In Impromptus today, I mention Ali Farzat, the Syrian cartoonist. In fact, he is the most famous and best-loved cartoonist in the Arab world. For many years, he has gotten under the skin of dictators, once earning a death threat from Saddam Hussein. In the course of his career, he has been banned in Iraq (of course), Libya, and even the Hashemites’ Jordan.
Taking over from his dictator father in 2000, Bashar Assad allowed a brief period of liberalization in Syria. Farzat did not let this opening go to waste: He started a magazine, a satirical magazine, the first independent magazine in Syria since the Baath party seized power in 1963. The initial run was of 50,000 copies. It sold out within four hours. The hunger in Syria for this material was screaming. The experiment lasted only until 2003, however, when government pressure got too great.
This year, Farzat has been a huge inspiration to the freedom protesters in his country. He has poked fun at the dictatorship and given ordinary people a kind of voice. He has represented the possibility of a better, more civilized life.
When Ibrahim Kashush, the singer-protester, was murdered, Farzat drew a tribute, described by a writer in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “Kashush is depicted as a naive boy holding a flute while the blood that flows from his throat forms the shape of a musical note in the sand.”
Let me quote a bit more from that article: “In the past, [Farzat] refrained from drawing Bashar Assad and preferred to depict him by intimation, but now he has made it clear that Assad is not exempt from appearing in his caricatures and for the first time, he has drawn him in the role of the person responsible for repression in Syria.”
A recent cartoon — the last we will have from Farzat? — showed Assad running after a car driven by Moammar Qaddafi. The Libyan is speeding away in his getaway car; Assad wants desperately to hitch a ride with him.
As I say in my column, I had thought that Farzat might be too popular and beloved to touch. That proved to be wrong. The dictatorship has now beaten the hell out of him. They broke both of his hands. Their warning was: “Next time, it will be worse for you.”
They know how to send messages, Assad’s boys. When they killed Kashush, they cut out his vocal cords: He wouldn’t sing again, you see? (Or do anything else.) When they attacked the cartoonist, they broke his hands.
Every day, we read that Arabs don’t want freedom or democracy. Every day, we read that the very notion of an “Arab spring” is a joke, to be hooted and snorted at. There have been reversals and outrages, as there always are in life, especially in the Middle East. But when I think of people like Ibrahim Kashush and Ali Farzat, I think, “Do I myself want freedom and democracy more than they do? Would I have been willing to do what they did, despite the dangers?”
I can’t say with confidence that I would have. And I’m a pretty freedom-loving cat (as George W. Bush might say). I don’t think I’m better than these Arabs.
As some readers know, I talked recently to Mart Laar about the problem of opposing dictatorship. He is the Estonian historian and revolutionary who became prime minister of his country (twice). He said, in essence, there comes a time when you’re so fed up with dictatorship and oppression that you simply dare what you would not have dared before. The only way to know whether a dictatorship is weak enough to fall is to test it. You may fail, but you have to try.
In Syria, they are trying. More than 2,000 of them have been killed. The odds probably don’t favor the Syrians in their struggle against this dictatorship. But their struggle, and bravery, are to be admired, even if we can’t bring ourselves to help them.