Neverending Story

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut on comics and critique

Mazen Kerbaj, Je pense. . . Donc je ne suis plus! (I think. . . Therefore I am no longer!), 2005/2015.

A TRAUMATIC EVENT is one that defies our ability to tell what happened and at the same time sets off the desperate compulsion to do so, or at least to try, over and over, however awkward, until a story begins to take hold. A sharp, sudden eruption of violence—a war, an explosion, an attack—both does damage and repairs, by triggering the impulse to explain it, assign it meaning, and make it fit within the wider story we tell ourselves about the worlds in which we live.

In the months that have passed since three young men, two of them ex-convicts, gunned down the staff of a satirical magazine and patrons of a kosher grocery in Paris, killing seventeen people, including several artists—during which time another young man, also an ex-con, shot up a café and a synagogue in Copenhagen, killing two more, including a filmmaker—much has been written to put these events in context. With each new text, the narrative has thickened with nuance, anger, digression, and distraction, as writers, in accordance with their nature, have tied themselves in knots to make sense of the killings in terms of terrorism, religious intolerance, ideological indoctrination, postcolonial injustice, racial prejudice, economic depravation, government neglect, bad schools, terrible prisons, dangerous clerics, and the potential for radicalization among disaffected young men prone to messianic delusion.

In one way or another, all of these texts belong to what Adam Phillips, describing Freud, has termed “a long spiritual, religious tradition of crisis writing.” Perhaps that ever-expanding mass of storytelling, messy and oversensitive and argumentative as it may be, is truer to the experience of these events around the world, where reactions have been everywhere mixed, and nowhere the same, not even in the mind of a single person, to say nothing of the popular imagination of a single place.

In Europe and the United States, a story of the attacks has settled into a moment of much-needed but still dubious repose, as responsibility is passed to “moderate Muslims” around the globe to deal with religious extremism, reform their faith, and thicken their skin. “What is entirely out of the government’s control—out of anyone’s control,” argues Mark Lilla, writing about France in the New York Review of Books, “is what happens next in the larger Muslim world.”

This is true enough. But there are a great many cities out there in the not-so-distant, not-so-frightful Muslim world. In those cities, one might listen for the subtleties of a self-reflexive criticism and hear a brash and lively satire in return. One might discover a rich history of progressive ideas that have developed in close proximity to Islam over hundreds of years. Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul are three such cities. Others are just as relevant, but in these three, artists have established a particularly strong tradition of pushing public discourse. And in these three, regular people are dealing all the time with the kinds of dangers and ideological distortions that ripped through France and Denmark this winter.

The response has been complicated in Beirut, where I live, as it was and would have been anywhere. In the first week of the new year, when the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi murdered twelve people commando style in the Paris office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, the Lebanese capital was burning through its own drama, different but related. Last August, around thirty soldiers and police officers were kidnapped in Arsal, a town near the Syrian border, by ISIS and the Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda that is active in the area. For months, the families of those soldiers and police officers had been staging violent protests, trying to force the Lebanese government to negotiate their freedom. The kidnappers’ key demand is the release of imprisoned Islamist militants, including from Fatah al-Islam, a group that waged a war against the Lebanese army eight years ago in a refugee camp outside the port city of Tripoli, an hour’s drive north of Beirut. This is just one sign among many that the apocalyptic freak show known as the Islamic State is also complicated, and not entirely new, with elements ranging from the disbanded Baathist military in Iraq to fundamentalist groups thought to have been wholly created by the Syrian state.

On January 9, the Paris attacks came to an end when French forces killed the Kouachi brothers in an outlying warehouse and then, at the kosher grocery, killed Amedy Coulibaly, who had reportedly pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State. On January 10, nine people were killed in a double-suicide bombing that took place in a crowded Tripoli café. The Nusra Front claimed responsibility. On January 11, vigils honoring the victims of the Paris attacks were staged in the French capital and cities around the world, including Beirut, where people gathered in a downtown garden named for Samir Kassir, the journalist and historian who was killed in a car-bomb blast ten years ago. On January 12, the Lebanese army stormed Roumieh, the country’s largest prison, and dismantled the notorious Block B, where Islamist inmates were said to have organized the Tripoli bombings (they had also become so powerful, well connected, and heavily armed that prison staff had not entered Block B for months). Nusra threatened to kill a hostage in retaliation. Four had already been executed, two of them beheaded. The families intensified their protests. Several schools in Beirut observed a minute of silence for the lives lost in France. Conspicuous in their absence were any such minutes of silence for the lives lost at home.

