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Jerusalem Diary: 16 March

Posted by gaetanoditommaso su 16 marzo, 2009


16 March 2009

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

SAYING THE UNSPEAKABLE How do you say the unspeakable? The refuge, in many places, at many times, has been the cartoon.

But in the Middle East, there has not been much of that tradition.

It is partly censorship. It is partly, also, the religious tradition: Islamic tradition has discouraged figurative depiction of human beings; in Judaism, pictures are used only sparingly.

Now, an exhibition which is currently touring the West Bank, aims to spread the word about the power of cartoons.

Lighting Lamps is sponsored by the British Council, and has just opened at the Duheishe refugee camp, close to Bethlehem.

It features cartoons from across the Middle East, as well as a smattering from the British cartoonist, Steve Bell.

There is a strip from the Palestinians, Amr Shomali and Basel Nasser (pictured above). Two men are talking.

Man A: “Are you Fatah or Hamas?”

Man B: “I’m Palestinian.”

A: “Habibi (matey)… don’t be clever. We’re all Palestinian. Who are you with in the civil war?”

B: “I’m against the civil war.”

A: “We’re all against it, but it happened…..so who are you with?”

B: “I’m against both.”

A: “Don’t drive me crazy. You have to choose between Fatah and Hamas.”

B: “Between Fatah and Hamas, I choose Canada.”

One of the contributors is Emad Hajjaj, from Jordan. Despite a thin history of figurative drawing, cartoons have, he says, become very popular in Arabic newspapers over the last 50 or 60 years. “It’s one of the few things that make you laugh about your problems.”

Freedom is, still, curtailed. Being a cartoonist is, says Mr Hajjaj, “unfortunately a very tough job in our region”.

“But we use symbolism to say many things that we cannot say directly: like criticising our political regimes, like criticising religious issues,” Mr Hajjaj says.

Next to us, at the exhibition, there was an unflattering depiction of Tony Blair and the former British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, erupting from George W Bush’s backside, in a Steve Bell cartoon which was published in the Guardian newspaper.

“I won’t hide that I wish I could have the situation that Steve Bell has,” Emad Hajjaj confessed. “I did draw my king once… it was the first time that our king had been portrayed in a cartoon.”

That was nine years ago. Emad Hajjaj said that the drawing was not a “hard” one. “But there were many, many problems afterwards.”

At least, he said, Jordan is in a “much, much better situation” than Syria, among other Middle Eastern countries.


You might think that Israel, given the often scabrous nature of its press, would have a vibrant tradition of cartoons, to rival the ferocity of anything in Britain. Not so. The cartoons in Israel are not vicious, certainly in comparison to some of the comments on the op-ed pages.

Tzipi Livni: “Do you accept the principle of 2 countries for 2 people?”
Binyamin Netanyahu: “Yes: with Likud in power in one, and Kadima in opposition in the other.”

Michel Kichka is a cartoonist who came to Israel 35 years ago from Belgium, a country with a rich history of cartoons and illustrated books. (You can see his work here: http://kichka.com/blog/ )

He says history and technology have left Israeli cartoons softer than they might otherwise have been.

The history is partly that of a lack of illustration in religious texts; more recently, that “there is a residue of trauma” about the cartoons which were part of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic propaganda.

And it so happened that the cartoonists who emigrated to the new Jewish state came from central Europe where the tradition was less biting.

Now, though, Michel Kichka says “it is like walking on a minefield”.

Since the enormous controversy over the publication, first in a Danish newspaper, of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Mr Kichka says “you can’t draw what you write”.

There were moments, he says, when the cartoons were savage: for example, when David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first Prime Minister) and Menachem Begin were arguing over whether Jews should accept reparations from Germany.

“But today, you publish in your country, and it can go anywhere in the world. When I criticise my government’s policy, I don’t want my cartoon used in a country which only wants to destroy my country.”




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