By Anand Holla
Sketch books full of skeletal illustrations pop out of nooks and corners of Khalid Albaih’s cheery studio at his Al Sadd residence. An antidote to his forgetfulness, their pages hold precious blueprints of cartoons that have fuelled revolutions and provoked verbal attacks.
“There are two kinds of cartoons — the ones you laugh at and then go on with your life, and the ones that shock you, unsettle you,” says Albaih, who clearly pursues the latter.
Thumbing through his notebooks and even grocery bills that double up as doodle playgrounds, the Doha-based Sudanese political cartoonist who wears his black, thick rimmed glasses as fashionably as his warm smile, says: “The simpler it is the better. Anything I don’t need, I don’t put. So if without putting any text, you would understand the cartoon, then I will chuck the text.”
Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler, announces the Flickr home page of the artist who has upwards of 59,000 followers on the Facebook page of his brand of incisive toon satire — Khartoon! The 34-year-old is certainly well-aware of the finer nuances of simplicity.
A fusion of who he is (Khalid), where he comes from (Khartoum), and what he does (cartoons), Khartoon! is Albaih’s fully customised vehicle to voice his views on what’s ailing the Arab world and his native Sudan — and what it particularly stands out for is its simplicity, a controlled economy of expression.
“As an artist, you keep evolving. As Picasso said, no artist is original. You derive inspiration from things you like. Since we live in a trend-oriented world, as a cartoonist who works online, I have to be in with pop culture, in with the times. That’s because I am at the mercy of a scroll,” he says, “I have to grab the person’s attention for him or her to take a minute to see my cartoon and try and understand what the problem is.”
Dealing with fleeting attention spans wasn’t an issue though when Albaih first emerged as a virtual revolutionist, as his sketches went viral via social media.
“It came together — the Arab Spring, and me taking my cartoons to social media. Like me, there were scores. Graffiti artists, writers, cartoonists, filmmakers, bloggers, everybody came out, started writing more and in a more liberated way. We were a whole new generation but we didn’t know each other. Most of the region’s youth was waiting for that spark that triggered in Tunisia,” Albaih says.
In no time, Albaih’s works added kindling to the firestorm of discontent growing among the disillusioned youth of the Arab World. As his works began being shared online across Arabia and the rest of the world, some turned his cartoons into stencils and plastered them on the walls; from Cairo to Beirut.
One such Middle East-trotting work was that of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Albaih’s clever twist of the word Misr (the literary Arabic name of Egypt) to Musir (persistent) in Arabic, written next to an illustration of Mubarak, was all the rage during the Egyptian uprising. “It was a Friday morning,” recalls Albaih, “I was watching the news of Mubarak still not having stepped down, and it just hit me.”
“People in the region are bored of politics because we grew up with it and nothing is really new,” Albaih says, matter-of-factly. This is why, sometimes, Albaih reposts his old cartoons to underline the same old situation.
“A few days ago, I reposted a cartoon on Gaza that I did three years ago because it’s still happening. There’s absolutely no change in circumstances either,” he says, with a hint of despair.
To show how everything is rather similar and really simple is an essential ingredient of Albaih’s artistic style. “My cartoons are for everybody. Even if you don’t understand the issue, the illustration will grasp you visually. I like being straight to the point. That’s because, today, people don’t want to read. Also, when you are online, you need to hook your audience,” he says.
The faith in a bright future and the cynicism over constancy is an interesting contrast that co-exists within Albaih. “Of course, I am hopeful of change. But it’s my duty to inform that things aren’t changing. I work a lot on repetition as a theme. It’s annoying and I want to annoy people. I want people to think, research, and know more. It’s not just a laughing matter,” he says.
You can count on the judgment of a cartoonist, whose works were and are used by revolutionary outfits in Sudan and political activists in Yemen, Tunisia and Syria, apart from various blogs and websites, when he says that it’s not the time to give up.
“Change takes time. This is history in the making. The French Revolution took 70 years to settle. We are going through a transitory period and it often gets bloody. But eventually, things settle down. What’s most important is that after around 70 years of aggression, fear is broken. People now know that they can express themselves freely,” Albaih says.
It’s not that Albaih isn’t ever-aware of the censorship that goes without saying in the region he comments on. But he looks at it differently. “The key is to self-censor. This comes from our background. As Muslims, as people of this region, we know that a lot of our culture depends on this,” he points out.
The American cartoonists though don’t understand this, Albaih feels. “It’s about how we deal with ourselves. Not everything that you think should you say.” And there’s also an upside to keeping it in. “If you think about things longer, the ideas come out better. That way, it’s not offensive to anybody. I don’t want my cartoons to offend anyone. I want my idea to get across,” he says.
A lot of perspective-shaping ideas got across through Albaih’s growing up years as well. When his father, a diplomat, was sacked by Sudan’s military government in 1989, the family moved to Doha.
“My uncle, an Islamist, was the President of Sudan, while my other uncle, who led a communist group, was killed. Even though they bore opposite allegiances, they lived in the same neighbourhood, talked to each other daily. This is the tolerance which we had in Sudan. I would listen to my dad and uncles’ conversations, hear them commenting on the news,” he recalls.
When Albaih found his voice during the Arab Spring, it was driven by personal disappointment as well. Albaih, who is also the Head of Installation and Design for Public Arts at Qatar Museums, says that for around three years, he tried for the cartoonist’s job in newspapers.
“The real problem was getting my cartoons out there. It was really annoying to not have my work published. The editor would doubt my work, and criticise my style saying it’s too digital, suited for the young,” he says, “That rejection pushed me to do more.”
Since a lot of his cartoon ideas stem from conversations, Albaih values the importance of talking to all sorts. “Following my page are Israelis, opposition from Egypt, pro-government Tunisians, ISIS members, and I talk to everyone. That’s the beauty of social media. I get instant feedback. This normally doesn’t happen peacefully. I get attacked. But once they are done swearing at me, they start talking amongst themselves,” he says.
“I want people to fight with words, not with guns,” Albaih continues, “In this region, it’s either you are with me or against me. If you are against me, you are the enemy. In social media though, it starts off all heated. They put their arguments forward and they don’t always agree. But they listen to each other. I like the dialogue,” he says.
And what does he think will happen outside the virtual world of clashes, to the many revolutions in the Arab World?
“It can’t stop now. When the right moment comes, everybody will know. But they won’t stop because they are scared, or because they are forced to stop. There will come a moment when they say, yeah, this is good. Of course, not everybody will agree. But at least, they will know how to have a dialogue without killing each other.”
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