For anyone involved in art history, criticism, journalism, or contemporary art, the sites of the Paris and Copenhagen attacks—the weekly editorial meeting, the public talk on art’s relation to an issue of the day—were disturbingly familiar. The same can be said for the reason: a drawing, or several drawings, which caused offense and provided the pretext for a terrible series of actions. “Over a cartoon?” asked the Egyptian artist Ganzeer, incredulous on Twitter on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. “A cartoon you fucking fucks???!?!??!”

Cover of Penguen, January 2015.

In Beirut, Mazen Kerbaj, who for years drew comic strips for the French magazine L’Orient Express and the upstart Arabic newspaper Al-Akhbar, dashed off two erudite cartoons. The first, updating Descartes, shows a man, intact in the first frame, saying “Je pense…” (I think), and then, with his head blown off in the second, “Donc je ne suis plus!” (Therefore I am no longer). The second: “Quand j’entends le mot revolver je sors mon stylo” (When I hear the word gun I reach for my pen).

In Istanbul, the three most popular humor magazines in Turkey—Penguen, Leman, and Uykusuz—published the same cover, all black with “Je suis Charlie” in a speech bubble, to mourn the deaths of their colleagues in France and to express solidarity with cartoonists everywhere. Death threats and hate mail poured in from social media. “Now we have a special security guard in front of the office,” says Cem Dinlenmiş, an artist who has been drawing a weekly cartoon for Penguen for nearly a decade. (His title, “Her Şey Olur,” translates loosely from Turkish as “Anything Goes.”)

Among artists in Cairo, Beirut, and Istanbul, the condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo killings was universal and unequivocal, as was the defense of free speech. In a region where intellectuals, journalists, and cartoonists have long been targeted for their work, people slotted the attacks into well-known narratives. The Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, known for his withering critique of Arab leaders and the creation of his much-loved character Handala, was assassinated in London in the summer of 1987, shot in the face outside the office of the Kuwaiti newspaper where he worked. In 2011, the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, a harsh critic of the Assad regime, was kidnapped and severely beaten; both of his hands were broken. During the Charlie Hebdo vigil in Beirut, people added on to the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag: “Je suis Samir Kassir, Je suis Gebran Tueni, Je suis Riad Taha, Je suis Kamel Mroue.” The list of journalists cut down in Lebanon is long, and it echoes all over the region, in the assassination of the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani and in the killing of a generation’s worth of artists, journalists, poets, and playwrights in Algeria (not in the war for independence from France, mind you, but in the civil war of the 1990s).

Beyond the fundamentals, however, there is hardly any agreement—among artists or anyone else—on the issues raised in the aftermath of the Paris and Copenhagen attacks. The cartoons themselves, seen mostly out of context as they circulate online, have proven especially divisive. For most, they are difficult to defend, and easy to take personally—as Arabs, as Muslims, as anyone with ties by love or family to the Middle East. This has nothing to do with figurative representation or depictions of the prophet in Islam, “fruitless arguments,” as Dinlenmiş describes them. Artists in this part of the world know the history. (Nasser Rabat, a distinguished scholar of Islamic art and architecture, describes it at length in the current issue of Artforum.) Examples of Muhammad’s face and figure abound. For every source that tells you there is an absolute prohibition on picturing the prophet, there’s some anecdotal counterimage that blows your mind. Ayatollah Khomeini kept a portrait of Muhammad as a child in the sitting room of his home in Qom. A decade after his death, it was possible to buy posters and key chains in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar adorned with an unabashedly erotic picture of the prophet as a young man with a bared shoulder and a flower behind his ear, an image based on an old orientalist photograph by Lehnert & Landrock of a beautiful Tunisian boy.

Lehnert & Landrock, Portrait de Jeune Homme (portrait of a young boy), c. 1905–1906, original negative. Right: Poster of Muhammad as a boy. Artist unknown.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons (like the ones in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten before them, and by the Swedish artist Lars Vilks) are something else—cruder, less interesting, and imprecise in the target of their humor. “The problem is that they are bad fucking caricature,” says Kerbaj, who adored the early, leftist era of Charlie Hebdo (and Hara-Kiri before it) until, courting readers on the right, “it was no longer funny and began to stink,” he recalls. (The art historian Yve-Alain Bois likewise captures the importance of Charlie Hebdo’s early days in the current issue of Artforum.) But depicting Muhammad as a dog, with bugged-out eyes and a huge hooked nose, with balls in his turban and a dick on his face—this is childish at best. At worst, it dwells in the same mean spirit as blackface, as jokes about the Druze being sneaky or the Jews being cheap. Such cartoons do nothing to deter, acknowledge, or even call attention to the horrors of the Islamic State or similar such groups. To the contrary, they are perfect recruitment tools. They fuel extremism on all sides.

