Bashar al-Assad’s henchmen came for Ali Ferzat in the small hours of Thursday 25 August 2011. Ferzat, a cartoonist celebrated throughout the Arab world for lampooning dictators and their oppressive techniques, had already survived a death threat from Saddam Hussein, as well as being banned from Iraq and Libya.
Wounded Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat in bed in 2011, after being grabbed and beaten up by pro-regime militiamen. Photo: Getty Images
But as he left his studio in Damascus after a night working late, his luck ran out. Masked men from Assad’s feared shabiha (state-sponsored militia) rammed his car, then ripped the doors off and handcuffed him. They forced him into their own van, where they symbolically smashed his hands before beating him around the face and leaving him at the side of a road with a bag over his head.
“It was the kind of highway where no one stops,” Ferzat told me when I met him in London. “The only reason I was found at all was that a car broke down, so the people in it had to pull over to change their tyres. I was really afraid – I lost the sight in my eye as a result of the assault, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to use my hands again. I also suffered concussion and worried that I wouldn’t regain my mental capacity.”
On the day of the attack, a picture of the cartoonist in hospital was circulated around the world on news and social networking sites. There was a bloodied dressing on the right side of his face, his eyes were clamped shut and swollen with bruises, and the corners of his mouth sagged in a grimace of pain and misery, his hands rigid with bandages. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that if Ferzat had depicted the image in one of his own cartoons, Death – no doubt dressed in a Syrian general’s uniform – would have been leering from the end of the hospital bed.
For four decades he’d survived the strictures of one of the most repressive regimes in the world, which even before the present uprising was languishing in the bottom ten of the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. (It is now in the bottom four.) But a recent cartoon had proved a provocation too far: in it, he had directly linked the fate of Assad with that of Muammar al-Gaddafi, showing him sweatily running along a road to hitch a lift with the dead Libyan leader in a getaway car.
The extraordinary story of the dealings between the cartoonist and the president holds up a cracked mirror to Assad’s relationship with the Syrian people as a whole. It reflects the political positioning that has made him so hard to pin down as a leader and as a man, encompassing the journey from the phoney liberalism of his early days in office to the mass-murdering paranoia of his endgame.
When Bashar first emerged on to the world stage after the sudden death of his elder brother, Basil – and following a crash course in power that, according to insiders, changed both his voice and his physique – the urbane, popular Ferzat (a regular not just in Arabic-language newspapers but also in Le Monde) was one of those he courted. “He was trying to win over writers, intellectuals, find out the voice of the street,” the cartoonist recalled. “Obviously it turned out that he thought of us as tools to be used. But at that point, from our point of view, we had the chance to lure a new young president into being on our side.”
Seven months after his assault, when we met at the Frontline Club in Paddington, central London, the 60-year-old Ferzat – in marked contrast to those terrible photos – was electric with life. His powerful, wiry hands seemed constantly to summon images from the air, his eyes blazed as he told stories, and more than once he leaned across the table to give me a high-five after he had told a joke. Only the prayer beads that he was clutching, and the occasional haunted look as the interpreter gave her translation, hinted at the trauma he had gone through.
“God looked after me twice,” he joked – “once when I healed like this, yet mostly when I was discovered on the road – so it would seem He likes my work! I was taken to Kuwait [where Ferzat’s cartoons have been published since 1992] and was given a lot of top-quality physiotherapy, otherwise I would never have healed like this. Now I’m 90 per cent better. But when I close my fist it feels as if there’s an overstretched guitar string running from the elbow to the fingers.”
That the music hasn’t stopped for Ferzat is a small victory for the values he represents in the Arab world. The Arab people he believes in,
according to the introduction to his 2005 book, A Pen of Damascus Steel, admire “the Enlightenment ideals of free speech, free assembly and independent civil society”. When we met, he talked proudly about “the determination of our people – now our collective conscience has been awakened, there’s no way of turning back”.
Before the uprising, Ferzat survived the censors by depicting types rather than particular individuals: men – often dressed in a suit or army uniform – with a crude potato head and accusatory bulbous nose, oppressing bemused civilians with a sadistic cheeriness. The ladder is a frequent image, denoting the gap between the ruling elite and Syria’s citizens, and the inspirations for his drawings extend to the works of Samuel Beckett.
An exhibition of his cartoons this spring at the Mica Gallery, off Sloane Square in London, showcased his wit. In one picture, a security guard at an airport who has checked the contents of a man’s suitcase now flips open the top of his head like a lid so he can check the contents of his mind, too. In another, a patient – whose head is wrapped in bandages so that only the bruised eyes show – stands as a thug in a suit draws a large smile on to the bandages.
