Khalid Albaih is a Sudanese political cartoonist living and working in Qatar as the head of installation and design for public art at Qatar Museums. His cartoons were used by protesters in Cairo, Sanaa, Tripoli, and Tunis. On Sunday I interviewed the artist about the French publication Charlie Hebdo, Arab politics, and what he thinks the future holds for Sudan, the Middle East, and for his own family.
|Mubarak's face next to the Arabic word for Egypt and "insist." dohanews.com|
First off I wanted to say thank you so much for meeting with me, at least virtually. I became a recent admirer of your work online and I love the way you draw human figures. They're so simple in an inky kind of way, it just serves to make fun of these people in politics, to bring them down to earth a little bit. But let's start! You occupy a very unique and very complex position as a Muslim and a political cartoonist. What was your reaction as both, to the attack on the publication Charlie Hebdo?
When the attack happened, you know I was just- I was watching the news as usual. I was very shocked. First off I was very shocked at the timing - why now after all these years? Again I just thought, as a Muslim… I just thought as a human being – this could be me or any one of my friends. The first thing I thought about was the post-9/11 reaction that’s going to happen to the Muslim families over there in Europe– Islamophobia against all the families living there. The right wing gained power in Greece – it’s happening you know? [At the time of the interview, the results of the Greek election declaring the win of the left-wing Syriza party had not yet been published.] As if there’s ever a right time to do this. It added insult to injury. I just thought of the millions of Muslims that have nothing to do with this, but that the whole world will be thinking exactly are the opposite – Muslims have everything to do with this. I wrote a cartoon five minutes after I watched the news. It’s how I feel and I knew it was gonna be how millions of Muslims feel. I wanted the world to know that there are 1.5 billion Muslims and only three did this. I was never a fan of Charlie Hebdo - their cartoons were not a really creative way to talk about subjects, they were really vulgar and racist.
Do you believe that there are limits to free speech?I think there should be limits to everything. It’s not even being a Muslim or not. As a cartoonist who doesn't enjoy freedom of speech just like the European artists do, I think that I've been doing daring stuff, but I did it without offending 1.5 billion people and I managed to get a point across, I hope. Doing a cartoon isn't about "I have the freedom to do this, I’m going to do this – I don’t care what anybody thinks." No, you’re doing this for a reason, for a message, to ask a question, to start the conversation, right? If you’re doing it in the way where "I’m right and all 1.5 billion of you are stupid and you don’t have the right to be angry and if you’re angry you’re with the savages," this is not why I am doing this, this is not why I’m risking my life every day. This is how they think – they’re feeding the stereotypes. They’re not changing anybody’s minds with their cartoons. It’s like, “Haha, these guys are idiots, all of them.” And you know, they make you think of that image - any Muslim is a bearded, angry man and any Muslim woman is an oppressed woman wearing a niqab. It’s just really sad that they’re doing that.
Do you self-censor?
You can’t just pick the first piece of news that you think about. The most important research to do is to find out what is taboo, who are these people, what is the history behind the event. There are a million things to do before you start, like writing an article. I draw all these presidents, my president all the time. I try to make him look short and fat, but I try not to draw anything that will give people a chance. Let’s say you live in a building and every day you insult a family member in the next apartment and he doesn’t like it. This relationship of you living in the same building with him is never gonna work. You’re just upsetting the guy every time because you’re not respecting the guy. The joke could be hilarious and you have every right to say it, go ahead and say it. But do you really want to do this? Is this how you want to come across? Be a better neighbour.
You’ve talked in other interviews about your father and his influence on your work. (Albaih’s father was a diplomat with the former regime and he and his family were forced to flee after the successive regime came into power.) But what I want to ask you about is your mother. I understand that she was an activist against female genital mutilation (FGM). Did her views on women’s rights affect your work? I noticed that in your cartoons you do address the negative attitude that men tend to have towards women in the Middle East.
My mom's always reading, she’s always talking about stuff that other people are not talking about. And that really inspired me to be different, and not like everybody else, like it’s OK to be different, my mom is different, it’s fine as hell, I love her. Her activism and her speaking out against something that is a custom in Sudan, Egypt and East Africa, khalas, yani, it’s not a big problem. But she spoke against it and she continued to do that. I remember when they wanted to do it to one of my cousins and my mom stood against and she made a big deal out of it. I saw her in action, that really touched me. And if you told her these things, she’d probably not even think that this was a big deal. If you told her that she was an activist, she doesn’t even know what that is. She’d think that this is what you’re supposed to do, this is what she does, because she believes that this is the right thing.