What artists in Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul may bring to bear on these violent events—and the tumble of narratives that they engender—is an approach to comics, satire, and critique that can pull the debate elsewhere, into potentially more thoughtful terrain. Such people have a wealth of experience negotiating sensitive material into the public realm, where there is rarely any consensus on the rights of citizens or the role of the state. After all, these are cities where a jumble of religions have been living cheek by jowl for thousands of years, coexisting, intermarrying, and occasionally slaughtering one another too. There is something to be learned and a great deal at stake here, where all of the extremes that converged around Charlie Hebdo in January exist in the bureaucratic details of everyday life.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the wife (or girlfriend) of Amedy Coulibaly was said to have slipped into Syria, where she was allegedly welcomed by the Islamic State. That minor plot twist is foreboding in itself, as if to suggest that when the news dies down in Europe and the story dwindles in the West, the uglier consequences of what happened in Paris will wash up on these shores. If they do, the work of artists—with their habits and traditions of critical inquiry, formal invention, improvisation on demand, and tireless energy for debate—will matter arguably more than any weak or strident calls for moderate Muslims to pluck an enlightenment, renaissance, or reformation from thin air.

El Teneen, poster featuring the command  lilwara, Cairo.

Ganzeer is living in Brooklyn these days, and he was getting ready for his first gallery show in New York at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack. He does a little bit of everything: stencils, murals, paintings, pamphlets, comics, installations, graphic design, a pair of booklets for the Egyptian revolution (offering tactical advice and a set of stencils for protesters), and a graphic novel that has long been in progress. Strictly speaking, he hasn’t drawn satirical cartoons in a decade, and he insists that he was never any good at them to begin with; he defers here to colleagues such as Andeel, Ahmed Nady, and El Teneen, whose Shepard Fairey–inspired poster of a sinister man’s bearded face above the command lilwara, meaning “regress” or “go back,” lends ambiguity a knowing edge that is absent from Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons. But Ganzeer does make use of the language of satirical cartoons, and the sharpness of their humor, in works that take on everything from the duplicitous nature of Egyptian dictatorships to the false pieties of conservative Muslims. Prayer of Desire, a large-scale painting on wood from 2012, for example, shows a woman in prayer position with a stylized script above her conveying a slew of raunchy sexual desires. Several of his street murals highlight police brutality and the complicity of US foreign aid to Egypt. His criticisms of the army and the military regime—which were made very public in stickers, stencils, and posters—earned him an arrest, an interrogation, and a handful of death threats four years ago.

“In general,” Ganzeer says, “I find myself drawn to satire that while being funny is actually informative. In terms of legitimate targets, people of power and privilege are of course worthy of satire.” Less so, in his view, are people as people and the underprivileged. “There is clever satire based on some kind of information”—certain episodes in the life of the prophet would be perfect, he says—“and there is dumb satire that does nothing more than offer cheap laughs at the expense of a billion people around the world.”

On the formal efficiency of political cartoons, Ganzeer makes a surprising (and seemingly counterintuitive) point. Print culture in Egypt is huge. To this day Cairo boasts more than forty daily newspapers in Arabic, Armenian, English, and French, with a history of caricature dating back to the nineteenth century. “A satirical cartoon has a kind of instant power that lengthy analytical articles do not,” Ganzeer explains. The problem, of course, is that most of the newspapers in Egypt are controlled by the state, “which means people in power will not be subject to satire, thus perverting the very function and necessity of satire to begin with.”

Ganzeer, Tank vs. Bread-Biker, Cairo, 2011. Photo: JoAnna Pollonais.

“The funny thing is, I was never censored by the censors,” Mazen Kerbaj tells me on an evening in March, referring to the soldiers in the Interior Ministry who are tasked with policing the content of fine art and popular culture. “But I was censored by nearly all of the editors in chief in Lebanon.” At one newspaper, Kerbaj drew just four cartoons before quitting (two of them were never published). The only two editors with whom he could ever really work were Samir Kassir, who ran L’Orient Express in the 1990s, and Pierre Abi Saab, the influential critic and a founding editor of Al-Akhbar. “They both pushed me in this hardcore humor,” he says. “They were always listening to what I was proposing, and pushing me to do more. But I always said that what I was doing was social satire. I never did political cartoons per se. It was always about two guys or two girls, two bourgeois or two poor.

“I know—and I learned from censorship—how to go down different roads to arrive at what I want to say,” Kerbaj explains. “By the time I get there, it’s subtle. It’s no longer blunt. I could be very nasty in my attacks but I never wanted to attack these idiots,” he adds, waving a hand to mean Islamic extremists who are generally easy to provoke. “I wanted to attack you and me.”

