Syrian Cartoonist Ali Ferzat Speaks with CRNI Executive Director Robert Russell
Photograph of Ali Ferzat by CRNI Board Member Nik Kowsar
On April 23, 2012, Robert "Bro" Russell, the Executive Director of CRNI interviewed Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat. In May CRNI announced that Ali Ferzat and Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi would receive our 2012 Courage in Editoiral Cartooning Award. Ali was a unanimous choice of our Board of Directors for (1) daring to criticize Syrian President Bashar Assad, and, for (2) daring to publicly declare that the attack he suffered on August 25, 2011, was carried out by thugs of the Assad Regime. With Ali's consent, we now post this interview. In this interview Ali explains what led him to criticize the Assad Regime, gives his analysis of the situation in Syria, and recounts the brutal attack he suffered. CRNI Board Member and this year's Pulitzer Prize Winner for Editorial Cartooning, Matt Wuerker, the editorial cartoonist for Politico.com, first gives a little background about Ali in an audio interview with CRNI Deputy Director Drew Rougier-Chapman.
To read our news alert issued after the attack to Ali, click on Syrian Cartoonist Ali Ferzat Brutalized. To read our Courage Award announcement, click on CRNI Announces Winners of the Cartooning Award -- Syrian Ali Ferzat and Indian Aseem Trivedi.
4/23/2012 Interview of Ali Ferzat
(For Arabic version of this interview, click on Arabic Translation of Syrian Cartoonist Ali Ferzat Speaking with CRNI Executive Director Robert Russell.)
Robert “Bro” Russell – This is April 23, 2012. This is Robert Russell the Director of Cartoonists Rights Network International and I’m speaking now [over the phone] with cartoonist Ali Ferzat who is in Kuwait. Ali, since the day you were beaten and harmed in Damascus your life has gone through tremendous change.
Ali Ferzat – Yes, it did change, for the better. I feel more courageous now.
Bro – This happens with many cartoonists. Some cartoonists after they have been harmed or attacked, like a turtle they draw themselves in and they’re never the same again. Other cartoonists like you get even more … motivated ….
Ali – The fear barrier breaks down with them.
Bro – That’s a wonderful way of putting it because it is the fear that keeps these tyrants in power – the people's fear.
Ali – That is true. That is the key word – fear.
Ali – First of all, I felt pride and very fulfilled. It became like a compass in my hand. I knew I was heading in the right direction.
Bro – How do your friends feel about all of this?
Ali – Their feelings are the same as the people in the street. They are encouraging me. They are enthusiastic and are telling me to keep going.
Bro – After this happened when you were in the hospital did you find that because of the fear that some of your colleagues or friends withdrew from you and your family?
Ali – I discovered because of this revolution some of the artists that were with the people and with the revolution and some that were with the President, went to their own camps. It was not out of fear that separated them. But it was out of orientation.
Bro – Legitimately some artists and some people are loyal to the King.
Ali – This is right.
Bro – In Syria are these division based mostly on tribe? How do people determine who are they are loyal to?
Ali – I will briefly explain this to you. Since this regime came to power in the seventies, it insured that some of the people are preferred and getting a lot of special treatment at the cost of the people. They were basically in three circles. The first circle was made up of the family and the regime, the people of the regime. The second circle was made up of the merchants and the traders. And the third circle was made up of the people that work within the intelligence community.
Bro – Are these of the same tribe or religious community? What is the common denominator between those three circles?
Ali – Monetary gain. It crosses all boundaries. This is it. But it seems that they are in the last act of this sorry episode.
Bro – But would this interest, this common denominator of who’s got the money, is that enough to explain the vicious bitterness and massacres that are going on?
Ali – Up to now this has been the headline. And now it is actually not only the money per se but the interests of these families that are part of an international mafia. That’s why most of them are standing by them, supporting them.
Bro – What is happening in other countries where there are violent attacks against their Arab Spring governments, we see a terrible vacuum now once the head man, you know Mubarak or Ben Ali, is gone. Once they leave there is a terrible vacuum. “What do we do now? Who is going to lead us now?” Things get very confused.
Ali – Let me add something about the economic, financial and political mafia. The political mafia in the Middle East is creating some nations or some entities that are in support of some powerful neighbors in the area like Iran and so forth. It is also the politico mafia like Russia through their veto power in the UN that they can still sell and give armaments to Syria and support Syria politically. The US and the European Union and human rights organizations are turned away while people are being persecuted.
Bro – From the very beginning of the Arab Spring …my fear has been that the only thing we are doing is making the country safe for the next tyrant.