You’ve mentioned being dyslexic before. Was it difficult growing up with dyslexia? I mean, there is so much awareness now of learning disabilities - there are schools, teachers, and programs catered to students that have them. What was it like not having that?Oh my god, so difficult. By the way, this is the first time anyone asked me about both this and my mom. That’s a really good question. It’s so hard. That’s why as a kid I turned to drawing, it was the only way to express how I feel. It’s such a mission, I can’t do it. I speak two languages but I can’t write any one of them. And people just laughed at me, growing up here people just thought I couldn't spell. I just powered through until I read about dyslexia. I realized I was sick, not really stupid. It’s still hard for me. I wanna write about a lot of things, but it’s just so hard for me. When I write an article, I don’t know what I’d do without auto-correct. You wouldn't understand, you wouldn't unless you had the condition. If I apply for anything I have to write and I can’t write that much. I can’t do it in that time. It’s not because I’m stupid, I just really need to re-write it five times before it’s correct.
Do you ever feel constrained by having to create something clean and simple that can be read on a phone or tablet?
Yeah I do, this is my biggest market. This is who I’m trying to reach. Everything in my head is built on an Instagram square, it has to be in that format now. This is my audience, this is who I’m working for.
This is a question that I just thought of right now. Would you ever write or draw a comic book?I'm in the process of doing that actually right now. I'm working with a friend of mine whose an artist to illustrate a couple stories about history. There are two books actually. One is an illustrated history of Sudan. It's going to be from prehistoric times to the time of the disaster that happened, the separation. The other one is short stories written by and of my Dad. I will try to do that.
How do you think living in exile shaped who you as an artist/person?
You want them to have a place where they can feel that they belong. I’m also a TCK myself. While I’m definitely not living in exile, it’s certainly very odd for me when I go back to Canada, people make an assumption that you know x, y, or z and I have to pretend until you’re found out. And certainly when I’m in the Philippines I stick out like a sore thumb and I can’t identify with so many of their experiences. It’s close to my heart but… It’s a lifelong thing. You said you’re 35? I’m not saying live with it, but it’s like trying to find balance. It’s something that you always have to work at.
I just wish that my daughter doesn't have to go through this as well.
Well as long as she’s got parents that love her then everything’s OK right?
What do you hope to achieve in your career as a political cartoonist? How do you climb higher up the ladder?
What if one of your children decided to become a political cartoonist – what would you say to her or him?
When you have kids, you’re really going to appreciate your parents, you know? After I had my kid, after like, three months of not sleeping I called my dad and I said, “I’m really, really sorry.” I guess it comes with age. I don’t think that I’ll tell her anything. I’ll just let her do what she wants to do.
What does your wife think about all of this?
My wife is worried that something will happen, but she’s very supportive, she’s my number one critic. She’s the first one that sees my work. She’s definitely worried, she’s always telling me to tone it down. She’s my number one critic definitely.
As all wives should be!
I don’t know. I really don’t know what a “proper nation” is. But I think that when everybody works together, that’s what a proper nation is. We can find out together what this is. It’s what we all agree on.
But how do you all agree on something? You could say voting. That sounds like a democracy.
Of course it’s the base of things you know. After the destruction after the last 25 years, you really don’t wanna come back with strong opinions. That’s how wars start. You have to be soft. After 25 years of dictatorship, people really don’t want to hear orders. We’ll just try to see what happens.
Do you really think that people will return if they already have built up lives in the other countries that they live in? There are lots of Sudanese in Saudi, they work as doctors, lawyers and engineers.
When you were interviewed by the New York Times you said that you hate it when people say the Arab Spring failed, that even France in the 1700s needed 70 years to settle down. Does this mean that you think that the region should model its form of government after countries like France that went through similar upheavals?It's not modelling itself, it's that history repeats itself. You can't just say that it's unique because it's not, it has happened before. It took people time to become a proper nation. You can't just expect people after 60-70 years of dictatorship to have things figured out. They didn't have an education, they don't know what rights are. You have to give people a chance. They're not savages that can't be ruled unless there's Saddam, Gaddafi or colonialism. They just need time to grow up, they need experiences, they need to know how to deal with things in the right way.
So you believe that there's a right way and a wrong way to deal with things?Yeah.
