Breaking the cartoonist’s hands

Geneva, Switzerland

Just up the hill from me is the the European headquarters of the United Nations. While Manhattan is home to many of the UN’s political and bureaucratic functions, the UN campus here host several of the institution’s auxiliary entities including the Human Rights Council – a kind of super sub-committee of the General Assembly that investigates and passes resolutions on human rights abuses. Yesterday it passed a resolution calling on the government of Syria to stop killing civilian protestors. The Syrian uprising is in its sixth month and signs are emerging that the inhabitants of the country’s two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, who have stood on the sidelines until now are growing restless. Were these cities to join the uprising it is unclear whether the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has the resources to maintain the level of repression he has used so far.

Part of that question will be answered later this week when or if the European Union will make a decision on sanctions on the export of Syrian oil. Syria has very little oil, but it is the primary source of revenue for the state. Without that revenue, it will be much harder for al-Assad to keep in place the kinds of economic programs that have maintained a semblance of stability in the country and just pay his army and secret police. Still, British and French companies have invested heavily in the Syrian oil industry and stand to lose those assets with a lengthy period of sanctions, so some European governments may be reluctant to support the sanctions fully.

Despite the UN condemnations, the heightened sanctions and the persistency of the uprising, Syrian human rights observers have indicated that the repression has reached a new high (low) with assaults on Syrian intellectuals, writers and the most-respected political cartoonist in the Arab World, Ali Farzat. He was picked up on the street near the Umayyad Mosque in the Damascus’ old city by the Syrian secret police, held and left for dead. Pictures of him in the hospital show that he had been beaten badly and his hands, what he uses to practice his craft, are wrapped in bandages.

Ali Farzat

Arab political cartooning is distinct from American political cartooning in that it tends to focus on the general human condition rather than intersecting with specific policies or political personalities. Farzat’s cartoons often portray an Arab “everyman” facing daily humiliation at the hands of representatives of brutal police states. You are never quite sure which dictator or state his cartoons are about, so his audience is left to fill in the blank. Beyond what his arrest and beating tells us about regimes of repression in Syria at the moment, it also confirms the critical role art and artists have in calling attention to human rights abuse and giving voice to forms of political struggle. I’ve reproduced a couple of Farzat’s cartoons below. They are wordless, but speak volumes.

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