Ali – The Syrian Revolution is not like the Arab Spring. It does not have the same components. The Syrian Revolution includes all classes of the Syrian people, the whole population. It is a true and basic revolution.
Bro – Let me ask you about what happened to you.
Ali – Of course I had physical abuse, my fingers were broken, my left arm was broken, my eye was injured and I had a mild concussion. I have improved by about 95% through the Kuwaiti doctors and hospitals. I am now back to drawing like before.
Bro – Are you able to earn an income in Kuwait? I know you are working for Al-Watan. But are you able to maintain yourself there?
Ali – Yes of course, because I have been working with Al-Watan newspaper since 1992.
Bro – Ali, there are so many cartoonists even still in the Middle East who are so encouraged by the Arab Spring and so encouraged by your example, I’m concerned that really the environments may not be as safe as they think the environments are for them. As cartoonists want to be like Ali Ferzat and do what he did, is it safe for them to do this?
Ali – Of course freedom has a price and it doesn’t come from a supermarket. There are some sacrifices that you have to give for the freedom that you are longing for. Three months prior to the Syrian Revolution I broke the fear barrier among people by drawing the President himself. This was the first time in fifty years that had ever happened. That was a great adventure on my part at that time and that is what got people on the streets to protest carrying my cartoons.
Bro – What advice do you have for these cartoonists who now want to take these leaps of bravery? What advice do you have Ali for these cartoonists in the Middle East who want to be like you?
Ali – Don’t look at the day you are living in now. But look forward to the days of your children and grandchildren to live in pride and freedom.
Bro – We listened to Daryl Cagle’s interview with you in Europe. And it was so heartbreaking to hear that no one in the street would stop for you with blood streaming down your face and your hands and no one would stop to help you.
Ali – There is a general fear that was created by the regime that has existed for fifty years. People fear each other and don’t want to interfere with each other. That created a lot of doubt and fear among people. Actually it took away their human feelings. But this revolution brought back all that humanity. But of course some people still fear the regime and that is why they didn’t stop and help me. These fears are beginning to wane and people are coming back into their humanity and helpful ways that existed before.
Bro – That’s wonderful. I know you have told this story so often. But can you give us a brief repeat of what happened from the very beginning to the time that you ended up in the hospital?
Ali – My problems started a long time ago with the previous president, President Hafez al-Assad. Lisa Wedeen from Chicago University wrote a book [Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria] about the regime’s total control of the Syrian way of life. My cartoons and my examples of that are in that book. When the new president Bashar al-Assad came to power we thought that everything was going to change. I started and established a newspaper called al-Domari (The Lamplighter). Social societies were asking for freedom and openness during this Spring of Change, this Spring of Damascus. It didn’t take but a few months until problems started to come over for the new president.
Bro – What year would that have been?
Ali – That was in between 2001 and 2003. Then I closed my newspaper. But I established my website. My newspaper was just a satirical cartoon newspaper. But I established my website satirizing the government and criticizing the government’s actions. That was the year 2003. In 2003 people started visiting the website in big numbers. There was fomentation from 2003 to 2011. I felt something was happening in the street and at that time I drew all these “forbiddens” – the President, the intelligence community, the ministers – and tried to get that fear out totally. But the loyalists of the President were telling me to stop criticizing him and drawing cartoons of him because they think he is God. From the time that all of this happened until the 25th of August, I was followed by a white car with dark tinted glass, which is an intelligence community car. They followed me to my place, my circle in Damascus, which is one of the most important circles. Suddenly three people came out. They of course had ski masks and hats. They were carrying solid plastic batons used to disperse protesters by the police department. They entered my car from both sides -- the driver door and the front passenger door – and they covered my head with a bag and tied me with plastic handcuffs and started beating me up. Also they were placing hot batons on my face and my hands. So they were beating me up with plastic batons they call the Iranian Batons and they were placing on my face and hands and body these electric batons that were at a very, very high temperature.
Bro – What we call cattle prods?
Ali – Yes. Then they dragged me into their car, leaving my car in that circle in Damascus. They went outside of Damascus about 50 kilometers for about 45 minutes, beating me up during that time and then throwing me out at the side of the road. All the time they were talking among themselves saying, “Break his fingers, break his hands, so he doesn’t draw his leaders, his masters, again.” [To me they said,] “The masters’ shoes on your head and on your well-being.” And sure enough they did that. They broke my fingers.
Bro – Did they say anything [else] to you?
Ali – They said many bad things I cannot repeat. They told me, “You don’t draw again. You don’t say anything about your President and your masters.”
Bro – Thank you for your time? [In Arabic] My best regards. Goodbye.
Ali – Goodbye.