At this point, Kerbaj is no longer drawing comics for Al-Akhbar. He stopped when he had enough material for a book, published as Cette histoire se passe (This Story Happened) in 2011. He still does a monthly cartoon for the supplement L’Orient Litteraire. And he is arguably better known as an artist and musician. Beirut’s Galerie Janine Rubeiz is currently showing the drawings he has made in collaboration with his mother, the painter Laure Ghorayeb, who is also an art critic for the Arabic daily An-Nahar. His next big project involves illustrations for an unpublished manuscript of a play by the Syrian poet Mohammed al-Maghout, which he found among the effects of his father, the well-known actor Antoine Kerbaj.

Curiously enough, of the two cartoons that Kerbaj posted on Twitter right after the Charlie Hebdo attack, neither was new. He drew both of them when Samir Kassir was killed in 2005. “It’s easy to do the same drawings forever in our region,” he says drily.

Left: Cover of Samandal, June 2008. Right: Cover of Samandal, June 2009.

Lebanon has a surprisingly strong tradition of mainstream caricature—epitomized by the work of Stavro and the late Pierre Sadek—as well as a culture of avant-garde comics, which, for outside observers who are not reading Arabic newspapers to plan their days, resides almost entirely within the more familiar precincts of Beirut’s contemporary art scene. When Kerbaj was growing up, in the 1980s, there was a group of artists working collectively known as Atelier de Jad. He was too young to join them. In 2008, the city’s first homegrown comics magazine, Samandal, appeared. Kerbaj has been a frequent contributor ever since. Founded by the artists Hatem Imam, Omar Khouri, Lena Merhej, Tarek Nabaa, and the Fdz (aka Fadi Baki), Samandal takes a broad view of what comics are, could be, and can do. There is also considerable debate among its members over the formal, experimental, and political imperatives of their work. (When a friend posted the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag to the magazine’s Facebook page in January, the discussion grew so aggressive that Imam removed it to make it stop.)

In terms of politics, sexual material, and social commentary, Samandal gets away with a lot—in part because the magazine is artsy, and in part because, as Imam explains, “most people think comics are for kids.” But the exceptions are costly. The magazine is in the midst of a long court case over two stories that ran in the “Revenge” issue in 2010. One of the stories illustrates an idiomatic expression that translates roughly as “Burn your religion.” The other deals with homosexuality and the history of Christianity. A local Catholic group filed complaints against the magazine. Samandal went to court and lost the case. The damages amount to around $20,000, which is no joke for the three founding members named in the suit (Imam, Khouri, and Baki). They are now in the process of appealing.

In January, they were also in the process of reinventing themselves. After taking a yearlong break from publishing, Samandal returned this winter as an annual publication (it had previously been quarterly), book-thick, with a theme and a tighter editorial focus. The first new issue, on genealogies, features contributions by Kerbaj, Akram Zaatari, and the late Moroccan artist and filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani, among others. In Samandal’s time, it has inspired and encouraged numerous other comics magazines throughout the region, including Tok-Tok in Egypt and Skefkef in Morocco.

Turkey is distinct in the Middle East for boasting a whole field of humor magazines that are comparable in their sensibility (if not their provocative style) to those in France. Perhaps for that reason, Dinlenmiş and his colleagues at Penguen felt closer to the Charlie Hebdo massacre than many of their counterparts in Beirut and Cairo. (But like Samandal, they also bump into political limits: Last month two of Penguen’s artists were fined for “insulting a public figure” in a cartoon suggesting the Turkish president was gay.)

Cem Dinlenmiş, Sakalar ve Gerçekler (Jokes and Truth), 2015.

Dinlenmiş, who is also a great painter, uses his work to comment on current events and to alleviate the misery they often cause. “The challenge is to come up with fresh narration and imagery when we’ve been talking about the same issues and problems, revolving around the same crises,” year after year, he says, “to express all these tiresome, boring, heartbreaking issues without wearing the reader out.” What are some of those issues? “Lack of democracy,” he says, simply enough. “But this is a long story to explain here.” Across the region, the predominant targets of political cartoons and satirical comics remain the authoritarian leaders who are still in power, despite the hopeful uprisings of the Arab spring and the cynical insurgencies of ISIS and its ilk.

In late January after Charlie Hebdo, the artist Tony Chakar, known to some as the troublemaker of São Paulo, floated a comment on Facebook suggesting that the problem with satirical cartoons was not their content but their form, and the lack of complexity inherent to it. Perhaps the kind of critique that could keep a conversation going rather than having it end in murder would demand different media altogether. And here the experience of Beirut in particular might be instructive, in the ways in which the makers of highly provocative work tend to negotiate their public gradually rather than throwing such work into the world.