Ok and you said that people don't know their rights, they haven't grown up yet. I'm playing devil's advocate here - so you believe that people here in the Middle East are like teenagers, they need to grow up and people in the West are adults because they have everything figured out?Not really, no. People in the Middle East have been through so much because of what the West did. They're not in a position to judge us really. They're a huge part of what happened in the region. They're the reason why there's 22 countries in a region where people generally speak the same language, practice the same religion and are of the same race. If you want to look at why this is happening right now you better know your history. They should know why this is happening - because of what happened 60, 70, sometimes 200 years ago in the case of Algeria. What happened in Algeria is still happening, the offspring of what happened is still happening now. Algeria's not settled. North Africans are still all over Europe, they feel like second class citizens. Things need to be worked out, but you can't just judge these people. They're here because of what you did. It's not just in the Middle East, I mean look at what happened in Australia, aboriginal people there weren't considered even human until what? The 1980s? A lot of what's happening now is because of imperialism and colonialism, of occupying other countries.
You also said that “if anybody in this region says ‘I had freedom,’ he’s lying.” What about the rich? They have freedom of mobility, freedom of access. They certainly don't suffer from the same restrictions that the poor do. What do you think?
I say that they live in any Arab nation, they don't have freedom. If they get a passport from another country, yeah maybe you're more free. But if you're a citizen from here and live here, no matter how rich you are, you're still not free. You can't say whatever you want to say. You might have power, if you know the right people, but you don't have the freedom of speech.
In 2012 you said that you think there’s a lot of press freedom in Qatar. Then why not draw cartoons about issues that are happening in Qatar, about the plight of migrant workers there?Well there's not a lot of freedom of speech, I said there's a huge gap. They built the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, it's a good organization to have. They're trying, which I really I admire. They're trying to be a modern nation. There are huge cultural and education projects. As for me drawing on the issues here? I focus more on international issues. As for the workers dying, will I get in trouble? Do I want to get in trouble? No. I live here! Will they be cool with it? I did do a couple cartoons - I think that I was the first person to draw the emir. The next day I was waiting for something to happen! I mean, I don't know my limits but I'm always trying to push them. At the end, this is not home, but I call it home. I don't know what's going to happen, there's no rules or regulations. If I talk about Qatar, they say I'm trying to get attention. If I don't talk about Qatar they say that I'm afraid. Whatever you do, you're going to get into trouble. I'd rather be safe for now, I try to do the right thing.
If you were to ever move out of Qatar, would you make political cartoons about it?It's not only about Qatar, it's about the region as a whole. If I were to do a cartoon of a ruler from another country I would get in trouble. If I travel will I do things? I don't know. I deal with a lot of issues. I've never done anything on the workers thing, I was focused on the Arab Spring, but I should, it's definitely something to talk about. But it's not what you read in The Guardian or The Sun. This is where you have to be careful and differentiate between propaganda and proper news. All these articles that came out were published last year. And this past year if you remember all those ambassadors from the other Gulf nations were recalled. During that time there was a lot of articles and leaks saying that the UAE paid a PR agency to write about Qatar. It was a political war really.
OK but what's proper news? Every news agency will be biased. You have a bias, I have a bias...But if you want to know, you have to follow citizen journalism. For me I try to read all sides to figure out the story. There's a lot of news that's pushed for a certain reason. You see that with Israel and Palestine, you can see the difference of views here and there. The language is different, how they phrase it is different. It's things like this you have to be careful of. I mean, why is Edward Snowden not a hero and why is American Sniper considered one? Because he kills people and because Snowden shows you what's happening? I mean, why were they in Iraq in the first place? Being a political cartoonist, you have to be some sort of conspiracy theorist.
Clearly for an artist that is also a political cartoonist, creative expression is not the only objective of Albaih's work. He does not aspire to some lofty, abstract goal that only artistic minds can access. Albaih lives in the real world, he certainly has to read and watch about what happens in it everyday to be able to produce his own illustrations. And Albaih is conscious of this world, where neighbours are nation states that don't get along, and whose citizens are inexplicably tied to these global relationships. What he hopes to do with his cartoons is to work from the bottom up, to provide a means for people both in the West and the Middle East (and certainly those that occupy those ambiguous spaces of being from, living and/or working in both) to learn and educate themselves about one another, to foster discussions about current topics, and to laugh. And if he manages to stay out of trouble, he can keep on drawing.
Khalid Albaih's work can be found here.