For Sudanese political cartoonist Khalid Albaih, cartooning is a way to start a conversation, to better inform people in the Middle East and the West about how extremists like ISIS first got their stronghold. He speaks with Brooke about how imagery can circumvent censorship while subverting the powers that be.
Song: Rahim Alhaj with Souhail Kaspar, “Taqsim Maqam Ajam"
BROOKE: For Sudanese political cartoonist Khalid Albaih, cartooning is a way to start a conversation, to better inform people in the Middle East and the West about how extremists like ISIS first got their stronghold. As the son of a diplomat exiled because of a military coup, Khalid has lived most of his life in Qatar, a place where the entrenched powers work quietly, and the most honest commentary is found in the piercing, wordless images of political cartoonists.
ALBAIH: Politics always interested me because it was part of my upbringing. But living in a very apolitical area back then, it was very hard for us and for our parents to talk politics. Like they always told us to stay away from politics because in this part of the world, it will give you nothing but trouble. Nobody ever read the first page of the newspaper because everybody knew it was a lie. You know "Our great leader met this other great leader and everything is great, we're all happy." So for me that was the power of cartoons that everybody, no matter if you're into politics, or you just want to read about what's going on in society right now, you just turn to the last page and see the comics.
BROOKE; Do you self censor? Are you fearful that you could become a target?
ALBAIH: I'm not fearful no, I'm not fearful at all. I mean, in this part of the world, you can get killed for way less, you know? You don't have to mock ISIS to be a target. But do I self censor? Yes, I self censor. Because I need to adapt to our society here. We have a lot of censorship. We don't even see kissing on TV, or underwear models in a magazine. So, for me to do anything that's shocking, it will defeat the message that I'm trying to deliver
BROOKE: And yet you combine some really interesting elements in your messaging. For instance, you might have a cartoon that makes a comment about ISIS but uses a Kim Kardashian reference. You sometimes blend pop culture and politics in a single cartoon.
ALBAIH: We all grew up seeing the same images. You know? We all grew up knowing Michael Jackson. So, being online, I need to use images that are familiar to people to get their attention because if you think about it, I'm really in the mercy of a scroll. This is what people are doing the whole day, they're just scrolling through a phone. And nothing will capture that as that Kim Kardashian image that broke the internet.
BROOKE: Describe how you used the image.
ALBAIH: It was around the time that ISIS and Al Qaeda decided to become united. And coincidentally that was around the same time that Kim Kardashian broke the internet.
BROOKE: With her sort of oiled behind?
ALBAIH: With her oiled behind. Exactly. So I used the same image of her oiled behind but with the person wearing a mask that refers to ISIS, and saying "break the internet - ISIS and Al Qaeda have united." You know, I'm just trying to draw people to real news using images that they see everyday.
BROOKE: There's a pretty famous one you did of an ISIS militant holding up a thumb that had been bloodily sliced off the Facebook "like" icon. What was the conversation you wanted to start with that one?
ALBAIH: ISIS is basically using the same weapon that I am using, which is the internet. I'm using it because I have no where else to publish my work. For them it's the same thing, they killed that weapon that i had, they killed that "like" that I had, you know? They used t in such a gruesome way.
BROOKE: So it's a comment on how they've sullied cyberspace?
ALBAIH: Yeah. The internet was always a place of conversation, of a lot of creativity, of a lot of things happening. And when they beheaded the journalists, you see the image everywhere. When I see that image, I see it a million times. It hurts. This is my refuge.
BROOKE: How different is it to be a cartoonist in the Arab world than it is to be one in the West, do you think?
ALBAIH: There's an Iranian cartoonist that got 12 years in jail because he drew members of the parliament as animals, right? So, anything can happen. And in the West, they don't understand these things. You can draw whatever you want to draw. For us here we have to be very creative in saying what we want to say. We beat around the bush --
BROOKE: It's more subtle is what you're saying.
ALBAIH: Maybe it's subtle visually, but the messages are not subtle at all. We're telling the truth but we're telling it in a way that the government will have no reason to arrest you or hurt you or hurt your family.
BROOKE: I want to ask you about a cartoon that you did which really caught my eye. Members of ISIS are hiding behind a wall, and they've attached a string to an issue of Charlie Hebdo, which is lying on the street, and a passing Muslim looks at it, and you title this cartoon "ISIS recruitment."
BROOKE: In other words, they have the string and if the person who sees the cartoon follows it, they've got another one.
ALBAIH: Mhm. So that was the cover of Charlie Hebdo after the January incident that happened. Of course that incident was terrible act of terrorism. And when it happened, I felt that this could have been me or any of my friends. What Charlie Hebdo doesn't understand is, with them doing this cover of drawing the prophet, again, I don't think they're much different. Being an extremist is about being an extremist in your thought - it's about not listening to anybody else, right? So, for me Charlie Hebdo is grabbing onto the most radical way of telling what you want to say and abusing the power of freedom of speech and not wanting to listen to anybody else. The prophet is the only respectable character that we have left. We are a nation without heroes. We don't have presidents that we respect, we don't have educators that we respect, we don't have anybody. And the West keeps insisting of insulting that person. That cover could have made it about unity other than making 1.6 billion Muslims upset. Cartoons for us are not about being funny, and not about just telling a joke,and because I have the right to tell this joke, I'm going to tell it. It doesn't matter if I'm going to lose 1.6 billion people, it doesn't matter. What Charlie Hebdo did, and with the whole 'draw the prophet' contests and people showing up to mosques wearing shirts saying "F Islam" and stuff like that - that doesn't mean anything, that doesn't accomplish anything. I mean, it's my mission as a journalist, as a cartoonist, as an artist, as a human being, to make us all know that we're all the same. But, when you do something that just separates people, just because you have the power to do it, I think that's pretty selfish. I draw cartoons, you know. People died on the street in Egypt and in Tunisia and are still dying every day in Syria, you know? These are the people who we need to know what their problem is. We need to fix that problem.
BROOKE: The further away, the less awareness of the stakes. I mean, we in the West can be very complacent about our rights.
ALBAIH: Exactly. But we live in a very small world now. And nobody has a reason to be ignorant. And this where the lazy cartooning comes from: you know, like, when you see a cartoon about Muslims, you see an angry man with a beard shouting, "Allahu Akbar." In this part of the world we know lots about what's going on over there, we speak English. We see your TV. We see what you think of us. Which is not very nice. But you don't know our language, you don't know what goes here. Right? Except for what your media tells you. So this is the difference. And this is what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to show you this part of the world: this is what we think, this is what's happening here.
BROOKE: Khalid, thank you very much.
ALBAIH: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE: Khalid Albaih is a political cartoonist living in Qatar. You can find his work on Twitter or Facebook at khalidalbaih, that’s k-h-a-l-i-d-a-l-b-a-i-h.