Syrian Satire Given a 2nd Chance

Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat in his new art gallery in Damascus, Syria.
Ali Ferzat
Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat in his new art gallery in Damascus, Syria.
CBS

This story was filed by CBS News' George Baghdadi in Damascus.

Ali Ferzat, a renowned Syrian political cartoonist whose work routinely savages the country's overzealous security forces and bureaucrats, has been given the go-ahead to open a gallery in Damascus.

There was even a Syrian cabinet minister at the ceremony to heap praise on Ferzat as one of the most prominent cartoonists in the world.

For years, Ferzat's cartoons have made it into the popular culture in spite of their merciless, often hilarious ridiculing of Arab and Syrian officialdom.

The artist has had to learn indirect ways to make his messages clear; drawing within narrow lines, mocking without pointing and criticizing without naming, his satirical private weekly newspaper Addomari, which means "The Light Holder," was shut down by Syrian authorities a few years ago.

Some of his cartoons have won international awards for promoting human rights and pointing a finger at corruption, repression and tyranny. But Ferzat's work has won him enmity from Arab officials for taking jabs at sensitive political topics in a part of the world where scrutiny of leaders can still be taboo, if not illegal.

Ali Ferzat

Some of his images are overwhelming. One cartoon shows a starving man holding a bowl out to beg the powers-that-be for some food, but being given medals instead.

In another, a brutally tortured man hangs from a wall in chains with a severed hand and foot on the ground beneath him, as his jailer weeps over a romantic television drama.

Nowhere, however, is a specific individual identified. There are no references to any particular country or political party. But the message is clear to everyone.

Across the Middle East, crossing forces with great powers can be a risky business. For obvious reasons, Ferzat has been deported from Abu Dhabi, barred from entering Jordan and threatened several times on the Iraqi radio.

Now, however, the same pictures which have for years drawn the ire of certain circles in Syria, are painted on the very walls of the entrance to the "Ali Ferzat Gallery," in the heart of downtown Damascus.

His primary goal in opening the gallery was to introduce a way of bringing political satire into the homes of ordinary people, beyond the classical mediums of mass media and posters.

Ali Ferzat's collection of satirical home furnishings on display at his gallery in Damascus, Syria.
CBS

"I am doing that through printing my caricatures on the materials they use in their homes and life; on curtains, cups, pillows and other belongings," Ferzat told CBS News several days after his gallery opening, which was attended by a host of artists and intellectuals, in addition to the government dignitary.

"I am seeking to turn our homes into carriers of ideas and content. I want my caricatures to pump new inventive tastes in our lives. They are not mere decorations, but rather of aesthetic value and intellectual stimulus."

Ferzat said the gallery is a way to continue spreading his message following the shutdown of his newspaper, "but I am taking a different approach here."

In February 2001, the then-54-year-old artist was given a government license to start his 20-page Addomari -- the first private Syrian newspaper since the Baathist Party controlled the country in 1963.

President Bashar Assad came to power in July 2000 and embarked on a series of reforms, which included loosening press laws to allow non state-run newspapers, allowing private universities and banks and freeing hundreds of political prisoners. But he also clamped down on some activists who were seen to have crossed the line.

Ferzat's paper discussed political, economic and social issues with bold sarcasm, illustrated by the artists' own caricatures, which left no issue or personality untouched. Only two years after he launched it, Addomari was shut down in July 2003. Syrian authorities insisted Ferzat was violating press and publication rules.

The newspaper gained many admirers in its short life. It was seen as a

brave start for press freedoms in Syria. Despite its higher price, it sold well at newsstands across the country as it addressed the lives and problems confronting ordinary people.

The green light for Ferzat to open his gallery was a remarkable shift in tone by the Syrian authorities.

Riad Issmat, the Minister of Culture, who was appointed to his post just days before the opening, called Ferzat's studio, "a new artistic vision by an artist well-known on the Arab and world scenes as one of the greatest, most prominent painters of caricature."

On visiting the gallery, Issmat praised Ferzat's satirical home furnishings project as one which, "invites our smiles and urges us to think. This kind of art creates a silent dialogue between the artist's novelty and our thought."

Ali Ferzat

There's a growing sentiment in Syria, felt by both those in power and those who wish to speak out against the powerful, that the tide of information hitting Syria is unstoppable.

Internet cafes have sprung up all over Damascus, and although access to

sensitive sites is almost certainly monitored by the ubiquitous security services, there are no effective, practical restrictions. Syrians use proxy serves access sites on the government's blacklist.

"I really have no idea why they allowed me to open the gallery, but I would tell you that I am more than ready to bring into my assistance doves to carry my messages, if I have to," says the cartoonist Farzat.

"My duty is to find ways around current circumstances to stand for what I want to say."

Click here to visit Ali Ferzat's website.