Ferzat in the Lion’s Den
Ali Ferzat is the award winning and outspoken Syrian cartoonist chipping away, through his political cartoons, at the iron curtain protecting the totalitarian oppression of his homeland by Bashar Al-Assad‘s Ba’ath Party regime. A former incarnation of our site, Flaming Sword Productions, highlighted a Tom Spurgeon item on him in 2005. His criticism of Al-Assad and other government officials since the Arab Spring uprisings hit Syria last May, led to his brutal beating by regime thugs, apparently to warn him against further critical cartooning. The Comics Reporter has been covering the story since, wondering how to raise a little solidarity activism from the comics community on his behalf.
Skirmishes with the Syrian Military
Before getting into that, a little background on some skirmishes I had with the Syrian military/intelligence, circa 1981/82, during my 2 year stop over in Lebanon, before I crossed the border into Israel.
From the moment I landed in Beirut, I became a suspect of the Syrian security forces at the airport. Not having a Lebanese citizenship, I entered my father’s home country as an American citizen. Not a friendly basis to begin a relationship with Syrians or Muslim backed militias who controlled the airport. I was met by my father and relatives, to head out for a Druze/Christian town just southeast of Beirut. The town had successfully repelled a Syrian/PLO attempt to impose a military governing outpost in it some years before. The battle was won from the Syrians and PLO around when president Hafez Al-Assad (Bashar’s father) assassinated the Druze leader Kamal Jumblat for speaking out on Syria’s aggression. Kamal’s son, Walid, took over leadership of the Lebanese Druze community, exercising a little more care not to ruffle Al-Assad’s feathers, while trying to keep the Syrians at arm’s length from the Druze towns. When I arrived I began hearing stories of Syrian forces plundering anything they wanted from villagers taking cars and truck loads of television sets, sound systems, refrigerators, machinery, or anything they got their hands on. But stories of atrocities told in more closed circles, such as the common rape and murder of Lebanese women found in nearby dumpsters and forests, or the inexplicable disappearance of people who spoke out against the Syrian occupation, indicated that Syrian intelligence elements, “Mukhabarat”, were everywhere, and that everyone needed to be careful what they said publicly about Syria.
Another thing to my disadvantage was the long hair and beard I brought along from New York, after years of making trouble for myself and the comics community with it. The look apparently antagonized the Syrians as they detained us at the airport for several hours, checking if I was an American spy or some such…or at least that’s the excuse they gave. But I was released in the end and took some advise by trimming down a bit. It didn’t help much as I wasn’t in a very compromising mood about my look at the time. As a result, I wound up suffering a few uncomfortable incidents, along with a physical assault, over the next several months. Incidents that recurred nearly every time I crossed a Syrian checkpoint.
Detainment at checkpoints was to be expected though some passages went smoothly and without incident. For the most part, if there wasn’t a long line of cars waiting for clearance, Syrian soldiers took a little more time to scrutinize the strange looking long haired and bearded youth trying to get through their barrier. Sometimes the security check would take less than 10-15 minutes but there were times that soldiers took advantage of having an American citizen in their grasp and extended the detainment over several hours. After one such ordeal, having spent nearly an entire day waiting with a few relatives to be cleared by soldiers who had no declared reason for preventing us from continuing, I arrived home and quickly made a drawing of what the harassment felt like at the time (Thanks Yisrael for the scan - click image above and then right-click>>open image in new tab/window for high-rez version). The drawing tried to get across how it felt every time I approached a checkpoint and how my look irked the Syrians. But it also had a dangerous statement about the Lebanese/Syrian situation. A “Stop: Checkpoint” sign showing the Syrian national symbol, an eagle, kicking and tearing down the Lebanese cedar icon. The drawing never left my portfolio because my father and few relatives who saw it pleaded and warned that there were Syrian intelligence personnel in our town, or at least snitches who kept them informed, and that if the drawing was to become known, it would threaten my security and the well being of the family. So I resigned to keep it from view at the time, though I eventually brought it with me to Israel, and gave it to a friend on a Kibutz.