It was at an exhibition of Ferzat’s work in the 1990s that Assad made his initial friendly approaches. When he came to power in 2000, he seemed tantalisingly true to his word as he facilitated a period of intellectual optimism that led to the brief “Damascus spring”. Ferzat’s role in this was crucial. Among the many salons, publications and manifestos that sprang up to challenge the values of the dictatorship that Assad had inherited, the cartoonist launched his own satirical newspaper, al-Domari (“the lamplighter”). It was the first privately owned publication in Syria to receive a licence in almost 40 years, and was funded entirely by Ferzat with savings accrued from lucrative sales of his work abroad. Composed of cartoons and articles critical of the government, the first issue – which, at 50,000 copies, had a larger print run than any of the three official state newspapers (whose print runs were 40,000 each) – sold out by 10am on the first day. Ferzat printed 25,000 more, which also sold.
“At the start, I was very optimistic that we were witnessing a period of change,” Ferzat said. “But from the fourth issue they sent in a monitoring and censorship team to be with us all the time, and to revise or delete parts of every article. On top of this, they said we could only be distributed by the government, which meant that after the team had censored it, it then had to go through the ministry of information.” The beginning of the end came quickly. In June 2001 the government tried to ban an issue carrying a cartoon and story critical of the then prime minister. In a compromise, Ferzat ran the offending pages blank, apart from minimal sketches that included a pen, studded with pins and clasped in a bloody hand.
Still, the interference remained just interference until 2003, when Ferzat ran a cartoon that depicted Saddam Hussein and his generals ramming the Iraqi people into cannons while yelling to a motley crowd: “They have come to plunder your palaces, your riches, your businesses and your oil.”
Syria, which had supported the western allies in the first Gulf war, was strongly opposed to the west’s second intervention, and the authorities came down on Ferzat. “They told all publishing houses that they were not allowed to print al-Domari, but then said if I didn’t bring out a certain number of editions they would revoke my licence. So I ran a secret edition – I called it the Suicidal Edition – which I [printed] myself . . . and distributed to sellers. It ended up being our bestselling issue, but the authorities went round to all the newsagents trying to retrieve it, and that was the day they formally withdrew the licence.”
How powerful was Bashar al-Assad back then? In 2003 the American Middle East Quarterly discussed the “trompe l’oeil” that allowed him to succeed his father, Hafez al-Assad, as an apparently liberal alternative, when his real appeal to the existing regime was his inability to challenge the “powerful vested interests of the country”.
Does Ferzat think that Bashar’s liberalising intentions in Syria were ever sincere? “I would say he was prepared to be more like his father. Of course he was pressurised by the top-ranking officials around him, who worked on isolating him from the street and from the intellectuals, because he dropped off communications very suddenly. But I would say again that he must have been prepared for it. He could have rejected it.”
Ferzat was already well acquainted with the worst excesses of the Assads. He was born in Hama, the city where, in 1982, tens of thousands of inhabitants were massacred during a state crackdown (estimates range between 10,000 and 40,000) and many neighbourhoods razed to the ground. How was he affected personally? “I lost 36 members of my family in that massacre. And none of them was involved with the Muslim Brotherhood [the stated target of the operation]; they were just civilians who got caught up in the process.
“My city has witnessed three massacres – the first in 1963 under the Ba’athist coup led by Amin al-Hafez, then in 1982 under Hafez al-Assad, and now under Bashar, whose middle name is also Hafez. The name Hafez haunts my dreams now. It gives me a physical spasm every time I hear it.”
He leaned forward to give me a high-five again, indicating that this was a joke, but shook his head at the same time. For him, anger and humour are very close, as indeed they should be for a satirist – a gleam in the eye can quickly become a glare and a grin a grimace. I decided to ask him about the moment that proved critical in his career: the point at which he stopped sketching types and decided to caricature Assad.
“A few months before the uprising started, I could sense that things were moving much faster – shifting by the minute and hour, and I needed to respond to those changes without reflecting for long enough to create something symbolic. But I also wanted to break the fear by portraying him personally. Not least because what the revolution needs right now is for caricatures for people to carry while protesting – they can actually hold them up on the streets. I have seen again and again examples of protesters across Syria carrying my caricatures, and I’m very proud of that.”
That evening, I went to hear Ferzat at an Amnesty event. He now lives in exile in Kuwait, and it is only outside his country that he can see other Syrians safely. The security arrangements for his trip to London showed that, even here, he was not confident that he was protected. But his charisma broke through at the event; the interpreter struggled a little to convey his meaning, so there were moments when he started miming to get his message across to non-Syrians in the hall, becoming a kind of human cartoon. "It was a suicidal mission to depict the president, but I had to do it,” he told me. “I was like a snake charmer who played with a cobra, but at the end I was bitten by this cobra.”
The image took me back to another that he had used. “Sometimes my imagination is like a wild horse with no bit on it. It’s a bit too much of a rebel – it even makes me suffer at times.
“Often when I sit down to draw, I don’t know what I’ll finish with. But no matter what’s happening in my mind, it will always end up being about politics.”
Rachel Halliburton is a freelancer who has written for publications including the FT, the Independent, and Prospect. You can follow her on Twitter at @Hallibee1