Last December, for example, the Beirut Art Center opened its annual exhibition for emerging artists, which was disappointing, with the exception of one work, a video installation by Roy Dib (also an art critic for Al-Akhbar). To access the work, you had to ask for permission from the reception desk. Only a few people could enter at a time, and no photographs were allowed. This was due to the sexual content more so than its politics, but still. The artist Mounira Al Solh relies on similar strategies for a project she has been working on since 2006, a magazine called NOA (Not Only Arabic). Solh prints only one copy of each issue (two of which exist so far, with a third in progress). To read it, you have to make an appointment with the artist and sit with her while you peruse the magazine’s pages.

Mounira Al Solh, cover of NOA (Not Only Arabic), 2009. Illustration by Tala Madani, Arrested I.

In 2008, during the fourth edition of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works Forum, artist Akram Zaatari organized a video program dealing with graphic representations of gay sex. The screening sessions were moved out of the forum’s main public venues and into the secluded private office of the architect Bernard Khoury. Zaatari preceded them all with a warning to the audience concerning what they were about to see. On a less than charitable day, one might consider such actions too careful or even cowardly, but the thing is: They are effective. They succeed where blunt provocations fail. The works are shown; a small number of people see them and talk about them and debate them, which leads to them being seen again, by more people, in a different and often slightly broader context, until they become truly public.

On one end of the niche-public spectrum, there is cabaret. Last summer, around the time the Lebanese soldiers were kidnapped in Arsal, the band Al-Rahel al-Kabir (the Great Departed) was performing a regular show at a small club in Beirut, featuring songs lambasting the worst of the regime’s despots and autocrats: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-styled caliph of the Islamic State; Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the Egyptian military; the Assad regime in Syria. Khaled Soubeih, one of the founders of the band, is a journalist who studied classical Arabic music and is inspired by popular composers such as Sayyed Darwish. He didn’t set out to create satire, Soubeih says, but ended up doing so because of the surreal situation in the region, what he terms the “posthysteric” phase we are living through—“a regime exterminating its own people… resistance groups claiming victories on a daily basis while we are going through the toughest period ever, extremists killing people in the name of mercy.” None of this is normal, he says. “The best way to confront [these regimes and figures] is by making fun of them.”

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the lecture performance, which is especially popular among contemporary artists in Beirut. They use it often enough to embed a desired interpretation of a work into the work itself. But again, in practice, the form accommodates sensitive material without shutting down the rapport between an artist and his or her audience. Chakar is particularly fond of the form, and like Jalal Toufic and Etel Adnan, he often seeds his works with quotations, excerpts, and references to mystical texts. They function, for him, not as beliefs but as “allegories for understanding the present,” as he puts it. “There’s a fine line between believing them and treating them skeptically.” Of the work of certain Sufi mystics, he says, “I think it’s beautiful as poetry,” but the point is that “allegory, indirectness, and ambiguity are much more efficient” as critique. The real potential for radical critique in a year like 2015 may lie in those same Sufi thinkers (who were, after all, the original enemies and the biggest threats to orthodox Muslims such as the Wahhabis, who emerged in the eighteenth century, helped introduce the putative ban of images, and continue to inspire fringe groups such as ISIS). It might also require not the banishment but the malleability of ideas and practices that have come to us in some vestigial form from religion (including narrative itself). “I like to think of myself as a storyteller,” Chakar tells me. “This is not an easy thing. But a lecture performance is exactly that. We are all telling a story.”

Tony Chakar, The Eighth Day, 2008–. Performance view, Stedelijk Museum (Bureau Amsterdam), June 25th, 2011.

On the days when I worry about the world into which my eight-month-old daughter has been born—on the days when the news is terrible, seemingly unbelievable, and increasingly hostile to artworks and artifacts in the Middle East—I bundle her up and bring her with me to the Archaeology Museum at the American University of Beirut, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the region, after the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Archeology Museum in Istanbul. There on the mezzanine level is a special display of amulets and talismans. I learn that these objects—as well as the spirits and superstitions they address—have been used for thousands of years, from the era of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. For a long, long time, the hand ornament has conveyed the transfer of energy and power; the eye has offered visions of another world. The rise of monotheistic religions in the region didn’t end but rather integrated the function of these amuletic objects. In Islam, they became carriers of texts, bearers of stories: Amulets were written down, rolled up, and slipped into cases to be worn as jewelry. I pick out a tiny, seated lion in red jasper, tell myself it’s for her, and try to imagine the stories we’ll tell each other one day about the events unfolding all around us.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.