On one occasion while driving through Beirut on my way to pick up a friend from work, I lost my way and found myself navigating an alley, from which the only exit was to defy a one-way street sign and hope not to be noticed. I didn’t know the street would lead straight to a Syrian checkpoint that guarded a diplomatic home. I realized that the offense of traveling the wrong way on this street, added to my look and nationality would lead to trouble in this heavily secured area, so I tried to approach the checkpoint carefully. When I was stopped, the soldier aggressively asked me to step out of the car and show my identification. I handed him my American passport, he became enraged, held it upside down, asked what it meant as he waved it around and threw it back in my face. I’m almost certain he handled the passport this way in sarcasm and that he knew he was holding it upside down, but I may never know. He suddenly lashed out with a violent backhand across my face and came back with a clapping smack from the other side that dropped me to the ground. He then delivered two staunch kicks to my midsection as I tried to protect myself. He said to get out of there and never return for him see me again. I was alive, at least, and nothing seemed broken, I thought to myself, as I drove away trying to console the bruises.
A month or so later the Israel invasion of Lebanon started, scattering many of the Syrian forces for cover. The siege of Beirut lasted about 3 months before the PLO agreed to withdraw to Tunis. During the fighting, I sometimes found myself with friends sitting on balconies watching the artillery exchanges around Beirut. The capital city, nearby airport and surrounding topography were visible to us from the mountain-top village as if we were watching an open field below us from a two story building. Towards the end of the fighting, after Israel captured the airport in a fierce artillery battle that we watched from a friend’s house, about 10 Syrian soldiers appeared at the end of the winding road below us, making their way back to Syria. They stopped by my friend’s car, which was the only one parked on the road at the time, and tried to break into it. We rushed down to explain to them that the car is grounded, needs repair, and wouldn’t take them more than a 100 meters before it stalled. The soldiers were torn, beaten, bleeding and charred, much like Sgt. Rock and Easy Company after a brutal battle. Our instinct told us that they didn’t have the energy to fight over the car and we were fortunately right about it. At this point one soldier asked if we had any cigarettes. Aside from the hash that my friend and I smoked earlier on the balcony, cigarettes became rare in our town around that time because supplies that weren’t as basic as bread and water had a difficult time making it through the fighting. But I did have a box of cigars in my jacket, that I saved for moments of low supplies. I quickly pulled them out and gave the box to the soldier. He snatched it away and told his buddies to get walking. The car was salvaged and the soldiers disappeared over the hilltop on their way home. The incident seemed to aptly close the circle of harassment.
On Behalf of Ali Ferzat
Ferzat was born in the city of Hama in Syria but gravitated towards Damascus at an early age to study art. Still young, he launched a career of political cartoons for government run newspapers. As was the way of state-run media in the Arab world, Ferzat became known for his anti-Israel cartoons, such as the one to the right depicting an Israeli war plane dropping a bomb on a child while the pilot says “drop it gently”. By 1980, Ferzat won his first international award for his work from Intergraphic International Festival in Berlin, one of many European institutes quick to embrace his defamatory distortions of Israel while turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the regime he worked for in Syria. And it’s not that Israel was above criticism, but directly targeting children has never been one of its crimes, unlike the regime Ferzat worked for. To drive home the irony of his situation, in the same year that Ferzat won this first award, Syrian president Hafez Al-Asad, “the lion” as his name translates, besieged Ferzat’s home town of Hama and slaughtered around 25,000 men, women and children (some estimates say about 40,000) to crush an uprising by the Syrian majority Suni faction, in what’s been internationally dubbed the Hama massacre.
