each of us addressed the subject in the second edition of TokTok. At the time, the revolution was also visual, with graffiti and slogans. This contributed to our success.”

But today, five years after the fall of Mubarak, euphoria has given way to prudence.

“Under Mubarak’s regime, we lived in a police state, but we had freedom of expression,” said Shennawy, who is now based in Belgium. “We could caricature him without fear of being arrested. That’s over now. At  TokTok, we prefer to avoid direct confrontation. Sensitive topics are approached subtly.”

READ MORE: Cartoon war over Russia’s role in Syria

Under the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, many journalists and caricaturists have been detained, including cartoonist Islam Gawish, who was arrested in January. But government censorship is not the only obstacle facing comic artists in Egypt: “There is a certain generational shock,” Shennawy said. “Older readers sometimes find our content too daring and inconvenient for our society. Our challenge is to raise the ceiling on freedom of expression without offending them.”

The situation is quite different in Tunisia, which has abolished its censorship apparatus since the uprising that toppled former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Lab619, a Tunisian comic cofounded in 2012 by Shennawy, won an award at last year’s Cairo Comix festival for best comic magazine. 

Lab619 illustrator Abir Gasmi said the comic’s approach was closely linked to the country’s current affairs. After the assassination of Tunisian politician Chokri Belaid, for example, “all of the authors dealt with the matter, sometimes in a direct and radical way”, Gasmi said.

“With each new edition, we remind the authors that they must be as free as possible in their work.”

Source: Al Jazeera