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Ali Ferzat: A Pen of Damascus Steel

Time Magazine's 100 most influential people of 2012 included a man who has been kidnapped, tortured and exiled for his satirical attacks on the Assad regime. Laura Hughes meets Ali Ferzat.

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Thanks go to Noha Abdel Bary for her assistance in translation

Ali Ferzat's hands stand as a screaming symbol of Syrian resistance. On Thursday 25 August 2011, masked state-sponsored militia from President Bashar Assad's regime, beat Ali and brutally broke his hands. It was a bid to silence this caricaturist into submission. But Ali Ferzat's hands healed. Ali is now living in exile in Kuwait where he continues to define, and redefine through his own unique medium of mass communication, the slaughtering tyranny of the Syrian Government.

Ali Ferzat's draws his caricatures between the prescribed lines of Syrian censorship. Ali had initially struck up a friendship with Bashar al-Assad and it was the President who was responsible for initially legalizing the publishing of his drawings. Ali told me of their former friendship, "well that was more precisely a relation that started at a gallery he attended in Damascus in 1996. He had wanted to know through me and other artists and intellectuals about the corruption in the country and kept making slogans of reform, development and modernization, but those slogans evaporated when he came to power. And I was very critical of him from the moment he took power through my extremely satirical cartoons."

"For politics is the art of deception while art is a moral stance that doesn't change."

Since the spring of 2011, Syrian protesters and the swathes of the poorer Sunni majority, have called for the dissolution of Assad's Ba'ath government. The United Nations estimates 10,000 people have been killed and 100,000 forced to flee from their homes. Assad's initial concessions have been replaced by a repressive crackdown and he has strangled Syria into subservience. The President has waged war against his own people and made a mockery of international attempts to qualm his butchery. Syrians have been detained for expressing their opinions and reporting information online.

Ali's cartoons directly criticized Assad despite laws permitting the President to be characterised. It was a cartoon depicting the President hitch-hiking a ride with a fleeing Muamar Gadhafi which provoked the attack.

"Bashar sent his regime's shabiha, or thugs, to assault and kidnap me in the middle of the most important public square in Damascus (Ummayyad square) and they threw me out of their car on the road to the airport thinking they could get rid of me." The American Embassy in Damascus called it "a government-sponsored, targeted, brutal attack." Ali talked of how he had left Syria for Kuwait a month after the incident in search of medical treatment that was unavailable in Syria. Secret service agents were arresting patients in hospitals whose wounds were received during protests.

Ali first had his first cartoons published at just 14, on the front pages of al-Ayyam newspaper, before the publication was banned by Assad's father. Since then he has created more than 15,000 caricatures. In December 2000 Ali was granted permission to publish al-Domari, the first independent periodical allowed in Syria since 1963. In 2003, however, frequent censorship meant Ali was forced to shut the paper down. It was a cartoon depicting a General offering out military decorations instead of food to a hungry citizen that stirred the most discontent amongst Arab leaders. One cartoon includes an image of a gun with a razor blade for a trigger and a severed fingertip; a recent cartoon shows a small sprouting flower lifting a tank.

In 2012, Time magazine named Ali Ferzat one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Ali has received the 2011 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought by the European Parliament and been honoured as one of the leading figures in the Arab spring. He was awarded the Reporters Without Borders 2011 Prize for Press Freedom and the Cartoonists Rights Network's 2012 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award.

He has been blacklisted from Libya, Jordan and Iraq, and received death threats from Saddam Hussein. Yet still Ali serves as the head of the Arab Cartoonists' Association and cartoonists from across the world drew their own cartoons in response to Ali's attack.

I asked if satire and humour were really a means of procuring reform. "Yes satirical humor can be used to turn the tables on dictatorship and injustice. When it stems from the pain of the people and is bold, when it shatters the barrier of silence and the fear of the people. The proof of that could be seen with the Syrian revolutionaries who carry my cartoons during protests as a show that they relate to the drawings." So was it possible to be an artist and a creator before a political dissident? "The creative artist is for the most part not necessarily a political activist, as is the case with me. For politics is the art of deception while art is a moral stance that doesn't change."