To Ali Ferzat’s credit, the Hama massacre apparently jarred something in him as he started producing more independent political cartoons that targeted corruption and oppression in the Arab world. By 1989 he’d received a death threat from Saddam Hussein and was banned in Iraq, Jordan and Lybia. With the passing of Hafez Al-Assad and the unopposed election of his son Bashar in 2000, who promised political reform in Syria, Ferzat found a friend in the new president who lifted the ban on independent journalism and allowed him to publish Syria’s first non-state run publication Al-Domari (The Lamplighter). The venture was short lived, however, due to Ferzat’s growing criticism of the Ba’ath Party’s refusal to follow through on its reform promises. The paper was shut down in 2003 after repeated government censorship, and state-manipulated drying-out of its funds.
By 2005, when Tom Spurgeon cited the BBC article on Ferzat, his work had all but disappeared from the local press as no publisher in Syria was willing to carry it anymore, even as international acclaim of his work grew. This brings us to the ongoing Syrian Arab Spring uprising, where many of the demonstrations are again launched and led from Ferzat’s beleaguered home city of Hama. In that no foreign press has been allowed into Syria since, estimates of casualties vary but are mostly over 3000 civilians killed by direct fire from government forces, even though the demonstrators were unarmed and peaceful. Stories of plunder and rape leak out out from time to time on the web. To this background, Ali Ferzat returned to a more staunch series of recent cartoons, criticizing his former friend and patron Bashar Al-Assad, all of which led to his brutal beating and fracture of his hands by regime thugs last August.
The incident drew world-wide condemnation also in the Arab world that had been reluctant to criticize internal affairs of its constituent nations. A good sign of progress towards an airing out of the problems under some leaders there. Problems that have largely colored the cultures’ outlook on the rest of the world, mainly due to nationalistic solidarity and an overboding fear of straying from regime lines. These are maybe even a major influence on the general view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, exacerbated by the regimes’ hold on public opinion. And though many indications point to the Arab Spring possibly opening a Pandora’s box of extremist aggression, as visible in Egypt today, it still seems like a necessary step towards change there.
For the moment, however, Al-Assad’s hold on Syria shows little signs of teetering and Ali Ferzat remains at Bashar’s mercy. It’s very likely that their former friendship is the only reason he’s still alive today. It’s also likely that he’ll consider his moves more carefully since the beating. To my mind, Ferzat needs to get out of Syria right now, and continue his work from the outside where he can be free to say what he wants without fear of repercussion. I also think he’d have a much more attentive world audience that could put considerably more pressure on Al-Assad by doing so. I’m just not sure that his sense of national responsibility would allow him to leave Syria now, even in the face of suffering more harm by pursuing his cause from inside the lion’s den.
In spite of the wide international condemnation of Ferzat’s beating, there aren’t many signs of efforts with concrete steps planned to help him, nor for that matter to seriously intervene in what’s going on in Syria. Indeed, while we saw swift European involvement in Lybia, the international community has been reluctant to offer anything nearly comparable with Syria. Aside from calls for economic sanctions, it seems that Bashar Al-Assad is holding steadfastly in his brutal subversion of the people’s attempt to take the government away from his minority Alawi rule. One reason, it would seem, is that the threat of an extremist takeover in Egypt and a similar possibility in Lybia have curbed international enthusiasm for the Arab Spring, as if to say the world might be better off with the present totalitarian regime in Syria, than a possible takeover by a more volatile elements creeping into power after the fall of Bashar Al-Assad.
Ferzat and the Comics
A few Facebook pages have sprung up for moral support of Ali Ferzat as would be expected, but none seem to have come from comics related sources. The community has been mostly silent about it, and maybe that’s somewhat understandable due to the distance of the issues Ferzat tackles with his work. Our arena seems to have more of an entertainment nature that doesn’t like to get too serious with international intrigue, and the summer was strongly driven by DC’s reboot. Maybe that’s a good reason the story hasn’t been visible much, at least not to any degree that reflects the international coverage it’s received in wider media. As an entertainment medium, we can often be inattentive to such stories, not only in this case where a fellow creator/cartoonist suffers political harassment, foreign as his case may be to many of us, but also for other issues much closer to home, that we may not always raise to any effective volume, or bring to the forefront of concern.
