When two heavily armed brothers entered Charlie Hebdo’s newsroom, early January, and killed artists that had mocked prophet Muhammad in their cartoons, audiences around the world asked themselves in shock ‘How could someone holding a pen pose such a threat to another person, so that he decides to kill him?’
But that cold hardly be a new issue in Syria. There, the popular uprising — soon turned into civil war — has a cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, as one of its most powerful symbols. This artist, today at age 63, had his fingers shattered by thugs in 2011, after he criticized Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in a drawing. Now exiled in Kuwait, Ferzat blames the regime for the well understood message: ‘Someone holding a pen can be seen as a threat’.
Although Syrian government has promised back then to investigate the attack against the artist, and even though the US has condemned the brutality against what they considered ‘the country’s most popular political cartoonist’, the attention received by this story has slowly vanished. In a region tortured by the rising of brutal armed groups, including the Islamic State, Ferzat’s broken fingers disappeared from the headlines.
He keeps his hard work and sharps his critical eye from the exile. From there he has recently condemned what he sees as inaction by the British government on dealing with Syrian refugees, according to a recent article published by the ‘Independent’.
Ferzat has not been silenced, and to mark the anniversary this week of the British decision to grant a limited number of Syrian refugees asylum, he has called on the UK to “carry out its duties” and live up to its promise of helping those affected by the “biggest tragedy in the world”.
Ali Ferzat was born in Hama, Syria, in 1951, two decades before Hafez al-Assad rose to power. He studied in Damascus and published his drawings in state newspapers such as Al-Thawra and Tishreen. Through the years Ferzat collected prizes and the recognition as one of the most celebrated Syrian artists. The newspaper he founded in 2001 sold, in its first issue, 50,000 copies in four hours.
His work brought him enemies. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein threatened him, and he was banned from Jordan and Libya. But, in Syria, Ferzat and Assad were not foes from start. According to the artist himself, the president has attended his expositions before inheriting the power, in 2000, and he went further to encourage the artist’s work by laughing at his jokes. But that didn’t last after the protests began, in 2011, and thousands died in the country. Ferzat started to question the regime with his drawings, one of which portrayed Assad asking Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi for a ride.
Another of his illustrations shows Assad in front of a mirror, and it plays with the gap between his actual size and what he sees reflected. Ferzat’s work had at that point sealed what would be his relationship with the regime. After being beaten by thugs, he became a symbol for those who opposed the president. His image in a hospital bed, with his hands broken, ran the world and made him one of the most influential figures of the year, according to the Time magazine.
The violence in Syria pushed Ferzat to exile in Kuwait, where he still lives, according to a story published by the Guardian. From Sham With Love could not reach him there. To the BBC, he has stated that he doesn’t know if the order to beat him came directly from Assad and that the violence wouldn’t stop him from what he sees as his mission: ‘I was born to be a cartoonist, to oppose, to have differences with regimes that do these bad things. This is what I do’.
Years after he got his fingers broken in Syria, he saw on television the news of the killing of Charlie Hebdo artists in France, after they had published illustrations of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. During an interview on CNN, he stated: ‘I was not surprised about what happened. Those artists did not carry a gun or a weapon. They only carried a pen, just like I did. It appears that the pen is mightier than any weapon.’