In September 2005 the Prophet Jyllands-Posten drawings shook the Muslim world. The twelve cartoons depicted the Muslim Prophet in various satirical circumstances. One cartoon depicted Muhammad with a lit bomb upon his head instead of a turban. I wanted to know if cartoons ever cross a line. Ali believes that this is to be decided by the opinions of the cartoonist and those who consume their work. But the uproar in response to these 12 cartoons could have been "overlooked if it wasn't for the media that used them as a means for a political agenda and weren't concerned with art or religion. If we come to my personal opinion, I think we can criticize Muslims, Christians and Jews as people but what do the heavens have to do with that?"

The Syrian protests began in the city of Deraa in March 2011. Marchers demanding the release of 14 school children were brutally silenced and government militia stormed their city. The violence triggered anti-government protests across the country. When security forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrations, initial demands for greater democracy, became calls for Assad's resignation. Protestors are asking for the immediate end to extrajudicial killings and torture, the release of political prisoners, detained protesters and the transition to a democratic, free and pluralistic society. Opposition figures have stressed that they seek a multi-national, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant society.

During the Lebanese civil war Syria was quick to wield influence and interfere in the country's politics. The Syrian military occupied Lebanon from 1976 until 2005. If the crisis continues to escalate, commentators fear Hezbollah could occupy the Sunni section of Beirut, as they did in May 2006. Sectarian tensions in Lebanon are agitated between government troops and rebel sympathisers. As turmoil mounts in Syria the security situation for the whole region hangs in the gallows. Condemnation has come against Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has adopted a policy to dissociate Lebanon from the repercussions of the unrest in Syria. Critics say he has taken the side of the Assad regime. The Lebanese political landscape is comprised of the Sunni-based alliance known as March 14, and the opposition, the Shia-dominated March 8 coalition headed by Hezbollah. The latter are strong allies of the Syrian dictatorship.

Did Ali believe the Syrian conflict would continue to spill into Lebanon? "Yes the revolution could help raise the awareness of people whom will turn against the bloody governments that support the Syrian dictatorship in its suppression of the Syrian people, like Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. It can also spread in time outside the Middle East to places like Russia, China, Venezuela, Korea. States Ali described as "the countries of hell." We talked of the consequences for Hezbollah if Assad's regime was to fall: "Hezbollah and Syrian regime are nothing but a robot of Iran in the region, they will lose power once the Iranians drop the remote control at the hands of the Syrian revolution."

The situation in Syria today echoes of the 1980s and of the international stagnation that fell silent in its wake. The current President's father, Hafiz al-Assad, responded to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood by authorizing the shelling of Hama, leaving at least 10,000 Syrians for dead. Russia, China and Iran have till now supported the current regime. Russia and China came out against Western calls for intervention, on the basis of human rights concerns, and the possibility of growing Western influence in the region. If the Assad dictatorship survives it will remain largely dependant on its Iranian patron. Iran continues to sustain the regime through their supply of practical and financial assistance. This dependency could lead to what commentators have called an 'Iranian sphere of influence,' which would stretch from western Afghanistan to Lebanon, where Hezbollah remains a key Iranian ally.

I wanted to know what a man, who had given his life to his country's cause, thought of the international community's response to this gross violation of human rights and this humanitarian crisis. "The international community is currently devoid of humanity. The Syrian revolution has lifted the veil off the Syrian regime and now poses a moral dilemma for a free world which calls for freedom but will take care of itself before it can care for others." Ali's cartoons contend the idea that violence is the only means of achieving political ends. Students have stopped hearing, perhaps its time we start looking.

Ali's work was featured at the P21 Gallery's exhibition #withoutwords, an exhibition showcasing fine art and visual installations from emerging Syrian artists. Mosaic Syria, who supported the exhibition, are a small international team based in London who provide urgent humanitarian assistance to those who need it most inside Syria and among the refugee communities in neighbouring countries. Since 2011, Mosaic has taken part in several cultural initiatives to help raise awareness of the conflict and raise funds for immediate relief.

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