#09 Prejudice
Milena Paglia

Art as a Weapon

Street Art, Graphics, Satirical Cartoons And Puppet Theatre in Syrian Political Dissent

In 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's publication of satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad sparked huge protests, as did the publication of caricatures of the Prophet by the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in September 2012. Is this an indication that Arabs are not endowed with a sense of humour?

Not in the least. Yet in Bashar al-Assad's Syria, since merely making a political joke involves risking your own life, imagine what publishing satirical cartoons against the regime could lead to. The violence perpetrated on August 25, 2011 by pro-regime security forces against famous Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat – who had both his hands broken – provides a clue. Satirical cartoons are not new to Syrian art. Indeed Ali Farzat, for example, began publishing his cartoons in 1963 – at the age of 12 – and founded his own satirical review, Al-Dumari ("The Lamplighter"), in 2001.

Nevertheless, political satire in Syria is now experiencing a complete "Renaissance". While references to important political figures were subtle before the uprising began, when the "wall of fear" was pulled down by peaceful protesters, the entire political class – even President Bashar al-Assad - became fair game for parody. Ali Ferzat's most recent cartoons are not only relevant contributions to satire; they have also animated protesters, encouraging them to take to the streets peacefully. One of his drawings depicts Bashar al-Assad's head and body pierced by a pen – the pen of his satire, in this case. In another the President is shown gazing at himself in a big mirror where his reflected image appears much larger than he actually is.

Issue #09

But cartoons are not the only means of expressing dissent in the country. Puppet theatre, widespread in Egypt, made its first official public appearance in Syria in November 2011 with the launch of the first episode of the "Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator" finger puppet show. It is produced by Masasit Mati, a group of ten Syrian artists, and posted weekly on YouTube. The title speaks for itself: President Bashar al-Assad – represented by a tiny finger puppet – is depicted as a dictator, as the oppressor of Syrians' freedom. The show literally diminishes him in size, as if his aura of strength and power has been taken away. As "Beeshu" – the diminutive of his name used in the show - he is not that frightening any more.

In a country in which traditional media is difficult to access or even completely absent in some cases, theatre actors, artists, cartoonists and graphic designers are documenting the uprising when journalists often can't, giving us some of the pieces to this big jigsaw puzzle.

In addition to its vilifying and protest functions, satirical art also performs another role in Syria. In a country in which traditional media is difficult to access or even completely absent in some cases, theatre actors, artists, cartoonists and graphic designers are documenting the uprising when journalists often can't, giving us some of the pieces to this big jigsaw puzzle.

Graphics are another important component of this picture. Young Syrian artists are experimenting with new techniques and a new aesthetic as a method of protest and dissent. At the same time, while they denounce oppression and abuses, they are modernizing the artistic landscape and contributing to spreading art among the younger generations in a country where artistic education plays far too little a role. This is what young Syrian designer Wissam Al Jazairy has accomplished with his graphics. Some of them denounce the sadly common practice of torturing prisoners; others represent the yearning for freedom and justice; still others are an ode to life and love despite the death that has loomed over Syrians every day since the uprising began.

Graffiti is not a real innovation in Arabic-Islamic art. Indeed it could be considered the descendant of the centuries-old art of calligraphy. Born to represent God’s word - the scriptures of the Koran – calligraphy has always been viewed as one of the noblest expressions of Islamic art since its beauty embodies religious piety. These two art forms can be seen – to quote “Arabic Graffiti” – as “two daughters of the same parents. Arabic calligraphy is the more conservative sister while graffiti has more freedom from tradition”. The history of modern Arabic graffiti dates back to the 80s, when shop owners began hiring local artists to paint their signs, usually on the blank walls of the city. Spraying smaller graffiti on trucks is also a common practice in most Arabic countries in the Middle East: in Egypt, Jordan and Syria in particular, they literally cover trucks and generally have a protective function.

The uprising has given graffiti new meaning. In March 2011, when the first manifestations of the uprising were making themselves felt in the country, a group of teenagers wrote “the people want the fall of the regime” on a wall in Dar’a. From then on, graffiti was an act of resistance to authority for young Syrians, an expression of their anger about the regime's oppression and their yearning for justice and freedom. To cite "Arabic Graffiti" again: "The spray can is a formidable weapon in the struggle for hearts, minds and justice. The wall has become an enormous visual petition, an ephemeral forum, a pictorial rant and reprimand calling for resistance, justice, freedom and solidarity".

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