In a summer that saw some reflections on the treatment of creators by major publishers, such as with the Jack Kirby Estate litigation against Marvel, the Siegel Estate litigation against DC, along with some insight into the plight of creators such as Gene Colan in their final years, a certain phrase reverberated through many of them saying that these cases should be bothering us a little more than they seem to. I believe there’s a straight line that can be drawn from this sentiment towards the need we have to keep up with the product driven news ticker most of us and fandom are caught up into. And I wouldn’t belittle the good curve that comics content is going through right now, nor some of the inspiring old and new work that’s flooding the comics web. But it does seem that we tend to agree to a consensus of what’s worthy of putting on our front pages, which also inadvertently defines what’s less suitable for them. We are a content driven medium, I understand, but I can’t help wonder if as creators, reporters and fan advocates of the medium, we’re striking a good enough balance of our needs relative to the non-content driven issues affecting the industry.
If a general feeling of something needing to bother us a little more, such as was repeated this summer, continues to nag at the background of the music we dance to, then we might need to pay a little more heed to the nagging voices if we hope to be able to enjoy the music more fully. Or maybe it’s that the music is ultimately made of a collection of nagging voices, mixed together in such a way to conceal their nature. Either way, there seem to be issues and stories popping up at the periphery of the medium that we’re not always able to air out thoroughly enough to address and act on them with some satisfaction.
I honestly don’t know what can be done through the comics community to help Ali Ferzat. I think we have many dire issues at home that we’re not facing or addressing any more effectively than pointing a fire extinguisher at a burning building. I’ve tried in the past, ineffectively, to push for more creator involvement in the world we swim in, and I’m first to admit I’m not the best voice for it. But I think we’re not yet collectively ready, neither at the group level, nor at personal individual level, for a serious change in this regard. Populist agitation is growing everywhere and scenarios of public unrest I’ve talked about before, are now rising to the surface of events at a hefty pace. Yet the comics community seems to remain relatively indifferent, as if we’re not yet grasping that we have a powerful instrument of influence on the world around us. I don’t think it’s a lack of knowing what specific steps we can take in order to have a more effective role or say in any particular issue. I rather tend to think it’s more of a button or switch that needs to be touched within us, igniting a necessity or urge to nudge us from a feeling of impotence that’s been imposed, or that we’ve self-imposed on ourselves, regarding everything outside our contained periphery. And in spite of this condition, I’m perfectly hopeful about our ability to make the switch at any point down the line, even as the trouble around us escalates.
I’m also not sure whether a fund-raising effort for Ali Ferzat is what he needs most right now. And as Tom said, it’s not clear how such funds, if raised, could be delivered to him through the iron curtain that Al-Assad has locked tightly shut since the uprisings. Trying to manage such a thing may be more efficient done through people closer to him. More than anything else, I think it’s we that need to feel this story bothering us a little more. In that sense, Ferzat may be in a better state than we are. He feels the problems around him and uses his art to address them and help others feel them. It might even sound somewhat presumptuous to think we’re the ones who can do anything to help him, instead of maybe realizing we’re the ones who might need to learn something from him. But I’ll admit that I can’t for the life of me understand what it’s going to take to get us off our duffs so that a story like this, and other ones as well, become as important to us as Wonder Woman’s pants or Hawkeye’s reflections on the internet. There are a lot of possibilities for what we can do that would emerge from a desire or need to do something. But I don’t know, really. I’ve not been too keen in the past on figuring out what’s making us tick in this department. We have an enormous voice on the world stage as creators, journalists, fans and publishers, that we can enlist to become more engaged, given we can begin to nurture a collective need for it.
When asked in an interview about being a political dissident, Ferzat answered in classic comics creator form:
That’s belittling my importance as an artist. An artist and creator is more important than a politician.